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Gates Heads ‘Down Under’ for Australian-U.S. Talks

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

EN ROUTE TO CANBERRA, Australia, Feb. 21, 2008 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates plans to discuss Australia’s future efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the globe as he meets for the first time with the country’s newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd this weekend.

“It’s pretty much a broad consultation, and I think that it comes at a useful time in terms of a new Australian government,” Gates said today. “It gives us an opportunity to set down and talk to them about their view of the world. I think it will be a very productive dialogue.”

The annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations tomorrow fall on the heels of a recent announcement by the country to withdrawal about one-third of its troops from Iraq by mid-summer.

Defense Department officials said that the withdrawal does not signal plans by Australia to remove troops altogether from Iraq and that the country’s defense officials notified the Pentagon before the announcement was made. Rather, it indicates a shift in the government’s efforts in the country that will likely include fewer combat troops and more aid efforts, a senior DoD official said on background.

Gates said he has talked twice before with Australia’s Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, and Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith recently visited Washington. Rudd and Fitzgibbon also have visited Iraq and consulted with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, the official said.

“While obviously we value them and the role they play in Iraq, at the same time, we’re mindful of the fact that nearly half of the Australian army is deployed,” Gates said in an en route interview session with media members. “We’re concerned about the stress on our own force. The Australians are clearly confronting that challenge themselves.”

Australia now has about 1,500 troops in Iraq -- a mix of combat, training, aviation and support forces. The 500 slated to leave, mostly combat troops, will be pulled from the south in areas where Iraqi security forces can take over operations, the official said.

Australia will keep a security detachment in Baghdad and much of its aviation support as well as some of its embedded mentor troops.

In Afghanistan, Australia has about 1,000 troops. About 300 are part of a special operations task group in Oruzgan province, in southern Afghanistan. Another 370 are part of a provincial reconstruction team there.

Australia is a staunch supporter of anti-terror and rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan, the DoD official said. In August, the country pledged an additional $115 million in aid over the next two years, according to the country’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Australia’s total aid commitment to Afghanistan is $450 million since 2001.

The country is not expected to shift its support in Afghanistan, Gates said.

During the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations talks, the secretary wants to reaffirm the importance of the two countries’ relationship, especially with Australia’s new government. This is the first senior-level visit by U.S. officials to the country since its elections in November. The meetings are expected to draw out assessments and expectations by both sides, the senior DoD official said.

Australia, a long-time ally of the United States wants to make sure that that the two countries are moving forward together in cooperative efforts, the official said. Gates is not expected to ask for any specific support from Australia for either Iraq or Afghanistan, the official said.

The first part of talks will focus on the Middle East, Iraq and North Korea. A second session will look at regional issues such as Afghanistan and China and other Asian efforts. A working lunch will focus on southeastern Asia, and a final session will focus on bilateral defense issues and examine how to expand cooperation and an “enhanced” relationship between the two countries, Gates said.

This is the 19th annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations. The talks typically involve the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte accompanied Gates on the trip.

“We have no better ally than Australia. They have been a magnificent partner on the global scene, in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Negroponte said. “We’re very appreciative of the role they play in helping promote regional stability and prosperity.”

Since World War I, Australia has fought beside the United States and other allies in every significant conflict to the present day.

This is the secretary’s first visit to Australia in his current position. His first official travel as a senior government official was to Australia in 1982, he said. It is the second stop in a nine-day trip that also includes Indonesia, India and Turkey.

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Robert M. Gates

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