Send more troops 'to remain key US ally'
4:00AM Thursday Aug 13, 2009
By Greg Ansley
Australia was an important partner for a number of unpopular American policies, during former Prime Minister John Howard's tenure, particularly the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
CANBERRA - Australia has been advised to increase its military commitment to Afghanistan as it slips below Washington's horizon in the new priorities of President Barack Obama's Democrat Administration.
Reflecting similar United States messages that saw New Zealand agree to send the SAS back to the deepening war against the Taleban, Canberra has been told that it is not pulling its weight and should do more.
Australia has been told that while its alliance with America remains strong, the "man of steel" bonds between former President George W. Bush and former Prime Minister John Howard have weakened.
"Absent a huge crisis in Indonesia, the Taiwan Strait or perhaps Korea, Australians are unlikely to become the key ally of the US in handling a major issue," Dr Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said.
Under Howard, Canberra was an important partner for a number of unpopular American policies, particularly the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
O'Hanlon, whose other distinguished posts include the Secretary of State's international security board, made his remarks in an analysis of the emerging relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Labor Government.
The analysis for the Lowy Institute for International Policy included a separate Australian view by Dr Michael Fullilove, a former adviser to previous Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, who is now director of the institute's global issues programme.
O'Hanlon said he did not dismiss Canberra's potential role in the Asia-Pacific region, its economy and its willingness to take some military risks.
But he said that while useful, its actual role in the wars of the day was perhaps more modest than it need be.
"In theory, if America can muster 200,000 troops for two wars, a country of Australia's size should proportionately be able to find 5000 troops."
Even with an increase that will lift Canberra's commitment to about 1550 troops in Afghanistan, putting the nation among the top 10 of the more than 40 coalition partners, Canberra was still punching beneath its weight.
"This situation should be addressed seriously by Australians," O'Hanlon said. "If they consider the Afghanistan war to be a reasonable enterprise with reasonable goals and a true importance, they should not be content with their present contribution."
O'Hanlon said Obama would probably be too polite to ask for another increase of any size, but a deployment closer to Canada's 2800 soldiers should be within Canberra's reach, and could partially replace Canadian troops when they were withdrawn in 2011.
This would help the mission in Afghanistan, and cement the visibility and importance of the Australia-US alliance as Obama neared the halfway point of his first term.
"Alas, as things stand, Australia is not an obvious key to solving any problem for Obama, be it Afghanistan or anything else," O'Hanlon said. "As such, it is not the talk of the town in Washington and it probably will not become so any time soon."
Fullilove agreed that Australia would need to be smarter and work harder to maintain its influence amid the "frenzied" diplomatic competition of Obama's Washington.
"Such is the President's global popularity that Australia risks getting lost in the crush - not something we needed to worry about during the Bush years," Fullilove said.
He said other countries had stronger claims on Obama's time and, for the first time, a US President had stronger ties to Indonesia than to Canberra.
Obama was also the first President to have come of age politically after the Cold War and was "not really an alliance man".
But Fullilove said the omens were good for personal dealings between Rudd and Obama, with White House aides reporting an unusually close relationship, and similar senses of irony and understatement that enabled them to pick up the phone and hold "mainly unscripted" conversations.