- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Tuesday after meeting with President Barack Obama that his country is committed to keeping Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists.

Both leaders, however, sidestepped the contentious issue of whether Australia would be asked to send more troops.

Rudd’s visit comes as Obama boosts the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and pushes for more international help in the seven-year-old war against resurgent Taliban fighters.

Obama promised close consultation with Australia on Afghanistan but did not respond directly to a question about whether Australia would be asked to contribute more in Afghanistan for a war that is becoming increasingly unpopular among Australians.

“The American people, just like the Australian people, are always frustrated with the need to send our young men and women overseas for extended periods of time,” Obama said. “But I think that the American and the Australian people also recognize that in order for us to keep our homeland safe, in order to maintain our way of life, in order to ensure order on the international scene, that we can’t allow vicious killers to have their way, and we’re going to do what is required to ensure that does not happen.”

Rudd said the world should never “forget those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, never forget those who have been killed in terrorist attacks since, never forget that many of those responsible were trained and given support in Afghanistan.”

“Our mission remains to ensure that that country doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorists in the future,” Rudd said.

Rudd said Australia’s commitment to keeping its troops in Afghanistan was not a blank check.

“Every time we lose one of our brave men and women in uniform in Afghanistan, I understand fully the concerns of the Australian people about this war and about where it goes in the future,” Rudd said.

Two Australian soldiers were killed last week in Afghanistan, taking Australia’s death toll to 10.

“We have to deal with the cause of what brought us to Afghanistan in the first place and that is … for Australia, of the hundred or so Australians who’ve been killed in terrorist attacks around the world,” he said.

He also stressed the need for the Afghan army and police forces to be trained sufficiently “in order to provide the basis for Australia in the future to exit the country.”

After taking office in 2007, Rudd distanced his government from some of the pro-U.S. policies of his predecessor, John Howard, who sent 2,000 troops to support the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. Howard had a close relationship with former President George W. Bush.

Still, many of Rudd’s views mirror Obama’s.

Rudd’s party opposed the Iraq war, and he withdrew the last of Australia’s combat troops from Iraq last year. Obama has pledged to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by next year.

Rudd’s first official act as leader was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol global warming pact, an accord Bush had argued would harm the U.S. economy. Obama, with a Democratic-controlled Congress, is now poised to act on global warming.

Even on Afghanistan, there are points of agreement.

Australia is a crucial U.S. ally in the Afghan war, the largest contributor of forces outside NATO. Rudd has said he plans to consider any request for more troops.

He also has said that listening to what Obama has to say on Afghanistan “does not necessarily mean agreeing with it.”

Obama has announced that 17,000 additional U.S. troops would reinforce more than 30,000 U.S. troops already serving in Afghanistan.

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