Diggers in Afghanistan for the long haul

Australian troops will remain in Afghanistan for the long haul, but Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon says he understands why Canada has set a withdrawal date for its forces.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed overnight that Canada would withdraw its 2,500 troops from the volatile south of Afghanistan in 2011.

The Canadians have carried a heavy burden from their commitment to Afghanistan, which has created immense political pressure at home.

Since 2002, 78 Canadian soldiers and a senior diplomat have died in roadside bombings and fighting with insurgents.

Australia, which has a strong presence in the south too, has been campaigning with Canada for NATO countries to share a bigger proportion of the workload in the dangerous southern part of Afghanistan.

Mr Fitzgibbon is unsurprised by Mr Harper’s exit date decision.

“I’m not surprised Canada has set a date and I’m not surprised they’ve started to put some conditions upon their contribution,” he told reporters.

“The Canadians have been under significant domestic political pressure for some time now.

“They’ve lost more than 70 people in Afghanistan, so the domestic concern is understandable.

“They have been and will continue to make a magnificent contribution.

“It just underscores again the need for us to make a collective effort to ensure that those underperforming countries NATO countries do more, and do more with less caveats.”

The minister, who this week outlined a plan to redeploy some of Australia’s 1,000-strong Afghan commitment into a greater training role, reaffirmed the nation’s commitment to remaining there for the long term.

The new training team will number 70 and includes soldiers for security, plus experienced personnel to instruct members of a 600-strong Afghan National Army Battalion in military skills.

“We’ve made it very, very clear that our commitment in Afghanistan is a longstanding one,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.

“I said in the parliament just only this week that what a tragedy it would be if all that we’d done in Afghanistan so far was in the end all for nought. So our commitment is a long-term one.

“I announced an important reconfiguration of our contribution this week which will mean we will have a greater emphasis on training.

“I firmly believe that bringing the Afghan national army up to capacity is absolutely critical to long-term success in that country.”

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