We can’t pull out from Afghanistan now: Smith

Defence Minister Stephen Smith has admitted it has taken too long for the international community to find the right strategy in Afghanistan, but says pulling out now would be a mistake.

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Nine years after Australia first committed troops to the war in Afghanistan, the Australian parliament will start debating the conflict today.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott will recommit their parties to the war, amid calls for a political solution.

Alex Downer, who was foreign minister in 2001 when the Howard government first sent troops to Afghanistan, says the initial military aims have been achieved and “new and creative” diplomacy is now needed.

Australia has lost 21 soldiers in the war while more than 150 have been wounded.

A national association of veterans and former military personnel opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will rally outside Parliament House ahead of the debate’s start.

Stand Fast says the debate is nine years too late.

“The best things we could do to support our troops is to bring them home,” Graeme Dunstan said. “Immediate and unconditional withdrawal is what we want.”

But Mr Smith says that would be a mistake. “We can’t leave tomorrow,” he told ABC Radio, adding it was his “grave fear” that doing so would leave the way clear for the re-emergence of terrorist groups.

Mr Smith admitted it had taken too long for the international community to arrive at the right strategy for Afghanistan.

“It’s not just a military strategy, it’s a military and political strategy,” he said.

“The problem is that it’s taken us nine-and-a-half years to get there.” That was why political will and the “patience of domestic constituencies” were now an issue in Australia, the US and Europe.

The NATO-led coalition needed to put Afghanistan, especially its security forces, in a position to manage its own affairs, Mr Smith said. “We can only do that, not by staying forever, but by training them.”

Mr Smith said a two-to-four year time period for withdrawal of Australian troops from Oruzgan Province was realistic.

“We think we can make that.”

The Australian Greens will use the debate to reiterate their opposition to the war.

The minor party is expected to be joined by at least one independent MP – Andrew Wilkie – who is a former intelligence analyst.

Greens leader Bob Brown says it is time for a “serious raincheck” on the war and to safely withdraw the troops.

“Things are changing rapidly in Afghanistan and I’m concerned about the lives and safety of Australian troops,” he told ABC Radio.

There wouldn’t be anyone in the parliament who did not support and admire the the courage and commitment of Australian troops, Senator Brown said.

“This debate will be a very strong endorsement of our troops.”