Julia Gillard, Australia's new prime minister reassures Obama on Afghanistan

Julia Gillard said she used her first telephone conversation with President Barack Obama on Friday to reassure him of the country's military commitment to Afghanistan.

Mick Tsikas/Reuters
Julia Gillard attends a news conference at Federal Parliament House in Canberra June 25, 2010. The Australia government's first priority is to resolve the divisive mining-tax row, new Prime Minister Gillard said on Friday.

Australia's new prime minister said she used her first telephone conversation with President Barack Obama on Friday to assure him the country's military commitment to Afghanistan would not change under her leadership.

Some observers have speculated Prime Minister Julia Gillard may push for an early withdrawal of Australia's 1,550 troops from Afghanistan as the war loses popularity among Australians and elections loom.

"I assured President Obama that my approach to Afghanistan will continue the approach taken to date by the Australian government," Gillard told reporters on Friday, less than 24 hours after she was sworn in as the country's first female prime minister.

"I fully support the current deployment, and I indicated to President Obama that he should expect to see the Australian efforts in Afghanistan continuing," she added.

The White House said Obama "praised the special alliance between the United States and Australia, and the shared interests, values and bonds that underpin it" during their conversation.

"Both leaders underscored their shared commitment to closely work together on the broad range of global challenges confronting both countries, including in Afghanistan," the White House said.

The U.S.-led international military alliance in Afghanistan has struggled to maintain an adequate force as support for the nearly nine-year-old war fades across the United States and Europe.

The Dutch plan to pull their 1,600 troops from Afghanistan by August. Canada, with about 2,800 soldiers, plans to end its combat role there next year and Poland is pressing for NATO to draw up an exit strategy.

Australia is the largest military contributor of any country outside NATO, but has ruled out any further increases since it sent an additional 450 troops a year ago.

Gillard was former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's deputy before she successfully challenged for the ruling Labor Party leadership Thursday. Rudd had been blamed for his center-left government's falling popularity with recent opinion polls showing Labor support swinging to the anti-war Australian Greens party.

Public support for the Afghan deployment has waned, as Australia's death toll from the war rose to 16 this week.

John Wanna, an Australian National University political scientist, said he suspected the government is tempted to announce a troop drawdown in Afghanistan ahead of elections later this year.

"A commitment to pull out of Afghanistan might bring some of the left back to the government," Wanna said. "Labor is bleeding votes out to the left, not to the right."

The government under Rudd this week announced its first rough timetable for an Australian withdrawal from Afghanistan, which could begin in 2012. But the government refuses to nominate an exit date, saying that that depends on future military progress.

Gillard said she planned to phone the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Britain and Canada on Friday. She spoke to New Zealand's leader Thursday, she said.

Her deputy Wayne Swan, who has been Australia's treasurer since Rudd's government was first elected in 2007, flew to Canada on Friday in the place of the prime minister to represent Australia at a Group of 20 economies leaders' summit. Until Thursday, Rudd had been scheduled to make the trip.


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