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Govt again rebuffs calls for more troops to A -

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Govt again rebuffs calls for more troops to Afghanistan

The World Today - Monday, 8 September , 2008 12:30:00

Reporter: Alexandra Kirk

ELEANOR HALL: Australia continues to rebuff calls for more troops to Afghanistan.

The new NATO Commander in Afghanistan is calling for a significant increase in troop numbers to
ensure success against the Taliban but Australia's Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon says he won't
increase the total number of Australian soldiers.

From Canberra, Alexandra Kirk reports.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: NATO's new chief in Afghanistan General David McKiernan has asked Washington to
send more troops beyond the 10,000 extra already flagged, arguing as things stand the international
coalition is struggling to win. And he wants NATO allies and coalition partners to bolster their
commitment, including Australia.

But Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon is holding the line that there will be no expansion of
Australia's 1,080 strong military presence unless NATO comes to the party. On the general issue on
the need for more troops in Afghanistan, Joel Fitzgibbon says he and the NATO General are singing
from the same hymn sheet.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Since coming into government, I've been arguing for greater troop numbers in
Afghanistan. We need greater troop numbers to improve our progress. But Australia is the largest
non-NATO contributor and I've made it clear on a number of occasions that we have no intention of
sending more troops while ever so many European countries remain under-committed.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Joel Fitzgibbon is sticking to the current commitment but says it's under constant
review to maximise soldiers' effectiveness and protection and ensure they're not overworked.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: It is true that our special operations task group, that is our special forces
people, have had to sustain rotations for a long, long time now. We'll constantly look at how we
can take the pressure off our special forces by constantly reviewing and potentially reconfiguring
out commitment.

We're doing that today by sending the guys with the mentoring reconstruction task force and we'll
continue to keep these matters under review.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: The Minister says he will always follow the advice of the Defence Chief Angus
Houston and will restate Australia's position to Washington soon.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: In all my conversations with my counterparts in the United States, and I'll be
talking to Secretary Gates again tomorrow, I sense that they absolutely understand that we are
overstretched and fully appreciate that we are doing more than our share of the work.

I believe that our numbers there are about right. And it's not just about quantity; it's about the
quality of the work we're doing. We're reconfiguring that again today with the deployment of the
mentoring team and I believe the numbers are about right.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Dr Robert Ayson from the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence
Studies Centre thinks Australia could boost troop numbers in Afghanistan.

ROBERT AYSON: I think if Australia really, really wanted to, if it was regarded as an absolute,
national priority then Australia could do so. But I don't think Australia wants to increase its
commitment. And I think Australia has concerns that it could be an open ended sort of thing, that
you could actually put more and more into Afghanistan and it might never stop.

So I think the Government would like to draw the line in terms of its current commitment but if it
absolutely, you know, absolutely wanted to it could increase it. I just don't think it absolutely
wants to.

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Is it a tough line to take, do you think, or difficult line to walk, to say that,
you know, Afghanistan is terror central, but then not to want to commit any more troops?

ROBERT AYSON: Well yeah. I mean since coming into office the Government has said that it's more
interested in playing a part in the discussions about the future strategy of Afghanistan and of
course the emphasis on Afghanistan and perhaps slightly less emphasis on Iraq means of course that
Afghanistan looms larger in terms of the international commitment that Australia is making.

And so to some extent the Government has risked making a bit of a rod for its own back on this. And
when you argue that NATO needs to do more and that there needs to be a greater overall commitment,
the finger will come back pointing at you to say, well, you need to make an extra commitment too.

And so it's going to be a bit of skilful diplomacy for the Government to then say, well, we think
Afghanistan is very important, we don't want to see things going backwards in Afghanistan but we
want to retain the commitment of Australian forces and not to increase it.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Dr Robert Ayson from the Australian National University ending that report by
Alexandra Kirk.