2011 'critical' in Afghanistan: UK, Australia

18th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Australia and Britain warned Tuesday that 2011 and 2012 will be critical years in the war in Afghanistan, but said they were determined to deny terrorism a base in the war-torn nation.

The long-running conflict, where Britain has 9,500 troops and Australia 1,550, was top of defence and security talks between the nations, which also touched on the rise of China and tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The countries said they were committed to withdrawing troops from Afghanistan between 2014 and 2015 but stressed that international forces had only recently gained traction there and difficult times lay ahead.

"In terms of having adequate manning, in terms of having adequate equipment we've only really been in Afghanistan for the last year, since the end of the American surge," Britain's Defence Secretary Liam Fox told reporters after the summit.

"This winter therefore becomes a very vital time for us in terms of denying the Taliban the safe haven of the space to fight us, and 2011 and 2012 therefore become very vital years."

Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said he feared the mission may have become effective "half a dozen years too late" and agreed that 2011 and 2012 would be "key" in consolidating progress made in the past 12 months.

Afghanistan has become an increasingly thorny issue for Australia, with Canberra losing 10 troops to the protracted conflict in 2010, taking total deaths since 2001 to 21. Britain has lost 349 soldiers in the Afghan war.

But Fox said their adversaries "should never doubt our determination to leave Afghanistan as a place where terrorists will be denied the territory they once had" to launch the kind of extremist attacks seen in the past.

It has been decades since a British foreign minister visited Australia -- "by any man's reckoning somewhat long between drinks", joked local counterpart Kevin Rudd -- and this is thought to be the first ever visit by a British defence minister.

But Foreign Secretary William Hague vowed a stronger British profile in the Asia Pacific and said the insights of Rudd and Smith had been invaluable on issues such as the rise of China and its role in the region.

Rudd said the "critical challenge" with emerging powers such as China and India was to establish "road rules" through regional structures such as the East Asia summit for "confidence and security building".

China's role in encouraging North Korea to "adhere to international norms of security policy behaviour" was especially important, added Rudd, though he said the international community shouldn't "hold your breath."

Hague agreed that China had an important role to play in urging Pyongyang to "desist from proliferation activities and refrain from the provocative kind of actions we saw during the course of 2010."

Beijing's growing military power was also on the radar, with Fox saying China's development of its own stealth jet underlined the need for Britain to support the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Australia and Britain agreed to increase bilateral security talks, known as AUKMIN, to once a year, in a communique that signalled cooperation on cyber security and climate change.

-- Dow Jones Newswires contributed to this story --

© 2011 AFP

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