|Patrick Walters, National security editor | February 07, 2009
Article from: The Australian
US military leaders want Australia to take the lead role in NATO-led coalition operations in Afghanistan's Oruzgan province following an expected drawdown by Dutch forces.
NATO's top commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, has asked the Australian Defence Force if it could take over the province from the Dutch if The Netherlands proceeds with plans to phase out its effort from mid-2010.
General McKiernan made his request to the Australians in December, but the Pentagon then stopped short of making a formal written approach to Canberra in advance of President Barack Obama assuming office 17 days ago.
If the Rudd Government were to agree to General McKiernan's request, this would mean at least a doubling of Australia's current 800-strong military presence in the province.
Running the province would mean the ADF would provide a brigade headquarters as well as a battle group of about 450 combat troops and some "enablers" such as aviation, artillery and logistical support.
Even if the Rudd Government declines to replace the Dutch in Oruzgan, Australia's military commitment is set to expand beyond its current 1090 cap in the coming year, with more army trainers expected to be sent to train the Afghan army as well as provide short-term logistical support for the Karzai Government in the run-up to this year's national election.
The pressure to increase Australia's involvement comes at a time when military analysts are deeply pessimistic about the chances of NATO achieving strategic success in Afghanistan -- even with a large coalition troop boost.
Australian military analyst David Kilcullen, who recently served as counter-insurgency adviser to former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, agreed yesterday that the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan was poised to fail.
"We need to ask ourselves very carefully whether the best thing to do with the troops that we are now finally freeing up from Iraq is to throw them straight into Afghanistan. It's not necessarily going to have the same big impact that the extra troops had in Iraq," Dr Kilcullen told ABC radio.
"One, you own a problem of nation-building in the Hindu Kush -- that's a pretty big problem to own."
Taking over responsibility for the rugged, mountainous province would commit the Rudd Government to a long-term, multi-billion-dollar investment, lasting at least until 2015, with no guarantees that the overall NATO mission will eventually stabilise the country.
As the US prepares to sharply lift its military commitment to Afghanistan, US military commanders have made no secret of their desire for Australia to do more now that the ADF has largely withdrawn its ground forces from Iraq.
Mr Obama is about to step up the pressure on America's European allies to provide more troops to support NATO's 55,000-strong International Security Assistance Force.
The US currently has about 36,000 troops in Afghanistan and is expected to lift its troop commitment by about 25,000 over the next three years with the addition of at least four combat brigades.
If NATO agrees to lift its military effort in Afghanistan further pressure from Washington for Australia to follow suit is considered inevitable.
NATO will have its first detailed discussion of this year on future moves in Afghanistan in a fortnight's time when the organisation's defence ministers meet in Krakow, Poland.
Joel Fitzgibbon will attend the meeting together with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
But the main political drive from Washington is expected to come at the NATO leaders summit to be held in Baden-Baden, Germany, and Strasbourg, France, at the beginning of April. Mr Obama is expected to attend the summit, marking NATO's 60th anniversary, along with Kevin Rudd.
Neither Mr Rudd nor Mr Fitzgibbon have received any formal request for Australia to take over the lead role in Oruzgan with the Prime Minister and Mr Obama briefly discussing Afghanistan on the phone last week.
A direct request from the White House to Mr Rudd would be an acid test of Australia's alliance credentials in Washington's eyes and would be difficult for the Rudd Government to resist.
Mr Fitzgibbon left the door open last month for a smaller increase in Australia's troop commitment saying the Government was constantly reviewing its deployment.
"In terms of size I have held a strong stance that it has never been about numerics but rather the principle that as a non-NATO partner we should not be expected to do more while so many NATO countries remain under-committed," Mr Fitzgibbon said.
"Further we would not consider further contributions unless there was a clear tactical or strategic justification."
Mr Fitzgibbon has repeatedly said when asked whether the ADF could commit more resources to the Afghanistan war that Australian forces are fully stre