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Australian troops to stay in Afghanistan through 2014

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BRUSSELS — Australia vowed in an apparent U-turn Thursday to keep combat troops in Afghanistan through 2014 after Prime Minister Julia Gillard had indicated they would come home earlier than planned.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Defence Minister Stephen Smith made the pledge during talks with NATO counterparts to fine-tune the coalition’s plan to hand security control to Afghans over the next two years.

Progress in Uruzgan province, where most of Australia’s 1,550 troops are based, shows that transition of security control to Afghan forces “is achievable by the end of 2014 — possibly earlier”, Carr said.

“All of us, however, must continue to be present in support of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) and be combat ready to do so until transition is finally complete at the end of 2014,” he said.

Gillard indicated on Tuesday that most Australian soldiers would be withdrawn next year following significant security gains over the past 18 months.

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Gillard said they would begin leaving as soon as Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared Afghans would take responsibility for Uruzgan province. Once he did, the withdrawal should take 12 to 18 months, she said.

While NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Australian announcement was within the agreed transition plan, German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Wednesday said he was “surprised”.

The alliance has been at pains to explain its transition strategy ever since US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta indicated in February that NATO hoped to switch to a backup role some time next year.

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Since then, NATO officials have stressed that Afghan forces are expected to take the lead nationwide by the end of next year but that NATO troops would continue fighting the Taliban until the end of 2014.

Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said the Australian and American statements about the transition had been misunderstood.

“From our conversation with the high offifials from both countries I think that both statements were misinterpreted,” Wardak told reporters at the end of two days of NATO talks in Brussels.

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“Australia reaffirmed they will stay in Afghanistan in 2014 and beyond,” he added.

In the statement to NATO partners, the Australian ministers said their government was ready to support the training and funding of Afghan security forces after 2014.

Gillard will outline her country’s contribution at a summit of NATO and Afghan coalition partners in Chicago next month, the statement said.

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The bill to sustain the Afghan security forces after 2014 is estimated to cost $4.1 billion a year, with the United States paying around half and NATO nations the rest with the help of the international community.


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Trump pits Apollo 11 astronauts against NASA chief — he thinks he understands space travel better

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President Donald Trump welcomed surviving Apollo 11 crew members Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the White House Friday, using the occasion to tell his space chief he would prefer to go straight to Mars without returning to the Moon.

It is a theme he had touched upon earlier this month in a tweet, and this time drew on the support of the two former astronauts, who are taking part in celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of their mission, to make his case to NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

"To get to Mars, you have to land on the Moon, they say," said Trump, without looking convinced.

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Babies born near oil and gas wells are up to 70% more likely to have congenital heart defects, new study shows

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Researchers at the University of Colorado studied pregnant women who are among the 17 million Americans living within a mile from an active oil or gas well

Proximity to oil and gas sites makes pregnant mothers up to 70 percent more likely to give birth to a baby with congenital heart defects, according to a new study.

Led by Dr. Lisa McKenzie at the University of Colorado, researchers found that the chemicals released from oil and gas wells can have serious and potentially fatal effects on babies born to mothers who live within a mile of an active well site—as about 17 million Americans do.

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Mueller testimony ‘is going to be a devastating day for the president’: former White House lawyer

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The eyes of the nation will be on Capitol Hill on Wednesday when former special counsel Robert Mueller publicly testifies before Congress.

Mueller, who was a federal prosecutor, top DOJ official, and director of the FBI before serving as special counsel, is scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning and the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

"As Democrats prepare for the arrival of special counsel Robert Mueller on Capitol Hill next week, their plans for his day of wall-to-wall testimony is becoming clearer: if Donald Trump were anyone but the president, he would be charged with the crimes Mueller uncovered," MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace reported on Friday.

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