Australia May Boost Its Civilian Role in Afghanistan

Feb. 23 (Bloomberg) — Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said his country will consider beefing up its non-military support for Afghanistan’s embattled government while ruling out any increase in troops there.

After a day of talks in Canberra with two visiting U.S. officials, Smith said Australia may be prepared to take on additional “capacity-building responsibilities,” including training Afghan police, judges and administrators and building new roads, hospitals and schools.

Smith said his country will maintain its current force of nearly 1,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. He defended Australia’s role in the NATO-led effort against Taliban insurgents, saying its troops were fighting in “some of the toughest areas” of the country, and said it compared favorably to that of other nations.

“I make no bones about saying that there are other nation- states whose contribution is not nearly as profound,” Smith said at a joint news conference with Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte.

Smith didn’t elaborate. Other nations fighting in Afghanistan, including the U.S., have complained that some members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, such as Germany, have restricted their troops to areas where there’s little combat.

Fitzgibbon said his country, which isn’t a NATO member, would like better access to NATO policy documents and strategy forums about Afghanistan.

Australia’s Role

Australia would also consider a greater non-military role in Iraq, where the Labor government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is following through on an election promise to withdraw about one-third of the 1,500 Australian troops currently there, Smith said.

Gates and Negroponte both said that pullout won’t affect the historically close ties between Australia and the U.S.

“Our friendship endures across generations and across administrations,” Gates said. “The U.S. has no better partner and no stronger ally than Australia.”

Gates and Negroponte are the first senior U.S. officials to visit Australia since Rudd replaced former Prime Minister John Howard in December. Howard had a close personal relationship with President George W. Bush and was a strong supporter of the U.S. war effort in Iraq.

The officials said their talks included regional Asian issues and defense cooperation between the two nations.

F-22 Jets

Asked whether Australia would like to buy F-22 stealth fighter jets from the U.S. — something currently prohibited by American law — Fitzgibbon said his country would at least like to have that option.

The U.S. Congress has banned any foreign sales of the F-22, which is made by Bethesda, Maryland-based Lockheed Martin Corp.

The defense minister said his country’s possible interest in the F-22 shouldn’t be interpreted as a response to China’s military modernization program.

Fitzgibbon was also asked if the successful U.S. shootdown of a malfunctioning spy satellite earlier this week made Australia more interested in participating in a joint missile defense system with the U.S. and Japan.

Fitzgibbon declined to discuss the missile defense talks, while adding that Australian officials had watched the shootdown with “great interest.”

He then turned to Gates and added, “Can I say, Bob, nice shot.”

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