Australia expected to send fresh troops to Afghanistan

Sydney (dpa) - The Australian government has made a decision on a fresh deployment of troops to Afghanistan but will not say immediately whether it will join its allies and send soldiers to hunt for the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in the south of the country.

Prime Minister John Howard is to make an announcement Wednesday morning in response to requests for troops from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the governments in Washington and London.

Last week Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that Australia would not need to draw down its forces in Iraq to make a fresh military commitment to Afghanistan.

"We would have the capability, of course we would,'' Downer said. "We only have 1,300 to 1,400 troops actually in Iraq. I mean we have a Defence Force which is massively bigger than that.''

The opposition Labor Party is backing a fresh troop deployment, claiming Howard withdrew from Afghanistan too quickly and allowed terrorists there time to regroup.

"Australia needs to ensure that the task we began in Afghanistan is completed,'' Labor's Kevin Rudd, the opposition foreign affairs spokesman, said.

The Greens oppose sending troops to Afghanistan, just as they were against the war in Iraq. Kerry Nettle, a Greens member of the upper house, the senate, said: "At the time of the original deployment we said we didn't support the troops going and being part of a U.S.-led invasion. We said we supported measures through the United Nations to curb the activities of terrorists, people like Osama bin Laden.''

Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James warned that the military could be stretched with concurrent commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Our land combat elements are already heavily committed in Iraq, so it's likely that the only combat elements we'd send over there on the land side would be special forces,'' James said.

But Aldo Borgu, an analyst at the private Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the military could spare forces for a large Afghanistan commitment.

"Given the fact that we've largely pulled out of the Solomons and (East) Timor, those troops should be available without compromising its other defence commitments, including Iraq.'' dpa sa jh


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