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US focus shifts to Afghanistan -

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US focus shifts to Afghanistan

The World Today - Wednesday, 28 January , 2009 12:33:00

Reporter: Kim Landers

BRENDAN TREMBATH: As the United States prepares to double its troop presence in Afghanistan; there
are new warnings that the conflict has become America's greatest military challenge.

At the same time, key members of the Obama administration appear to be playing down US expectations
about what can be achieved.

Washington correspondent, Kim Landers, reports.

KIM LANDERS: The bulk of a 30,000-strong US troop build-up in Afghanistan could be in place
sometime between June and August.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates says the war will be a "long slog" and he's warning that America
needs to carefully consider what it can achieve there.

ROBERT GATES: And if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of central Asian Valhalla
over there, we will lose. Because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience or money, to
be honest.

KIM LANDERS: Those comments from Robert Gates seem to signal that the US ambitions in Afghanistan
have narrowed since Barack Obama became President a week ago.

ROBERT GATES: President Obama has made it clear that the Afghanistan theatre should be our top
overseas military priority.

KIM LANDERS: But, the Defence Secretary says he's very sceptical about sending anymore troops to
Afghanistan than the 30,000 asked for by the American Commander there.

One part of the US strategy in Afghanistan which is not going to change, despite the change of
command in Washington, is the US missile strikes on suspected targets along the border with
Pakistan.

American commanders have today travelled to an Afghan village to give $US40,000 to the relatives of
15 people killed in one of those recent raids.

Robert Gates says the airstrikes will remain a part of the US arsenal in the war on terror, but
he's acknowledged that the issue of civilian deaths is increasingly sensitive.

ROBERT GATES: I believe that the civilian casualties are doing us enormous harm in Afghanistan and
we have got to do better in terms of avoiding casualties. And I say that knowing full well the
Taliban mingle among the people, use them as barriers. But when we go ahead and attack, we play
right into their hands.

KIM LANDERS: It's a concern shared by America's top military commander, the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

MIKE MULLEN: I don't think we can succeed in Afghanistan if civilians keep dying there. And we've
got to figure out a way to absolutely minimise that, the goal being zero.

KIM LANDERS: President Obama will meet his military chiefs at the Pentagon tomorrow to review the
planning for Afghanistan.

Karin Von Hippel is an Afghanistan expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in
Washington.

KARIN VON HIPPEL: For the last three or four months the US military leaders have been saying the
war can't be won by military means alone. Obama has, of course, repeated the same mantra, so. But
it isn't clear to me yet how he plans on solving this. There are some people who think they will
want to be out of Afghanistan in a significant way by the time of the next election. But in order
to do that, they really need to capitalise on the planned surge, the planned military surge and
really try to turn things around militarily.

KIM LANDERS: President Obama is preparing to send up to an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Is
that going to be enough?

KARIN VON HIPPELL: It probably won't be enough, but at least in the interim, if they're deployed to
the right places, if they can really make a difference where the fighting is the heaviest, then at
least psychologically it could help shift things around.

The problem really is that we still haven't decided - we the United States, Government still
haven't decided whether in Afghanistan to build some sort of basic democracy. I wouldn't say we're
trying to build Switzerland, but some sort of democracy. Or, if we're really just there to try to
fight al Qaeda and make sure that they can't use Afghanistan as a base.

KIM LANDERS: The Australian Government is opening the door to sending more troops to Afghanistan,
saying particularly if there is a tactical or a strategic justification for doing so.

KARIN VON HIPPEL: I think that we need to come up with a narrative that our NATO allies, our
NATO-plus including Australia and other countries - can agree on. At the moment, it's not clear why
many of those countries are in Afghanistan. I think some are there because they're worried about
the future of the NATO alliance; others are there because they're trying to get on the good side of
the US Government.

And so, there are a number of different reasons where, that, I think we need to shift that
narrative so that people really do adhere to the same beliefs, that they're all there for the same
reason, trying to build - trying to establish some minimum security in governance.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Afghanistan expert, Karin Von Hippel ending that report from correspondent Kim
Landers.

The US President Barak Obama thanked Australia for its contribution to Afghanistan in his first
telephone conversation with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd since the inauguration.

It's understood the President didn't ask Australia to commit more troops to the conflict. But the
Prime Minister's office says the two discussed the global economy and the need for international
action through fiscal stimulus.