- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA (AP) - The death of a ninth Australian soldier in Afghanistan will not diminish Canberra’s commitment to bringing stability to the Central Asian country, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Tuesday.

The soldier in a joint Australian-Afghan army patrol was shot dead during a “very intense firefight” with 20 Taliban insurgents in Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan Monday morning, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston said Tuesday. The soldier’s name has not been released.

Rudd told Parliament the “government remains committed to confronting the ongoing threat from international terrorism and bringing greater stability to Afghanistan.”

The death followed a surge in violence in Afghanistan over the weekend that led to the deaths of eight other foreign troops _ including four Americans.

A NATO official in Kabul confirmed that the Australian was a member of the NATO-led force there. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Australia has about 1,000 troops in Afghanistan _ the largest contribution outside NATO. But some NATO countries want Australia to do more in the faltering fight against Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said this week that Australia was considering a NATO request to help provide security for Afghan elections in August.

President Barack Obama could ask Rudd to increase troop numbers when the two leaders meet in Washington next week, but Australian leaders have previously ruled out sending more troops unless some European countries are prepared to do more.

The last Australian fatality occurred in a rocket attack in the same province in January.

Southern Afghanistan is the center of the Taliban insurgency. The U.S. is sending thousands of new troops to the south this year to try to reverse Taliban gains. The Islamic militants have made a violent comeback the last three years following an apparent initial defeat after the 2001 U.S. invasion.

The spike in violence is an early indication that insurgent attacks are likely to surge as some 17,000 U.S. forces arrive in Afghanistan this year to bolster the record 38,000 Americans already in the country.

Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said Tuesday that progress was being made too slowly.

“I don’t think we are doing well in this war,” Fitzgibbon told Sky News television. “I don’t think we are necessarily winning or losing this war, but what we need to be doing is making much better progress.”

“Afghanistan is a very, very difficult place, and the issues there are many and complex, but this is important, he said, adding that success in Afghanistan “goes directly to the security of Australia.”

Fitzgibbon said the government would consider any request from the United States for more Australian forces to be sent to Afghanistan, though Canberra’s military advisers said Australia’s troop levels were about right for now.

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