Australia to send extra troops to Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

Australia will send an extra 450 soldiers to Afghanistan in response to an appeal from close ally the United States for more troops to combat Taliban militants, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said today.

The 40 per cent increase in Australia's deployment to Afghanistan will include a small number of police, and is designed to help train Afghan security forces and secure presidential elections in August, Rudd said.

They would bring Australia's military contingent in the country to around 1,550, making it the largest contributor outside the NATO alliance.

"We must not allow Afghanistan to once again become the unimpeded training ground and operating base for global terrorist activity," Rudd told reporters in Canberra.

Australia, a close Washington ally, was an original member of the U.S.-led coalition that arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters.

But with 10 Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001, public support has begun to wane.

A new poll by the Australian National University found almost 7 out of ten respondents believed the West was losing the war in Afghanistan.

Australian forces, including special forces troops who hunt down Taliban insurgents, are based in Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan province, working alongside alongside Dutch troops on reconstruction projects.

Rudd's centre-left government has previously refused to consider sending extra soldiers as the fight against insurgents stalled, urging larger European nations like Germany to do more instead to combat the Taliban in the country's south.

But Australia changed its stance after talks on Afghanistan in the Hague in late March, and with Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and Turkey all agreeing to send more troops.

Rudd said the extra troops for Afghanistan would help train a brigade of 3,300 Afghan troops, who would eventually take over responsibility for security in Uruzgan.

"At the core of our strategy is the plan for Afghans to take a greater role in their own security. They must be trained and prepared," Rudd said.

An infantry company of 120 soldiers would also be sent for eight months to help with security for the coming Afghan elections, while a team of civilian election officials would also be sent to help with the election in Uruzgan, he said.

A small team of police would also be sent to Afghanistan to help train Afghan police.