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Minister says troops will stay in Iraq as long as needed; unsure if more will be sent to Afghanistan.

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Thursday 1 March 2007

Minister says troops will stay in Iraq as long as needed; unsure if more will be sent to Afghanistan


TONY EASTLEY: Well, the Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson, joins us on the telephone from Perth. 


Minister, you've heard what Mr Rudd has said there, and indeed what Dick Cheney has said overnight. What's your response to Mr Rudd? 


BRENDAN NELSON: Well firstly, Tony, the British are not withdrawing. What the British are doing is doing what Australia did six months ago in al-Matana and four months ago in Dhi Qar, and that is having cleared out Basra, they're now planning to hand over to the Iraqis to look after their own security and provide backup to them.  


TONY EASTLEY: But they're withdrawing some of their troops. Their actual net number is dropping, isn't it? 


BRENDAN NELSON: They don't need 7100 troops to do that so they'll go to 5500, and then later in the year, if conditions are right, they'll go to just under 5000.  


And last night when I spoke to Des Brown, the UK Defence Secretary, he confirmed that what the British will then do, with just under 5000, ten times the size of the Australian battle group at Tallil, I might add, they will keep those troops there until we, the Americans, the Iraqis and all the 25 other countries in Iraq, know and decide that the Iraqis can basically look after themselves.  


This should be seen as evidence of progress, Tony, and what Mr Rudd is doing is completely misrepresenting what the Prime Minister and the Australian Government's position is.  


TONY EASTLEY: Alright... 


BRENDAN NELSON: And that position is, Tony, that we will not, under any circumstances, countenance some sort of premature, sudden withdrawal. And what Mr Rudd is basically saying, he's walking both sides of the street, Tony. He's actually saying to the Australian people that he's going to withdraw the Australian troops.  


In fact, what he's doing is he's saying, well, in 2008, i.e. after the election, he will sit down with the Americans and the Iraqis and he will talk about the future of the Australian battle group. 


TONY EASTLEY: Alright, but let's get back to what's happening at the moment. The British will have a significant reduction in forces one way or another. The Danes have pulled out entirely. 


Do you stick by the Government's arguments that have repeatedly said that any staged withdrawal from Iraq would be catastrophic and encouraging to the terrorists? 


BRENDAN NELSON: What I stick by very much, Tony, is, and this is what the Blair Government's doing... We've been part of this planning, by the way, for more than six months. And that is that any change in the disposition, size and nature of your forces in Iraq must be based on the conditions on the ground.  


The British have had their backs to the wall in Basra, which is like a mini Baghdad, and they've reached the point where they think they've got the place essentially cleared and settled, so they'll redeploy most of their troops this stage to the Basra airfield. They will maintain a presence at the Basra Palace.  


Once they feel as if they've got further progress they will then reduce their troops to just under 5000 and keep them there, Tony, until the Iraqi security forces are in a position to look after themselves. 


TONY EASTLEY: What about the Danes, the withdrawal of their forces? How do you feel about that?  


BRENDAN NELSON: Well, the Danes have been a part of the British strategy, Tony, so, and the Danes have made a decision, quite reasonably, I might add, on the basis of the progress that's been made in that southeast corner, that they believe that they're able to remove their forces from Iraq as a part of the further process that's been made in getting Iraqis... 


TONY EASTLEY: But Mr Nelson, we're there as well, and you are saying and the Government has said that any staged withdrawal, and reduction of our troop numbers there would be catastrophic and be encouraging to the terrorists. Is that what the Danes are doing? 


BRENDAN NELSON: Precisely, in the context of the Australian troops, Tony, we have a battle group of 520 in Tallil in the Dhi Qar province. You may recall that it was 480, and then I announced, with the chief of our defence force, we would increase it to 520 when we took on the two provinces.  


We have a minimum critical mass in that battle group. You either have it there in it's entirety, or you don't have it there at all. If we have a so-called 'phased withdrawal' of that battle group from 500 to 400 to 300 and so on, Tony, you would be endangering the lives of our soldiers. And that's why we slightly increased it.  


Whereas the British have 7000 - they can clearly come down by several thousand troops without any risk to themselves. And the other point that ought to be made is that of course the British are continuing to provide aero medical and other enabling support to us. That's been a part of the negotiations we've had with them.  


And as I say, all of this which has happened in the last 24 hours has been carefully planned, and you might recall that Margaret Becker, just before Christmas, the UK foreign secretary, announced that the British plan would be this year to hand over Najar, Mesan and Basra and that's precisely as the plan is proceeding. And this should be seen as nothing other than progress being made. 


TONY EASTLEY: If they could plan that far in advance, can Australia plan well in advance about when its troops will come out of that area? 


BRENDAN NELSON: Tony, our troops will not be in Iraq a day longer than they have to be there. 


TONY EASTLEY: No, I know that, but you were saying that Britain has had in play those plans for some time. You said that they'd been in contact with you and that indeed last year they'd made those plans. Has Australia got similar plans? 


BRENDAN NELSON: Tony, our plan, and it might be, if you like, if all of the Government was concerned about, and only concerned about in relation to our troops, was the Government's political fortunes, we would give you a date and a time and then the Australian media would presumably sit back and say well that's great, we're all satisfied.  


Instead of that, Tony, what we are doing is what is right and what's militarily appropriate. What we are doing is we are training up the Iraqis, we've made enormous progress in that regard. The strides we've made in getting the Iraqi 10th division up to the plate has been fantastic. But we've only been in over watch for six months.  


We will know when we're ready to leave the Iraqis to their own devices when the Iraqis themselves, the Americans, the British and the other 25 countries there, when we collectively believe that whilst it's not going to be some sort of democratic utopia and some peaceful sort of country such as Australia, we will know we're in a position to leave and only then will we do it.  


But Tony we are not, under any circumstances, going to say to you, as much as we might like to or be tempted to, to say to you that on a particular day, or a particular time that we're going to bring our troops out. Apart from anything else that would endanger the lives of Iraqis.  


TONY EASTLEY: OK. But as far as markers go, do you think that Baghdad must be as safe as Basra, for instance, before we can start to see some sort staged withdrawal out of Baghdad?  


BRENDAN NELSON: Well, Tony, as Prime Minister Blair has pointed out, and I think I've done myself on a number of occasions, is that Iraq is 18 different provinces. Baghdad is different from the other 17 areas of Iraq and needs a different approach.  


Basra is different from Dhi Qar and al-Matana, where we are, and needs a different kind of approach. So you can't make a single decision on troop deployments based on the entire country of Iraq. What's happened in relation to Australia, we've got a troop force and battle group there which we believe is appropriate for the size of the task.  


The British are downsizing the size of their military presence to meet the task of overwatching Mesan and Basra, but they think they'll need about 5000 troops to do that, ten times the Australian commitment, and they will stay there. 


TONY EASTLEY: Alright, if I can just break in here, Minister, just we're running out of time, just on appropriate force sizes, is Australia going to send more troops to Afghanistan? 


BRENDAN NELSON: Well again Afghanistan, like Iraq, we're fighting al-Qaeda and people who are fanatically opposed to the sort of values our Country represents. We are concerned, and I'm concerned, about the Taliban reorganising in Uruzgan. 


As you know we're going to face a Taliban offensive in the spring. The Americans have increased the size of their troop presence in eastern Afghanistan. The only decision that we have made is to send a small group of appropriately senior military people from Australia to Uruzgan to have a look at it.  


We're talking to the Dutch, our partners with whom we're working, and what essentially I'm concerned about is the Taliban and al-Qaeda and such people, if you like, they're weeds that are starting to regrow. 


TONY EASTLEY: Is that small force a forerunner of a larger contingent? 


BRENDAN NELSON: Well, we don't yet know, Tony. What I want to do is, of course, I've talked to my military chiefs, I've been to Afghanistan myself, of course.  


We read and take advice, and I've been recently in a teleconference with the other seven ministers, defence ministers, who've got troops in the south of Afghanistan.  


Before we make any decisions, I want to send a small group over there, just to have a look at it on the ground, talk to our own military leaders, just have a talk to the local villagers, the Afghans, the governor of Uruzgan and only then will we make decisions.  


But no Australian should be surprised - in fact I'd like to think that they would support it - if we believed that in fact we had to increase our troop presence in Afghanistan. The people who murdered a hundred Australians in Bali trained in this place with these people and that's why we're there. 


TONY EASTLEY: We'll have to leave it there. The Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson, thanks for joining us this morning on AM .