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Australia in Afghanistan ‘for the long haul’

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd pledged that Australia would stay in Afghanistan “for the long haul” but did not offer more troops to complement an expected US increase.

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Rudd met in Washington with US President Barack Obama, who is preparing to roll out his revamped Afghanistan strategy on Tuesday, as well as with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Australia takes its alliance with the United States very seriously,” Rudd told reporters as he joined Clinton for a meeting at the State Department.

“That’s why we have been with America for a long time in Afghanistan and why we will be with America for the long haul,” he said.

During a surprise visit to Australian forces fighting in southern Afghanistan two weeks ago, Rudd gave assurances his troops were in for the long haul.

But he indicated Sunday that he would refuse any request to send more soldiers to the conflict.

Australia has about 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, making it the ninth biggest contributor of international forces fighting the hardline Islamists who were forced from power in 2001.

Decision looms for extra troops

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters earlier that Obama — who is expected Tuesday to announce the deployment of more than 30,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan — would not ask Rudd for more forces.

“The Australians throughout the spring have increased their contribution to Afghanistan to a level that we are obviously quite pleased with,” Gibbs told reporters.

“I think he will discuss with Prime Minister Rudd our strategy moving forward. They will also talk about other issues related to the economy and climate change,” said Gibbs, speaking just before the Obama-Rudd meeting.

“And we are working closely with our American friends to secure the best possible outcome for an important deal for the planet, for our economies, for jobs, for the environment,” the Australian leader said.

The United States has some 68,000 troops in Afghanistan, bearing by far the largest share of the burden of the fight against the Taliban and remnants of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.

NATO rethinks troop numbers

NATO allies, whose 42,000-strong contribution swells the number of foreign forces in Afghanistan to about 110,000, are due to consider sending more troops at gatherings of the military alliance December 3-4 and on December 7.

Obama is set to make the boldest strategic move of his presidency on Tuesday and order a surge of tens of thousands more US troops into an increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan.

But The New York Times reported late Sunday that the US president also plans to lay out a specific timetable for ending the war in Afghanistan.

The White House said Friday that Australia was “an important ally of and partner with the United States in addressing the many common regional and global challenges we face.”

Rudd arrived here from a Commonwealth summit in Trinidad where he helped steer a landmark declaration backing moves to draw up a legally binding pact to fight global warming at climate talks beginning next week in Copenhagen.

“The clock is ticking for us all when it comes to Copenhagen,” Rudd said, standing next to Clinton.

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