Howard Announces Additional Troops To Afghanistan

The Federal Government has announced that it will deploy an extra 300 personnel to Oruzgan province in Afghanistan.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, speaking at a press conference with Defence Minister Brendan Nelson and Defence Force Chief Angus Houston, said the troop boost was designed to contribute “to the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan.

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This is the text of a media statement from the Prime Minister, John Howard.

More troops for Afghanistan

As Australians will know, the Government has in recent weeks been considering providing more troops for Afghanistan. After careful examination and proper consultation, the Government has decided to boost significantly Australia’s military contribution to the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan.

We have a clear national interest in helping to prevent Afghanistan again becoming a safehaven for terrorists.

This decision is also based on the Government’s steadfast commitment to helping Afghanistan’s democratically elected government create a secure and stable environment in that country, and on Defence’s advice that the increasing threat posed by the insurgency requires the deployment of additional force protection and support elements.

It follows intense consultations, including during my recent visit, with our key partners in Afghanistan – President Karzai’s Government, the United States, the Dutch and other International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) contributors.

Approximately 400 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel are already contributing to a Reconstruction Task Force in Oruzgan Province, working closely with Dutch forces to deliver reconstruction and community-based projects. This valuable work includes skills development and engineering projects and helps both to strengthen local capacity and to increase Afghan security.

The Government believes that it is strongly in the interests of Afghanistan and the international community that these efforts succeed, and therefore that we reinforce our existing presence.

Accordingly a Special Operations Task Group of about 300 personnel will shortly deploy to Oruzgan province for at least two years. It will operate in direct support of ISAF elements in Oruzgan. Its role will be to enhance provincial security by disrupting Taliban extremists’ command and control and supply routes. These forces will operate under an Australian commander working within the ISAF framework.

The Task Group’s activities will directly support the Australian Reconstruction Task Force, support the development of the Afghan national security forces and help reinforce the legitimacy of the Afghan Government with the local population.

The existing RTF Protection Company Group (about 120 personnel) will be extended and will continue to provide close protection to RTF personnel until August 2008.

An RAAF air surveillance radar capability (about 75 personnel) will deploy to Kandahar Airfield, where it will assume control of a portion of Afghan operational air space from mid-2007.

Our expanded force in Afghanistan will be supported by additional logistics and intelligence capabilities, the planned return of two Chinook helicopters to Afghanistan in 2008, and the deployment of an additional C-130J Hercules aircraft to the Middle East.

The total ADF deployment to Afghanistan will reach approximately 950 by mid-2007 and will peak at approximately 1000 personnel in mid-2008.

The advice received by the Government points to an elevated threat environment in Afghanistan. Our personnel are very well equipped and superbly trained and led. But we should all be fully conscious of, and prepared for, the possibility of casualties. I know that our personnel serving overseas, their families and support personnel at home are in the thoughts of all Australians.

Afghanistan faces a crucial phase as international and Afghan national security forces work to consolidate the gains made since the overthrow of the Taliban regime. This new contribution underlines Australia’s continuing commitment to supporting the Afghan Government as it strives to deliver a stable future for its people.

*

This is the transcript of the press conference held by the Prime Minister, John Howard, the Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson, and the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston.

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HOWARD:

Ladies and gentlemen I’ve called this news conference with the Defence Minister and the Chief of the Defence Force to announce a very significant increase in the Australian troop commitment to Afghanistan. As you know the Government has been considering for some time the desirability of increasing our forces. We have done this against the background of a deterioration in the security environment in southern Afghanistan, which has been apparent, against our very strong belief that it’s in Australia’s national interest to prevent Afghanistan, as indeed it is in our national interest to prevent Iraq, becoming a safe haven for terrorism, our desire to support the democratically elected government of Afghanistan and also strong advice from our defence experts that additional protection for the reconstruction group that is already in Afghanistan, should be provided.

There have been extensive discussions involving discussions between the CDF and his counterparts in The Netherlands and also in other partner countries – the United States, the United Kingdom. I discussed the matter when I was recently in Afghanistan with both President Karzai and also the American General in command of the international force in Afghanistan, and we have therefore decided that we will send very shortly to Oruzgan Province a Special Operations Task Group of some 300 personnel and they’ll operate under Australian national command as part of overall of the International Security Assistance Force. Their role will be to enhance provincial security by disrupting Taliban command and control supply routes and they’ll directly support the Australian reconstruction taskforce.

The existing 120-strong protection company group will be extended, and it will continue to provide close protection to the RTF personnel until August of 2008. In addition we are sending, separately from this force, a radar protection surveillance group, of the RAAF, some 75 personnel, to Kandahar Airfield and they will assume control of a portion of Afghan international airspace from the middle of this year.

Our expanded forces in Afghanistan will be supported by additional logistics and intelligence capabilities, the planned return of two Chinook helicopters in 2008 and sending an additional C-130J aircraft to the Middle East. As a result of these decisions the total ADF deployment in Afghanistan will reach approximately 950 by mid-2007 and it will peak at approximately 1000 in the middle of 2008. I should make it clear that all of the intelligence advice suggests that there is heightened security risk, there is the distinct possibility of causalities and that should be understood and prepared for by the Australian public. The troops of course will be very well prepared, very well motivated, very well trained and very capably led. It is a very crucial phase in the history, the more modern history of Afghanistan. There is renewed commitment and activity by the Taliban. The possibility of Afghanistan, once again becoming a bolt hole, a safe haven for terrorists, is quite real and this is a view shared by our allies in the United States and in Europe, it was a view communicated to me, very clearly, when I was in Afghanistan and whilst we believe in cooperation with our partners that we will be successful over the medium to longer term, it is in our view very necessary that we make this additional commitment. And I know that the additional forces, which will go to Afghanistan, will go with the very good wishes and intense thoughts and prayers of all Australians. It is difficult, it’s dangerous work and that should not in any way be underestimated. But there is a lot at stake, if terrorism acquires a safe haven again in Afghanistan, then that will be of direct consequence for this country and for countries in the region and the need to deny opportunities of this kind to terrorists, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, is fundamental to our national security strategy. The Defence Minister and the CDF, of course along with myself, are happy to answer any questions.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister are we losing the war against terror in Afghanistan?

HOWARD:

We’re not losing the war but we will not win it without renewed and increased effort and that is why we are playing our part. And we have seen increases by other countries, the British are talking about increases, there’s been a very big Canadian commitment and can I just say how much I respect and appreciate the size of the Canadian commitment, they’ve taken a number of casualties, we would hope that there would fewer caveats placed on involvement by some of the European countries, it’s one thing to have forces in Afghanistan, it’s another thing to place caveats on what they can do and we would like to see fewer caveats and that is something that we have put, but we nonetheless think it’s important that this is a burden that is shared amongst like minded countries and not just left entirely to the United States.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister the Russians and other countries before them tried to contain the Taliban for years, do you see us going back every time…..every spring that they mount their offensive and……

HOWARD:

There is clearly a seasonal element to this but it’s of a different order than that and there is a special component and a special element of the threat posed in Afghanistan because it was the epicentre of the Al Qaeda operation originally, although Al Qaeda is now active in other parts of the world, including in Iraq, but whilst I’m very conscious of the history of Afghanistan, stretching back to the 19th Century, you can’t see what is occurring there just as part of the historical continuity, there is another element and a very real element to the sort of world in which we now live.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister you said that the troop commitment will increase to about 1000 in mid-2008, it will peak at that number, is that a commitment that it won’t go beyond that or could you…..

HOWARD:

No I never make commitments that we’re not going to further increase our forces in different areas of operation. At this stage what I have announced is what we have in mind, and we don’t have in our back pocket or in the draw some further increase in mind, but if we you’re asking me to absolutely guarantee it won’t go any further, no I’m not going to do that.

JOURNALIST:

Air Marshal will this stretch us too far….too thinly round the world? We’ve got forces in a number of theatres.

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON:

No, I don’t believe so. We are able to manage all the contingences that we’re handling right now. We have additional capability back here in Australia and of course we’re focussed on enhancing the land force, we’re going to build a bigger army and we’re also doing a lot of other work to ensure that we can handle whatever comes up.

JOURNALIST:

What’s the make-up of the special operations group?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON:

The Special Operations Task Group comprises people from the Special Air Service, the Commandos, also the Incident Response Unit, and also a very solid intelligence capability as well. So it’s tailored for the purpose, it’s a more robust group than last time, we’ve applied all the lessons learned from last time and I think we’ve got a very good, very well-led, very well-equipped group to deal with the very challenging environment that we face out there.

JOURNALIST:

How different is the task that they’d be facing this time? I mean when we first went into Afghanistan it was with a particular target in mind, how different is the assessment of what the troops will face on the ground now?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON:

The task is, and initially they’ll do a lot of special reconnaissance, but essentially their operations will be targeted on the Taliban, disrupting Taliban operations and going after the Taliban leadership.

JOURNALIST:

The fact that Australia and other nations are re-committing to Afghanistan, is that an admission that from the outset maybe the response there wasn’t concerted and sustained enough?

HOWARD:

No, no, if you referring to the withdrawal and the scaling down in the case of countries in 2002, no. I mean that was the judgement made at the time, I don’t think there is any doubt that at that time, the view was formed that there had been a very successful operation in overthrowing the Taliban, the Taliban has proved to be very resilient and has re-grouped and it has been necessary for there to be a response to that and that response has come from a number of countries and including necessarily from Australia.

JOURNALIST:

Can you explain at least what the inclusion of the Air Defence Radar system means, is there an air threat of some sort, or what exactly will it do?

HOWARD:

You mean the one in Kandahar?

JOURNALIST:

Yes.

HOWARD:

Well that was as a result of a particular request from the United States to replace the capacity that it had been providing and we thought as part of the partnership we have with the United States and other countries in the region and because we had the capability to provide it and they wanted our people, it was a reasonable request to meet.

JOURNALIST:

Have you spoken to President Bush about this?

HOWARD:

No, I haven’t spoken to President Bush about this, I haven’t spoken to him for several weeks, but I am sure at some time in the future we’ll talk about different things. But, this is, bear in mind, this is something that we have been foreshadowing, you may recall some weeks ago the Defence Minister and I both indicated that an assessment team for want of a better expression had gone to Afghanistan to suss things out, and we have been getting advice that we needed to provide some additional protection and also to be a little more proactive in engaging some of the Taliban elements. We have people there that we have to protect and on advice and for the reasons I outlined a few moments ago, we believe that the sensible, prudent, careful, wise thing to do is to provide some additional assistance and the CDF has outlined the composition of this group and it is important to stress that we have learnt some of the lessons of earlier experiences and we are very good at that, our mili tary does learn from experience and it plans things very carefully, but I don’t want to pretend that we’re doing this for reasons other than that the situation is difficult, it’s challenging, we do need in the interests of protecting our people who are there now to give extra protection and it is overwhelming in this country’s interests to ensure that the terrorists are not successful in getting a safe haven in this country.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, does this mean that there are going to be marginally more troops on the ground in Afghanistan than in Iraq and does that necessarily mean that Afghanistan has become of greater significance than Iraq?

HOWARD:

Well if you do the mathematics using your definition, boots on the ground if you don’t exclude…if you exclude naval personnel the answer is yes, I don’t normally make those distinctions, I regard people carrying out naval duties in the Gulf as just as much engaged as people who are operating in the battle group in the south of Iraq. But if you’re talking, if you’re comparing the 450 battle group in Iraq with the number in this special task group that we are sending plus the others, the answer is yes, but I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, there will still be more personnel in Iraq than there will be at the height of the deployment in Afghanistan in the Iraq theatre because I group all of them together. Look I am not going to get into gradations of danger, clearly any operation in either country is dangerous and there is a risk of casualties and we should always remember that and it’s a tribute to the training and professionalism our forces and also you know a share o f fortune that so far, we have been blessed in that area, but we feel very conscious that there is a real danger and Afghanistan is dangerous, Iraq is dangerous, any theatre of operation where you have people who are trying to kill you, and try to inflict damage is dangerous.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard what is the advice you received from Afghanistan on the potential threat from this so-called spring offensive?

HOWARD:

Look generally speaking just more activity and a heightened threat environment, I am not going to try and be more specific than that, but I mean self-evidentially everybody involved in Afghanistan is [inaudible] of that reality.

JOURNALIST:

You’ve both mentioned…

HOWARD:

I’ll just try Michelle I think, the competition.

JOURNALIST:

You’ve both mentioned lessons learned as being very important, exactly what are those lessons?

HOWARD:

Well I am not going… I might defer to the CDF to, if he wishes to make a comment about the sort of operational things and so forth, I am not getting into that area, the only general observation I’d make and if he wants to add something he will do so, the only general observation I would make is that I think it’s important to not, in dealing with the Taliban, not to be too passive, and that you really have to have a capability to engage them. Do you want to add anything to that Angus?

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL HOUSTON:

Michelle, all I will say is that any time we conduct any operation anywhere, we fully analyse what we did, how it went, and where the lessons learned were. Now because of the sensitivity of this group, I can’t speak in any detail about what those lessons were; suffice to say the experience of last time is going to be put to very good effect with a very robust deployment this time, thank you.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister do you share the surprise…

HOWARD:

Yes, yes Andrew Probyn.

JOURNALIST:

Hello, yes. Do you find it surprising that Osama Bin Laden has remained so elusive for so long and do you share that surprise and also how significant would his capture be to the war on terror?

HOWARD:

Nothing entirely surprises me in something like this, he’s obviously got a lot of friends in a lot of caves and a lot of places to escape to, and the organisation he leads clearly has a vested interested in keeping him safe from capture or assassination. What was the second question?

JOURNALIST:

How important would it be?

HOWARD:

Look I don’t want to speculate about that.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard how concerned are you about Pakistan’s apparent inability to control the Taliban on its side of the border?

HOWARD:

Well we would like the Pakistanis to be as active, intense, as committed as zealous as possible in containing it, I understand some of the political realities under which General Musharraf operates, but I’ve recently made personal representations to him about this issue, as indeed have the British Prime Minister, Vice President Cheney went to Islamabad straight after being in Australia and before he left Australia he shared with me some of the concerns the Americans had, and he put very strongly to Musharraf what was at stake. I mean…I think we all do understand some of the history, and there is a balancing act, and there’s no doubt that overall the Pakistanis have been good allies in the fight against terrorism, I guess in relation to Afghanistan we’d like them to be even better allies.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard you’ve criticised previously this view there’s a simplistic notion that the Iraq war is bad and yet the war in…..is a good war, are you worried your critics might jump on this, especially now you’ve got more troop on the ground in Afghanistan and say look, the Government’s now backing Afghanistan?

HOWARD:

Well if I was supporting the view that Afghanistan is good, Iraq….bad, I wouldn’t have any forces in Iraq.

JOURNALIST:

Well I guess the argument might be (inaudible) if there were no forces in Iraq…..

HOWARD:

Oh well do you think I should increase the commitment to Iraq?

JOURNALIST:

Well people from Iraq could go to Afghanistan I guess….

HOWARD:

Well I don’t think there’s any sense in doing that because I think we have a national interest in succeeding in both countries. I mean implicit in my criticism, well not implicit, explicit, in my criticism of the good war-bad war argument is that in…..that in some way we shouldn’t be in Iraq at all, well that’s not the case. I mean our position is very simply this, that if it’s good enough, and justified enough and desirable that we deny the terrorists a victory in Afghanistan, why isn’t it equally good enough, desirable enough and wise enough to deny the terrorists a victory in Iraq? And that is why we’re in both countries. But I could I just pick up this, this rather artificial number…..we have more people in Iraq, in the Iraqi theatre if you include Navy, Army and Air Force than we will have in Afghanistan at the height of the increased deployment. So I think it’s very artificial to say that there’s some different quality of having soldiers verses airmen and sailors, I think that’s rather dismissive if I may say so of the contribution being made by our naval personnel and as we have been reminded with the experience of the naval personnel of another country recently, namely the Royal Navy, it can be quite dangerous work.

JOURNALIST:

Would you agree Prime Minister though that that whole region is becoming increasingly dangerous, we don’t see any backward steps, and now that Iran is boasting that it can manufacture uranium at industrial grade?

HOWARD:

Well the Iranian thing is separate to some extent but because geographically Iran is broadly in that area there’s a commonality to it. I acknowledged why you would put it in that context. But of course it is difficult, and why it is difficult in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan is that we are fighting against terrorist forces that are determined to do great damage and bring about great destruction on our way of life and it is tremendously important that we succeed. I mean you mention Iran, can you imagine how emboldened Iran would be if the coalition were defeated in Iraq? I mean has anybody seriously imagined that if the coalition is seen to be defeated in Iraq that that would do anything other than give the Iranians an enormous boost? You can imagine the instability it would cause in Saudi Arabia and in Jordan. I mean the more that Iran engages in the rhetorical flourishes that we are witnessing at the moment, and the more that she flaunts the authority of the United Nation s, the more evidence there is in my view that the coalition must succeed in Iraq. I mean nobody in their right minds could argue that we would bring about reconciliation with Iran by acquiescing in defeat in Iraq, it seems to me to be against all elements of commonsense to think otherwise.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister sorry to ask a question about the less pressing matters, but could I ask you about Newspoll…..

HOWARD:

Ask about Newspoll?

JOURNALIST:

Yes, are you surprised by the level of support in marginal seats where you have traditionally been much stronger and is it raising any political alarm bells for you?

HOWARD:

Oh this Newspoll is just an abstraction in marginal seats of the figures in the overall polls of the last few months – so it’s not the least bit surprising.

JOURNALIST:

Mr Howard, COAG this week, do you have the spare $7 billion to spend on what…..

HOWARD:

Well I’m trying to spend $10 billion on water security, but I can’t get the agreement of the Victorian Premier. I mean I think it would be a good idea if we decided on the plan to spend the $10 billion before we start talking about plans to spend another $7 billion, although I note that because of the strong economy we have the states imagine that there’s large amounts of money available. But I want the meeting on Friday to be successful. I think we should all set about being quite achievers in the interests of the Federation on Friday and…..I beg your pardon?

JOURNALIST:

Is the water deal a condition of moving on to those other things?

HOWARD:

No I didn’t say that. I was making an observation. I don’t…..well you ask me, no it’s not, but I make the observation that it passes strange to me that a Premier who is holding up consummation of a $10 billion investment in Australia’s water future should be moving on to telling us how we can spend another seven – I mean that is my point. I think Mr Bracks should sign up to the water deal. I thought he was going to and I hope he still does, but I think it’s a good idea. Look, in relation to other matters, well we’ve got an agenda. I haven’t even seen this $7 billion plan, but it sounds like a normal COAG meeting; the states are asking the Commonwealth for billions more.

JOURNALIST:

Doctor Nelson, just a quick one here. Is it still the Defence Department’s intention to keep rotations at 6 months for the time being?

NELSON:

Yeah it yes Geoff. We have no intention, no plan, nor any need to move away from the six months; and a couple of issues that were raised earlier I have discussed this deployment with the US Secretary for Defence Robert Gates, I have also discussed it with my British counterpart Des Browne. The Chief of Defence Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston has actually been to The Hague, had extensive dialogue with General Berlijn, his counterpart. The CDF and I will be travelling to Canada tomorrow with a meeting with the other Ministers who have got forces in southern Afghanistan. This deployment and a range of other things in terms of cooperation across southern Afghanistan will be discussed, including a common approach to Pakistan. And also from a defence planning point of view, the importance of a deployment is not determined by its size. Every deployment we have throughout the world is critically important, whether it’s East Timor, Solomon Islands, Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, food prices are pinching household budgets at the moment to a point where Family First is arguing…

HOWARD:

Can you just say that again? There was a bit of static on the left there.

JOURNALIST:

…food prices are pinching household budgets at the moment to a point where Family First is arguing there should be special relief in the Budget.

HOWARD:

Well I think the best way that you can help family budgets is to make sure that as many people as possible have got jobs because a wage and a secure job is always the best way out of financial difficulty and financial stringency. And that’s why I argued at the weekend that the greatest human dividend from the last ten years of economic progress has been the 32-year low in unemployment. I am very conscious that some households are doing it tough. No matter how prosperous the whole country may be, there are some people that are doing it tough and that is why it’s important that we pursue policies that keep people in work, create more job opportunities and make sure that we follow policies that keep interest rates at moderate, indeed low levels.

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