- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SYDNEY, Australia — Prime Minister John Howard this week defended his decision to withdraw special forces from Afghanistan during an increasingly bloody insurgency.

About 200 Special Air Services troops and commandos are expected to return to Australia soon after spending a year conducting operations in southern Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province.

Mr. Howard defended pulling out the troops at a time when the insurgency was intensifying and the commander of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Gen. James Jones, appealed for 2,000 more soldiers. The prime minister said it would be a mistake to put too much pressure on Australia’s special forces.

“The design of our force commitment always was that special forces would be there for a period of time, and then there would be a replacement by other forces,” he told reporters.

“We think the current force composition is right and we have to be careful that we don’t ask our special forces to carry all of the burden all of the time.

“I think you have to be very careful you don’t overburden those people with all of the responsibilities.”

Australia is in the process of deploying a 400-member reconstruction team backed by infantry troops to work with a Dutch-led reconstruction task force in Uruzgan.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he met with NATO officials in Brussels to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.

He said more troops would be desirable, but there was also scope for some European troops to remove conditions on their existing deployments so they could be reassigned from the relatively quiet north to hot spots elsewhere in the country.

“The real challenge is that a larger number of countries in Afghanistan need to abandon the sort of caveats there are on their involvement and be prepared to support the countries that are shouldering the burden in the south of the country,” Mr. Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“I focus particularly on Canada. They’ve had 36 soldiers killed and they’ve been doing an enormous amount of work in the south of the country. “We’d like to feel that some of the other countries in the north of Afghanistan would be prepared to come in and provide backup support when it was needed in the south.”

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