The American take on our Afghan debate
Ahead of US Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to Australia this weekend, The Punch caught up with US Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich to discuss the recent parliamentary debate on Afghanistan and the US mid-term elections.
United States Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich makes no secret of the fact he was watching the debate on the Afghan war pretty closely.
“We were obviously very interested in it because Australia is a key partner is Afghanistan. Our take on it was that this is healthy. We did extensive internal review at the end of the 2009 to determine what’s the best course and how do we see this resolving and what are we going to need to do it.
“That was heavy internal conversation, and I think with all our partners we want them to have, if there are doubts, to have that honest discussion,” he told The Punch yesterday.
But he was equally open about America’s satisfaction with the majority of opinions among MPs.
“We were very impressed with both the quality of debate, and by the fact that across the wide political spectrum, Liberal/National and Labor, there was a confidence in the approaches being taken and a consistency in what we were trying to accomplish.”
But while Julia Gillard’s assessment of the war placed the emphasis on how long our soldiers could be there - two to four years and some presence up to a decade - Bleich chooses to emphasise recent American assessments that a wind down of combat operations will begin next year:
“That goal is - you know it’s always conditions based - but our sense was if operations go as we expect then by middle of next year, our troops that were bought in to perform combat operations, part of an enhanced force, some of them can start winding down those operations.”
It’s not a timeframe Gillard has been as willing to articulate. Bleich outlines this timetable from the position of someone who has much broader canvas to work with - America can begin withdrawal next year but it will be far from complete next year. When pressed on how similar his assessment is to Gillard’s he accepts timeframes are almost impossible with the Afghan conflict:
“The general view is we are looking to see combat operations begin to wide down in the middle of next year. But obviously in that process in the meantime you’re ramping up aid and support and development in Afghanistan That is going to take a while, and I don’t have a perfect crystal ball on it . . . It’s not just when the troops leave everyone leaves,” he said.
Ahead of this weekend’s visit by Secretary State Hilary Clinton for the AUSMIN meeting, Bleich said while Afghanistan will be on the agenda they’ll be no push for extra troops from Australia.
“We’re in partnership right now, with Australia leading the civilian component and the United States taking the military lead there, and we’re working together very well, so I don’t anticipate anything than a check up or a check in.”
And does the amount of dissatisfaction with war in Australia bother him?
“I thought that opposing views were well expressed. I think if anything statistics that we’ve seen show that they’ve been a drop in the number of people who oppose Australia’s involvement after the debate. So you need to have the facts to help people overcome those concerns.”
A close friend and confidant of President Obama who worked closely with the President in his campaign in 2008, Bleich is cautions against anyone writing off Obama following mid term congressional results, pointing out that the two most popular Presidents of the last 30 years suffered similar fates in mid-terms.
“I’m no longer a good Democrat, I’m a diplomat. But the way I look at the mid-terms is every politician needs to listen to elections and take seriously what they hear. But they also have to be careful not to overact and look at trends. The same sort of trends occurred in the Regan and Clinton administration.
“The way things are looking the Democrats will have the Senate and the Republicans will have the House, and it’ll have to be there job to advance America’s agenda together.”
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