- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Australia’s prime minister told a joint session of Congress on Wednesday that Australian troops in Afghanistan would remain with the U.S.-led coalition for years to come, knocking down recent reports that the country was contemplating an early exit from the war-torn country.

“I want you to know what I’ve told Australia’s Parliament in Canberra, what I told Gen. [David H.] Petraeus in Kabul, what I told President Obama in the Oval Office this week: Australia will stand firm with our ally, the United States,” said Julia Gillard, Australia’s 27th prime minister and the fourth to address Congress.

Australia is far and away the largest non-NATO contributor to the coalition in Afghanistan, with some 1,550 troops on the ground — a 40 percent increase since 2009, when the U.S. began rallying allies to supplement its own troop surge.

Though Australian special forces are active throughout Afghanistan, the country’s contingent is based in Uruzgan province, where the coalition absorbed its greatest loss: the withdrawal of nearly 2,000 Dutch troops in August.

An Australian press report last month claimed that the country’s defense ministry had drawn up plans to begin withdrawals as early as this year. But Defense Minister Stephen Smith vehemently has rejected it, saying that troop numbers will remain at their current levels for at least one or two years.

On Wednesday, Miss Gillard said that “we must be very realistic about Afghanistan’s future,” but that she is “cautiously encouraged” by what she had seen.

“From my discussions with your country’s leaders in Washington, my meetings with generals in Afghanistan, and my time with our troops, this is my conclusion: I believe we have the right strategy in place, a resolute and courageous commander in Gen. Petraeus, and the resources needed to deliver the strategy.”

After a Monday meeting with Miss Gillard, Mr. Obama praised Australia’s “extraordinary sacrifices in Afghanistan.” Twenty-three Australians have died in the war.

Miss Gillard said Wednesday that “Australia firmly supports the international strategy led by President Obama and adopted in Lisbon last year” — a strategy that would see Afghanistan assume full security control by the end of 2014.

“We know transition will take some years,” she said. “We must not transition out only to transition back in.”

She said last October, during a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, that she envisioned some sort of Australian presence in the country “through this decade at least.”

The majority of her countrymen, however, continue to support a withdrawal, and Miss Gillard’s coalition government remains vulnerable to defections from several left-wing lawmakers who oppose the deployment.

Miss Gillard became Australia’s first female premier last June after winning a Labor Party leadership contest against Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whom she has since appointed foreign minister.

Her recent decision to push a controversial carbon tax — as well as continued opposition to the war — has strained her popularity. Polls show she would lose an election against right-wing opposition leader Tony Abbott, whom she narrowly defeated in August.

On Thursday, Miss Gillard is scheduled to visit the United Nations to meet with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and lobby member countries to support Australia’s bid for a term on the Security Council.

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