Thursday, 20 September 2012

Afghan army at arm's length

AUSTRALIA has suspended some joint patrols with Afghan soldiers amid fears the anti-Islam film that has sparked violence across the world could heighten the risk of insider attacks.

In keeping with an order from the International Security Assistance Force - of which Australia is a member - the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, said yesterday joint operations between Australians and Afghans in Oruzgan province had been halted for the past two days.

But the abrupt way the decision was announced by ISAF has drawn strong criticism from one retired general for embarrassing Australia and Britain, who were caught by surprise.

Mr Smith told Parliament yesterday no joint patrols below the level of battalions - made up of 500 or 600 soldiers - had taken place on Monday and Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Australian and Afghan National Army commanders were holding talks with the ISAF southern regional commander about resuming joint patrols.

Mr Smith could not say how long that would take.

''I am not putting a timetable on that,'' he told Parliament. ''That will be an operational matter.''

ISAF announced on Tuesday night that ''in response to elevated threat levels resulting from the 'Innocence of Muslims' video, ISAF has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks''.

The move marked a setback for the coalition's war strategy, as the planned withdrawal of Western troops hinges on training and advising Afghan forces to take over security by the end of 2014.

Under the new order, most joint patrols and advisory work with Afghan troops will be conducted at the battalion level and above.

Co-operation with smaller units will have to be ''evaluated on a case-by-case basis and approved by RC [regional] commanders'', ISAF said.

Retired major-general Jim Molan said last night the suspension should not over hinder Australia's mission of training Afghan soldiers provided the suspension did not go on too long.

But he slammed the announcement by ISAF commander General John Allen as ''clumsily handled''.

Key contributors including Britain, which has lost 430 soldiers since the war began in 2001, were left in the dark. ''General Allen acted without adequate consultation in my view, with all the countries involved,'' General Molan said. ''You never put your allies into a position where they are politically embarrassed.

''That's the first rule of alliance warfare. And people were surprised when it came out. That didn't have to happen at all.''

Mr Smith told ABC radio yesterday Australia was ''less surprised than others''. But he said he was ''not asserting we were consulted before the decision''.

The suspension decision follows the deaths of three Australian soldiers recently in a so-called ''green on blue'' attack in which an Afghan soldier opened fire on the Australians. Sapper James Martin was buried in Perth on Tuesday.

ISAF's statement said the suspension balanced ''the tension of the recent video with force protection, while maintaining the momentum of the campaign''.

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