- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Australia’s defense minister on Wednesday said it is “way too early” to claim victory over al Qaeda, cautioning that the terror group and its affiliates remain a global threat even after the death of Osama bin Laden.

“While it’s clearly the case that Al Qaeda has suffered some very considerable damage — and not just restricted to the death of bin Laden — it’s way too early to claim victory,” Stephen Smith told reporters after meetings with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“It’s a regrettable fact of modern life that, whether it’s Australia, whether it’s the United States, whether it’s Europe, we have to be constantly vigilant against the threat of terrorist activity,” Mr. Smith said.

“In Australia’s case, we have regrettably and sadly been on the receiving end of terrorist activity.”

Eighty-eight Australians were among the 202 people who were killed in the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, attacks attributed to the al Qaeda-linked group Jemaah Islamiyah.

Al Qaeda is down but not out, Mr. Smith said.

“Certainly al Qaeda is on the back foot in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, but al Qaeda has a presence in other parts of the world, so I think it’s way too early to claim victory,” he said.

Mr. Smith linked the battle against al Qaeda directly to the war effort in Afghanistan, even as some have begun to question that war-torn nation’s centrality to global terrorism.

“If we were to leave now, that would leave a vacuum into which the remnants of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations would fall,” he said.

Australia, which is the largest non-NATO contributor to the international coalition in Afghanistan, repeatedly has said it will not withdraw its troops before 2014, the target date NATO has set for the central government’s full assumption of security control.

Mr. Smith said that Australia would continue to be active in Afghanistan after the transition and that coalition countries needed to begin planning for the post-2014 period.

“We think the time has come to start the conversation,” he said. “The prime minister and I and the foreign minister have made it clear that, after the transition in 2014, we do see an ongoing role for Australia.”

He said Australia could take the role of training, “security overwatch” or development assistance. He added that Australia’s special forces — the third-largest contingent in Afghanistan — also could remain active in counterterrorism after 2014.

Earlier Wednesday, Mr. Smith said he is still “cautiously optimistic” about Afghanistan, even after that day’s assassination of Kandahar’s mayor. The killing followed the slayings this month of other regional leaders, including President Hamid Karzai’s half-brother.

Citing his most recent visit to Afghanistan in April, Mr. Smith told a Brookings Institution gathering that all of his conversations had “led me to the conclusion that we’d made substantial progress on the ground.”

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