Australia won’t withdraw from Afghanistan earlier than planned after suffering the most casualties in a single day since the Vietnam War, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said, stressing its commitment as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Pacific region.
“The choice here is between a planned, phased withdrawal and a sudden rush to get out that would be very disruptive,” Carr said on Sky News’s Australian Agenda program yesterday. “We’ve got a chance to leave a functioning Afghan state.”
Three Australian soldiers representing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led International Security Assistance Force were killed by a gunman wearing the uniform of the Afghan National Army last week, on the same day that two soldiers died when their helicopter crashed.
The U.S. and its allies plan to hand over security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. Australia, which has about 1,500 soldiers in Afghanistan, intends to withdraw most of those troops by as early as mid-2013.
“Australia making a dash for it would do our reputation great harm,” Carr said. “It’s not part of the Australian character to bolt from an alliance.”
Australia has lost 38 soldiers in Afghanistan, according to government figures. The shooting took place in Uruzgan province in southern Afghanistan and is now under investigation, ISAF said Aug. 30. The helicopter crashed in Helmand province.
So-called insider attacks on NATO and ISAF personnel are increasing, with at least 40 coalition deaths this year compared with 35 in all of 2011, according to ISAF. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has blamed such attacks on efforts by neighboring Pakistan and Iran to undermine the U.S. and NATO’s partnership with Afghanistan.
“There’s no appetite to stay there a day longer than we need to,” Carr said. A handover to Afghan forces in Uruzgan province may take 12 months to 18 months, he said.
Hillary Clinton visited the Pacific region to underscore U.S. commitment to security and development, attending the Pacific Islands Forum in Rarotonga, Cook Islands on Aug. 31. Gillard left the forum early to return to Australia after the deaths of the soldiers. The government will fulfill its commitments in Afghanistan, she said last week.
In comments directed to Gillard and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, Clinton expressed gratitude to both nations for the sacrifices of their soldiers and civilians who have served in the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.
While the loss of life is dispiriting, Clinton said Aug. 31, the U.S. and its partners are “determined to see this through,” because “we cannot afford to see Afghanistan turn back into a haven that threatens us all.”
Five New Zealand soldiers were killed in Afghanistan last month, raising that nation’s death toll in the conflict to 10.
Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war lasted from 1962 to 1972, its longest major conflict. The Royal Australian Air Force sent personnel back to Vietnam in 1975 to assist in evacuations and humanitarian work during the war’s final days, according to the Australian government. About 60,000 Australians were involved in the conflict and more than 500 killed.
In the early 1970s, more than 200,000 people marched in the streets of Australia’s major cities to protest the war and use of conscripts. Australia introduced the National Service Scheme in November 1964 based on a birthday ballot of 20-year-old men who had registered with the Department of Labour and National Service. It was suspended in 1972.
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