Australia’s commander in Afghanistan should be allowed to boost troop numbers if needed and the Karzai government should be encouraged to seek peace talks with the Taliban, the federal opposition says.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Tuesday started an historic debate on the Afghanistan mission, spelling out the government’s plans to gradually withdraw the current 1550 troops from the war-torn nation over the next two to four years.
But Ms Gillard said the mission would continue into the next decade, with Australia continuing to provide aid and security in other ways.
Opposition defence personnel spokesman Stuart Robert told parliament on Wednesday while there was “strong bipartisan support” for the mission, there should be no artificial cap placed on troop numbers.
“I strongly urge the government to shift the cap to the wider 2350 deployed troops in the Middle East to allow our Australian commander the flexibility to use his entire forces as needed,” Mr Robert said.
Two weeks ago, opposition defence spokesman Senator David Johnston raised concerns about the level of support Australian troops in the mountainous Oruzgan province and suggested more troops and tanks were necessary.
Mr Robert told parliament there had been 17,833 separate terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists since September 11, 2001 – many by people trained in Afghanistan. He said it may be necessary for the Karzai government to engage more with the Taliban to get a lasting solution.
“The Karzai government needs to significantly improve its levels of legitimacy and governance beyond the major cities and into the regional areas where the Taliban still wield considerable influence,” Mr Robert said.
“This will require political engagement with the Afghan Taliban warlords and tribal elders, which may well lead in future to political power sharing to seek consensus.”
Defence Minister Stephen Smith told parliament on Wednesday the troops had the resources necessary to do the job, or could access them from allied forces.
“ADF forces … are structured to include a range of critical capabilities. Not all these capabilities, however, are provided by the ADF,” he said on Tuesday.
“Capabilities such as artillery, mortars and attack helicopters are available through our partners when necessary. Tanks, for example, are not required for our current mission.
“Some criticism of the level of protection for our troops has been inaccurate and ill informed.”
The debate continues.