Australia to double Afghan troops





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Australia to double Afghan troops


4/10/2007 3:00:00 PM GMT


Australia announced on Tuesday that it would almost double its troop numbers in Afghanistan by next year amid warnings that Taliban fighters will step up their attacks in the coming months.

Australia already has some 550 soldiers in Afghanistan. Its total military force in the war-torn country will reach about 950 soldiers by the middle of this year and 1,000 next year, Prime Minister John Howard said.

He said the extra troops, who include about 300 special forces, would be deployed to help counter an expected summer offensive by the Taliban.

"We have done this against the background of a deterioration in the security environment in southern Afghanistan," Howard told a news conference. "We will not win the war without renewed and increased effort," he added.

The special forces would be sent to the Uruzgan province in south-central Afghanistan, the prime minister added. "Their role will be to enhance provincial security by disrupting Taliban command and control supply routes and they will directly support the Australian reconstruction task force."

Last year witnessed the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan since U.S.-led occupation forces invaded the war-torn country in 2001, with some 4,000 people killed – about a quarter of them civilians.

About 48,000 U.S. and NATO-led troops are operating in the war-torn country, where 34 foreign soldiers have died since January.

Six Canadian troops were killed last weekend in the worst single attack against the NATO-led force since 2005.  

· "More casualties"

Howard told Australians to be prepared for casualties, saying intelligence reports warn of an increasing threat posed by the Taliban.

"There is the distinct possibility of casualties, and that should be understood and prepared for by the Australian public," he said. 

Howard also criticized some European countries that placed several restrictions on the kind of activities their troops can undertake in Afghanistan. Some of these caveats were lifted at a NATO conference last year, but Germany, France and Italy agreed to send their forces to dangerous areas only in emergencies. 

Australia, a close U.S. ally, also has about 1,500 troops in war-torn Iraq.  

Howard’s conservative government faces a tough bid for re-election this year, with opinion polls showing that most Australians support the opposition Labor Party’s plan to withdraw troops from Iraq.

The Labor Party has so far backed Australia's military involvement in Afghanistan.

AJP and Agencies