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Should Australian forces leave Afghanistan?

Nick Bryant | 03:20 UK time, Wednesday, 23 June 2010

After going for almost a year without a single fatality in Afghanistan, Australia has lost five soldiers this month alone - almost a third of its deaths since Australian forces were sent to the country in the aftermath of 9/11.

On two separate days in June, Australia has suffered more multiple deaths in the ranks of its armed forces than in any conflict since Vietnam. The latest deaths came when three Australian special forces commandoes were killed in a helicopter crash in Kandahar province, and bring Australia's military death toll in the country to 16. This is the fighting season in Afghanistan, and government ministers are warning of an increase in violence. The surge of American forces will bring more fighting.

For the US-led force of international troops, June might well become the bloodiest of the near nine-year war. So far this month 57 international troops have been killed. In July last year, 75 troops were killed.

The Australian deaths were announced on the day that Britain reached the grim landmark of 300 fatalities.

The Rudd government is clearly concerned about an erosion of public support for what many regard as an unwinnable war. The Defence Minister, John Faulkner, admitted as much on ABC Radio National on Tuesday morning. "Of course I am concerned about the level of public support for what we are doing in Afghanistan but I continue to stress... how important our role in Afghanistan is," he said. "It is absolutely critical for the safety and security of Australians and Australia to help prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a training ground and operation base for international terrorists."
A fresh poll, conducted before the latest deaths were announced, showed that 61% of Australians want to see the diggers brought home. When the question was posed back in March, 51% said they wanted to see a withdrawal. It points to a sharp decline in public support.

Kevin Rudd has tried to bolster public support by arguing that Afghanistan is the frontline in the battle against international terrorism, and that fighting the Taliban prevents attacks against Australians at home and abroad.

The problem for the Rudd government is that it will take another three to five years to train the Afghan national army, the primary Australian mission in the country, according to the latest defence force assessment. The Dutch, who have been the lead force in Oruzgan province where many of the 1550 Australian diggers are based, are pulling out this year. The Canadians are leaving next year. Perhaps more Australians will come to ask why the diggers are staying put.

Though the public is growing increasingly restless, the politicians in Canberra are standing firm. The Afghan commitment is so vital to the security alliance with America, which means that there is strong bipartisan support for Australia's continued involvement. As the veteran political commentator, Michelle Grattan, has written in the Melbourne Age: "This is an unpopular war in Australia but one that is remarkably uncontentious politically. Both sides support the commitment - indeed, Tony Abbott would like to see more Australian troops there in a higher profile role - but neither wants to make the war a focus of domestic political attention."

Will the Australian people even have a say? Probably not, which partly explains why the public debate here is neither heated or particularly animated. My hunch is that this posting will get a low comment count.

Will the Australian government even get to decide? Again, it is arguable.

The strong likelihood is that the decision will ultimately be taken in Washington rather than Canberra. Michelle Grattan, who knows better than most how Australian diplomacy works, put it very bluntly: "In reality, we will be there as long as the United States wants us to be."

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