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Commentary: Shoalwater Bay Or Brussels?

  • June 16th, 2007
  • Posted by 7thmin

nato-council.jpgAs Australian and US forces commence biennial exercises off Queensland, NATO Defence Ministers at Brussels have been talking over operations in Afghanistan.

Lee Duffield reports on the political discussions on the future of the NATO-directed campaign to which Australian troops are committed.


The Defence Ministers from the 26 North American and European countries of the NATO alliance have been worried about keeping-up levels of commitment – some of their governments still maintaining limits on the use of their forces in Afghanistan.

They have also been concerned about increasing incidents involving civilian casualties, with the latest such incident happening this week, in the Southern province of Oruzgan, where Dutch forces and others were reported to be operating.

The Ministers ended two days of talks (14-15.6.07) by noting allied troop strength (not counting 100 000 Afghan soldiers and police) had grown to 40 000, increased by 5000 since February.

In a communique they blamed Taliban insurgents for increasing civilian losses, both from suicide bombings and incidents during combat: “We strongly condemn the insurgents’ practice of deliberately endangering the civilian population …”, it said.

The gathering announced a continued build-up of effort in training and equipping Afghan forces, but still no substantial increase in troop commitment on the ground by several European contributors.

European governments for their part are saying they have commitments on different fronts, including the prospect of a major commitment to Kosovo, through the European Union.

NATO spokesmen say that Taliban resistance has built up in Afghanistan, in response to allied offensive activity; they deny reports that the insurgency has spread throughout the country, instead saying that a chain of incidents did occur in some Northern parts, but those areas were generally classed as well under control.


The World War One song, “Australia Will Be There” might need some adjustment in 2007 if the structure of military policy is fully taken into account.

As the allied effort is under NATO command, NATO Ministers have a say in the overall planning, which includes the planning for Afghanistan.

Each time such meetings take place, the organisation confirms that Australia and the other “contact states” from the Afghan fighting — New Zealand, Japan and South Korea – are not represented.

There are assurances however that information is comprehensively shared and that regular consultation takes place.

It is not the same as being there if important matters come up which might concern Australian interests, such as the question of “caveats” or restrictions on some of the friendly forces.

(Australians would recall a famous incident at the Versailles conference, where the Australian Prime Minister, being at the table, and perceiving some slight from the United States, had to remind the gathering of the number of Australian war dead).

The formal structures of NATO rule that the North Atlantic Council, the Ministers’ meeting, has to be confined to member countries.

They do permit regular high-level councils of countries closer to the main focus of NATO’s remit in and adjacent to Europe, which enter into different forms of official partnership agreements with the alliance.

Therefore, this week, Ministers from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia were present for a gathering with the NATO Ministers; the “contact countries” don’t have the same formal links.


In the meanwhile it was announced that the RAAF was taking over air traffic control at Kandahar in Afghanistan and that the 300-strong Special Operations Task Group had installed itself in Southern Afghanistan, where it would complement the work of Dutch forces providing security.

The Australian civil reconstruction operation had also expanded, providing schools construction and trade training, in line with a general rapid increase in the number of NATO Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

In the immediate background was the commencement of Exercise Talisman Sabre involving 27 000 Australian and United States forces.

After preparation and deployment (12-18.6.07) the exercise will run through to 2.7.07, involving movements through Amberley, Brisbane, Darwin, Rockhampton, Townsville and Williamtown.

The aims of the exercise are given as helping to improve combat readiness and inter-operability in combined task force operations; beyond doubt relevant to the demands of real-warfare situations in Afghanistan or Iraq.


Department of Defence – Australia, Operations Update by Director of Public Affairs, Brigadier “Gus” Gilmore, 7.6.07, media… (15.6.07)

NATO, Meeting of the NATO Council in Defence Ministers Session, Brussels, 14.6.07, PR/CP(2007)067
NATO, Ministerial Meeting of the Defence Planning Committee and the Nuclear Planning Group, Brussels, 15.6.07, Final Communique, PR/CP(2007)070

Picture: NATO Council, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation