Foreign Minister Marise Payne has warned the US against a sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan just as the American military starts pulling out from Syria.
In an interview with Indian media during her recent visit to attend the country’s flagship conference on geopolitics, Senator Payne suggested a reduction in US troops in Afghanistan concerned Australia. “Although there is more to do, I think it would be of great concern to Australia if key partners were to change directions at this point of time,” she said. Her comments are the strongest yet from the government and come after Australia and its allies were surprised last month by the White House’s sudden change in Middle East policy in favour of troop withdrawals and the resignation of US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis — who Canberra saw as a steadying influence. There have also been mixed messaging from the US side on the changes.
Earlier this month, Vice-President Mike Pence said Donald Trump was in the “process of evaluating” whether to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
American media reported last month that Mr Trump had ordered the Pentagon to draft plans for the withdrawal of up to half the roughly 14,000 US troops deployed in the country. Scott Morrison initially said Australian troops would remain in the Middle East and the government was discussing the issue with the US. Former chief of army Peter Leahy, now director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, said the moves by the US made it much harder for Australian defence planners and should lead to a re-evaluation of the US alliance.
“It makes it considerably more difficult in that going with the Trump gut reaction is no way to build and sustain a strategy,” he said. “If we find ourselves in a situation where we make a commitment and the US change their strategy almost at Mr Trump’s will, what are we to do?
“The other issue is that Australia needs to think about the long- term viability of the US as an ally.”
Professor Leahy conceded any sudden US move to shift troops out of Afghanistan had the potential to put Australian troops in danger. “It could but I think … the Australians have a very strong focus on force protection,” he said.
“In an isolated incident, I think we could look after ourselves unless the Taliban become entirely emboldened and step up their attacks.”
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