Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr yesterday acknowledged the nation’s weariness with the Afghan conflict after five more troop deaths, but warned of “enormous” damage to its image if it pulled out now.
Carr said an accelerated Australian withdrawal would also put other coalition nations under significant pressure from their own citizens to follow suit, jeopardizing the chance to leave Afghanistan with a stable government.
“The choice here is whether we have a panicky dash, Australia rupturing an alliance that is the largest in history ... Australia making a dash for it that would do our reputation harm, enormous harm,” Carr said.
“[It would send the message to] Turkey or Germany — you’re now embarrassed, you’ve got to justify to your own electorates why you’re sticking with this task, but we Australians are out of it,” Carr said.
Australia lost five soldiers in two separate incidents on Thursday in its deadliest day in Afghanistan and the worst day for combat casualties in its history since the Vietnam War, renewing questions about its involvement.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Australia’s resolve after Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard restated her government’s commitment to Afghanistan despite the latest deaths, which took its total toll to 38.
Carr said “everyone is weary of this war,” including the insurgents, but emphasized that Australia had to stay the course.
“I don’t want to give the impression that it’s only a consideration of the US alliance that keeps us sticking to this program for a phased, orderly, controlled withdrawal,” Carr said.
“But I can assure you the US would be very critical of [an] Australia which suddenly altered its character and said: ‘We’re not with the other 50 nations, we’re not with plan that’s been put into place ... we’re bolting.’”
Carr said that 75 percent of Afghanistan now had security from local forces and 5,000 mid-level insurgent fighters had laid down their weapons, adding that Australia’s final 2014 exit date was not negotiable.
“The US has made it very clear, and we’ve done, that there’s no appetite on our side to stay there a day longer than we need to,” he said.
Australia, a key ally of the US, has said it is committed to remaining in its base in Uruzgan Province, where it has about 1,550 troops, until it can hand over security to local forces, likely late next year.