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Govt considers more troops for Afghanistan -

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Govt considers more troops for Afghanistan

Reporter: Michael Brissenden

KERRY O'BRIEN: As Britain ponders Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to withdraw 1,600 troops
from Iraq in the near future, with more to come out later in the year and with another ally in
southern Iraq, Denmark, announcing it too is coming out this year, Prime Minister John Howard
continues to hold firm on Australia's troop presence. Not only will another 70 military personnel
be sent to bolster the 550 strong Australian force in the south, but the Government is now actively
considering sending up to hundreds more to Afghanistan. And with Labor leader Kevin Rudd claiming
vindication for his promise to bring Australian troops back from Iraq if elected, the rhetorical
bullets were flying thicker than ever in the political war back home. Political Editor Michael
Brissenden reports.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: In Iraq, even through the fog of war, the politics has always been clearly
visible. The coalition of the willing was in lock step behind George Bush.

AMERICAN SOLDIER: There you go. That's a moneymaker right there. You've got to aim higher.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But as the President's troops surge in Baghdad, his popularity continues to
sink at home and some of his friends are becoming increasingly less willing.

TONY BLAIR, UK PRIME MINISTER: Already we have handed over prime responsibility for security to the
Iraqi authorities in al Muthanna and Dhi Qar. Now in Basra over the coming months we will transfer
more of the responsibility directly to Iraqis.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The question the analysts and the pundits are asking is, is this a sign of
success or a retreat? The coalition partners say it's the former.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, US SECRETARY OF STATE: No, the coalition remains intact and, in fact, the British
still have thousands of soldiers deployed in Iraq in the south, and any decisions that they make
are going to be on the basis of conditions.

JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: This suggestion that because the British are reducing from 7,200 to
5,200, that that equals withdrawal or equals the setting of a firm timetable for the total
withdrawal of British forces from Iraq is wrong. Mr Rudd is asserting that, but he's wrong again.
What the British have done is to reduce the number of people they have there, because they believe
the circumstances warrant that.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Whatever you call it a reduction, a withdrawal or simply a redeployment the
timing of Tony Blair's decision is a political embarrassment for his international allies,
particularly here, where ever since Mr Howard's attack on Barack Obama and the Democrats' proposals
for withdrawal, Iraq has been back as a front line domestic political issue and the Government has
spent the past week and a half warning of the disastrous consequences of any precipitate

JOHN HOWARD: If participant governments in the coalition start nominating dates by which forces are
going to be withdrawn, what they are doing is inviting our enemies, inviting the terrorists in
Iraq, to persist with the destabilisation and the mayhem and the bloodshed in the certain knowledge
that, ultimately, the nerve will be lost and ultimately a withdrawal will take place. Now, the
Leader of the Opposition knows that.

KEVIN RUDD, OPPOSITION LEADER: What Mr Howard has been trying to argue is that any removal of
Australian forces equals some victory to terrorists. Well, let's just put this into a bit of
context. 520 combat forces, they come out under our plan, out of a total force within the region of
some 1,400 Australians. Mr Blair is announcing, we understand, the withdrawal of some 2,000 to
3,000 British troops out of a total force of 7,000 British troops. And so my action, according to
Mr Howard, is a victory to terrorists, but Mr Blair's action is entirely consistent with Australian
Government policy. I'd be interested to understand Mr Howard's logic which defends that argument.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Like George Bush, John Howard is becoming increasingly isolated on Iraq.
Australia's contribution is a small one. But 70 extra troops is more than a 10% increase and the US
and Australia are the only members of the coalition actually increasing troop deployments. But Tony
Blair says Britain can reduce its presence because the situation in Basra is very different from
Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency in Basra, he says. There's no al Qaeda base and there is
little Shi'a on Sunni violence. The situation for Australia's 550 strong contingent in nearby
Tallil is much the same, although the Diggers face considerably less day to day hostility than the
British in Basra. But Mr Howard remains resolute; despite, or perhaps because of, the increasing
domestic political pressure, there will be no withdrawal of Australian troops.

JOHN HOWARD: And the idea that you can go on reducing from a very low number and retain both safety
and operational effectiveness is false, and Mr Rudd must know that. I mean, there's all the world
of difference between reducing from 7,200 to 5,200 and reducing from 550 to what? To 300, to 200?

KEVIN RUDD: The question Australians would like to have answered from Mr Howard is, if it's OK, in
Mr Howard's view, for the Danes to pull out some 460 troops from Iraq, why is it not OK for 520
Australian troops to be brought home to Australia some time next year?

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The British decision to reduce its focus on Iraq and increase its presence in
Afghanistan echoes the recommendations of the Baker Hamilton Report that says continued involvement
in Iraq limits the military capability to effectively fight the war in Afghanistan. But the
Australian Government believes the two battles are one and the same.

BRENDAN NELSON, DEFENCE MINISTER: The same people that are causing all of the problems in
Afghanistan are the same people that are causing the problems in Iraq. We're fighting the same
people in two different places. That's got them off balance and most importantly, if we've got them
off balance in their own backyard they can't get on the front foot in ours.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The Australian government is also examining the need to increase our presence
in Afghanistan, a move supported by the Labor Party. But with everyone trying to claim the
political high ground, the argument over troop deployments, withdrawals or reductions has become a
semantic minefield. And that's not the only one. Tomorrow, Mr Howard will look to take control of
the other big political battle at the moment water. The States come to Canberra with as many views
on that one as there are on ending the war in Iraq. The Prime Minister wants agreement on his $10
billion plan. Some, like NSW, do support it. Others have alternatives they want discussed, and one
- Victoria - appears to have withdrawn altogether. Or perhaps Mr Bracks might describe his position
as simply a case of reduced enthusiasm?

KERRY O'BRIEN: Michael Brissenden there, political editor.