CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA // Australia's new prime minister said she used her first telephone conversation with the US president Barack Obama to assure him the country's military commitment to Afghanistan would not change under her leadership. Some observers have speculated that prime minister Julia Gillard may push for an early withdrawal of Australia's 1,550 troops from Afghanistan as the war loses popularity among Australians and elections loom.
"I assured President Obama that my approach to Afghanistan will continue the approach taken to date by the Australian government," Ms Gillard told reporters today, less than 24 hours after she was sworn in as the country's first female prime minister. "I fully support the current deployment, and I indicated to President Obama that he should expect to see the Australian efforts in Afghanistan continuing," she added.
The White House said Mr Obama "praised the special alliance between the United States and Australia, and the shared interests, values and bonds that underpin it," during their conversation. "Both leaders underscored their shared commitment to closely work together on the broad range of global challenges confronting both countries, including in Afghanistan," the White House said. The US-led international military alliance in Afghanistan has struggled to maintain an adequate force as support for the nearly nine-year-old war fades across the United States and Europe.
The Dutch plan to pull their 1,600 troops from Afghanistan by August. The government under the former prime minister, Kevin Rudd, this week announced its first rough timetable for an Australian withdrawal from Afghanistan, which could begin in 2012. But the government refuses to nominate an exit date, saying that that depends on future military progress. Ms Gillard said she planned to phone the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Britain and Canada on Friday. She spoke to New Zealand's leader yesterday, she said.
Her deputy Wayne Swan, who has been Australia's treasurer since Mr Rudd's government was first elected in 2007, flew to Canada on Friday in the place of the prime minister to represent Australia at a Group of 20 economies leaders' summit. Until Thursday, Mr Rudd had been scheduled to make the trip. * AP