- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 19, 2009

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA (AP) - Prime Minister Kevin Rudd signaled Friday that Australia will not substantially boost troop numbers in Afghanistan after a 10th Australian soldier died in the prolonged war against insurgents.

Rudd has yet to respond to a recent request from NATO for more Australian troops to help secure elections in Afghanistan in August, and he will meet President Barack Obama in Washington for the first time on Tuesday.

Australia’s defense chief announced late Thursday that an Australian bomb disposal expert had been killed trying to defuse a makeshift device _ the second Australian soldier to have died in the Central Asian country in a week.

Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston declined to give details of the exact location and time of the death.

Australia has some 1,000 troops in Afghanistan and is a key U.S. ally in the Afghan war. Rudd said the U.S.-led coalition’s future strategy in Afghanistan would be high on the agenda at his talks with Obama, and that he would consider any request for more Australian forces.

“We think our current commitment’s about right,” Rudd told Brisbane Radio 4BC on Friday.

“Listening to what President Obama has to say _ reflecting on it _ does not necessarily mean agreeing with it,” he added.

Obama announced last month that 17,000 additional U.S. troops would reinforce slightly more than 30,000 U.S. forces already serving in Afghanistan. He also urged NATO allies to do more to help end the seven-year-old war.

Australia is the largest contributor of forces in Afghanistan outside NATO, and some NATO countries want Australia to send more. Australia’s Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said this week he was considering NATO’s request for reinforcements to help in the upcoming national polls.

While 10 Australian soldiers have been killed by al-Qaida and Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, Rudd said Friday that ten-times more Australian civilians had been killed by terrorists since the U.S. was targeted in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Something like a hundred Australians in recent years … have been killed in terrorist attacks and those responsible for those attacks have primarily come from Afghanistan, that is, trained in Afghanistan,” Rudd said.

The worst loss of Australian lives occurred on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali in 2002 when Afghanistan-trained bombers killed 202 people including 88 Australians.

Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said there was a “strategic stalemate” in Afghanistan that was testing Australians’ commitment to the war.

“The longer we are in Afghanistan, the more difficult it will be to maintain the support of the Australian people for that campaign,” Fitzgibbon told reporters late Thursday.

Rudd said earlier this week his government’s resolve in confronting the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan would not be shaken by the death Monday of the ninth Australian killed in combat _ an infantryman shot dead during a gunbattle with suspected Taliban insurgents.

Australian officials did not identify the latest soldier killed, saying his family needed to be informed first.

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