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.

American soldiers rush the wounded to a helicopter. Picture: Gary Ramage

“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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    • James Hunter says:

      09:02am | 04/11/10

      The americans, may listen but it does not mean they take any notice. Even if they say they do it is not very likley the truth as truth and americans have never mixed very well.
      They invite “friends” to their wars, they sell us rusted out naval vessels that needed three years in dry dock to make seaworthy, they try to and usually succeed , in having us buy their airplanes, tyheir bombs they wont however sell us F22 Raptors because they dont trust us!!! Yep they sure are palls. We will not even be getting all the source codes for the F35   that we are paying squillions for. Another usa airframe , over weight , over budget and without the range or payload we needed.. But Hey, you good old boys buy some and we will invite you to another war some place so you can use it to drop some of our expensive bombs with it. at your cost of course..

      This is what the yanks worry about , keeping us as part of the usa’s defence industry financial support base.
      At least Obama has not(yet) drempt up some WMD some place to go start another war. But yemen is looking good.

    • Shane From Melbourne says:

      09:35am | 04/11/10

      You forgot the fuel hungry Abrams tanks in the list of military crap that Australia has bought from the U.S. Now that the JSF is such a turkey, Australia is left with a hole in air defence capabilities…..

    • OchreBunyip says:

      09:59am | 04/11/10

      Other than a lingering feeling of gratitude for WW II,  I have yet to find out what current benefits Australia receives from our military alliance with the USA. We’ve seen the negative reports concerning US-made war materiel Australia buys, and our stubborn refusal to buy better European alternatives.To date it seems we get to be used as political currency when the US wants to make it look like they are working in co-operation with other nations in the ramp-up to their next invasion. I would rather Australia was more focused on the UN and less on the national interests of the USA.

    • Gregg says:

      11:44am | 04/11/10

      Unless you call a warm and fuzzy feeling of hope a benefit Bunyip then there is really no benefit and even the hope is for something that is rather immeasurable, a hope of protection if we may need it in the future.
      Australia needs to be more focused on building our own nation, water and power needs obvious with droughts and ageing power stations.
      Industrial development needs to be re-energised so as our employment can be better spread and that in turn may mean we could ultimately look to being more self sufficient when it comes to military developments.
      On that front, perhaps it could be questioned whether we should do more in the area of having defensive capabilities like mobile missile batteries that can be rapidly deployed by transport aircraft.
      Couple those with surveillance/armed drones and you could develop a capable defence network that may not age as quickly as fighters and cost no where near as much.
      Nothing much will help though if it ever gets to the stage of a power like China pointing the finger and setting the conditions for iron and coal with potential for nuclear back up.

    • Dave says:

      10:07am | 04/11/10

      @SHANE - Abrams are pretty sweet tanks.

    • stephen says:

      12:50pm | 04/11/10

      You’re right…they’re excellent.

    • haggis says:

      10:26am | 04/11/10

      What percentage of America’s flaccid GDP is based on defence (erm, war) production . . . .

    • James Hunter says:

      10:29am | 04/11/10

      Sorry about that, we could have had the latest leopard or challenger but hey the old boys club needed to get rid of those turbine powered beasts someplace.
      Interesting that they are so good we keep them at home ?
      Or is it because they too big to fit on our rail or road system to take them any where?
      If they went on Kanimbla they fall through the rust holes.

    • Gregg says:

      12:00pm | 04/11/10

      The Bleich Bla Bla is not unexpected diplomatic gobblegook on what is basically a political agenda.
      It’s all conditions based and setting a timeframe for Afghanistan is impossible he says and he certainly would not dwell too heavily on Obama having ordained that scaling back will be in full swing before his own re-election campaign year is entered into.
      He will not contradict, for afterall he is a diplomat, even if he is a Demo/Labor one.

      The whole debate has been something of a non event and when footage has been shown of some speakers speaking to a near empty chamber, it is laughable.
      In deed, how much more of a laughing stock can our parliament be, for when was a debate ever about having a PM and Opposition leader giving expectable speeches to be followed by more expectable speeches.

      I would have thought a true debate may have been something more like at least having the for and againsts of being in Afghanistan being defined and then having MPs speak to that, not that we would have likely got anything other than waffle still.

      At the end of the day, someone should have had the balls to say we do have a potential rapid exit plan in the event that conditions in Afghanistan or Washington dictate that there is no longer any point to having a military presence.

    • Matt says:

      12:23pm | 04/11/10

      America is a falling empire, it’s time to break away from their adventures in imperialism and look after own interests. I don’t mean isolationism, but non-interventionism is the foreign policy we should adopt.

    • Lola says:

      12:59pm | 04/11/10

      I find it very interesting that the current US ambassador is so out there in the media. A clear new strategy from the US to try to keep Australia involved in Afghanistan etc longer through public opinion?

    • Ironside says:

      01:35pm | 04/11/10

      To those who ask what value the American alliance. I would like to remind you that the Australian way of life is subsidised by the pentagon. How I hear you ask? Simply put Australia massively underspends on defence.

      Currently Australia spends 1.8% of GDP on Defence, or about 22 Billion Dollars a year. Sound like a lot. Well it isn’t. From that we fund a total force including reserves of a tad under 75 Thousand soldiers, sailors and Airmen.  This is an absurdly small number when you consider other regional defence forces and their expenditure.
      Indonesia - 982 Thousand troops
      Malaysia – 429 Thousand troops
      Singapore – 522 Thousand troops
      Vietnam – 5.4 Million troops
      India – 4.8 Million Troops
      China – 3.4 million Troops

      If we as the Australians were to try and match those numbers even of the smallest country -  Malaysia we would have to increase our spending by almost 5 times the current amount, to over 100 Billion dollars a year or about 11% of our GDP.

      So why don’t we have a massive army like those of our neighbours… we don’t have to. Currently we rely on the US to be a deterrent for us. No one, our defence planners reakon would be crazy enough to attack Australia when it would lead to war with the good ‘ol USofA. In fact in the event of a war a single carrier group would probably be all the support the Australian Defence force would need, as it could effectively block any maritime attack on Australia. Effectively the US Department of Defence is subsidising the Defence of Australia to the Tune of about 80 Billion dollars a year.

      You think the NBN is expensive. Well that cost is spread over 8 years, the 80 billion extra we would need would not be a once off spend it would be every single year. How many hospitals, roads and schools is that?

      You may say that America is a falling empire, the fact is that they are still more capable than anyone else in terms of military power. Its all very well to preach about isolationist or non intervention policies but that wont stop the 3 billion people crowded to our north and west from looking at our space and natural resources with envy, if you think we can defend the Country with what we have on our own your wrong, simple as that. If you think no one wants to take it your wrong simple as that. The US alliance is key so stop your hand wringing anti western guilt trip and have a look at the world of real politik

    • FFS says:

      03:11pm | 04/11/10

      Beautifully put, Ironside. It never ceases to amaze me how many people don’t appreciate the value of an alliance with the Americans. It really is quite obvious if you aren’t affected by the knee-jerk anti-Yank God-I-hope-everybody-thinks-I’m-cool stance that seems so popular. The Yanks are on our side, but more importantly on a global scale is that everyone KNOWS they’re on our side.

    • TheRealDave says:

      03:43pm | 04/11/10

      Good thing none of those nations have the sea or airlift capacity to move more than a tiny fraction of those troops isn’t it - let alone support them.

      Those F-35’s are starting to look better already wink

    • St. Michael says:

      03:55pm | 04/11/10

      My problem isn’t with the alliance.  It’s the linchpin of our defence.

      My problem is with the fact that we seem to think it means we can’t voice our views independently or go in a different direction to the United States on killing terrorists, er, rebuilding a country, er, training the Afghan Police Force.  If a relationship is one where you dare not leave or even say anything for fear of offending the other party, I would have classed that as an abusive relationship.  The US ambassador’s remarks I actually found quite condescending if not patronising: “Good on you little Hossies for havin a good ol’ debate habout tha issue of Afghennystayn! Now getcher RAR, or whatever youse call it, back in Oruzgan, there’s a good boy.”

      We need to remember there are benefits both ways to the US/Australian alliance.  They don’t support us just because we’re good mates, they support us because Pine Gap and the other DSD bases are part of the US intelligence network and they need them to cover the far east.  We need to remind them of that if they’re asking us to go into or remain in what is a militarily disastrous exercise, though to our credit we’ve kept the casualties down to less than 25 whereas the US has lost thousands.

    • jeffb says:

      04:27pm | 04/11/10

      Pure troop numbers are misleading.

      Our defence strategy isn’t based on the ANZUS alliance rather the sea-air gap and a massive technologically advantage over our neighbors.

      No one in our region has the capability to land a significant numbers of troops in Australia, let alone supply them. Especially when you consider said hostile nation would have to do so in the face of the RAN & RAAF, which are both miles ahead in terms of technology than anyone in our region.

      We are not underspending at all, rather spending selectively on what we really need to maintain our natural strategic advantage.

      Its as simple as that.

    • DaveinPerth says:

      04:53pm | 04/11/10

      “If we as the Australians were to try and match those numbers even of the smallest country -”

      Why would we try and match those numbers?
      Unlike some of the countries mentioned, we don’t have an Army designed around the task of controlling our populace.  Our Army doesn’t need to prop up an illegitimate government. 

      The primary role of our defence forces is to kill people and break things.
      You don’t need a huge number of people to do that.  You just need some skilled personnel and some expensive toys. We got them.

    • stephen says:

      09:08pm | 04/11/10

      The Vietnam figure you offer is wrong.
      Something else too. The US Foreign Policy you propose does not exist.
      She is under no obligation to defend another nation. (Morally, strategically, or otherwise)
      And proposing a prognosis on earlier behaviour, I’d say America would not intervene in our strife unless it were also in her benefit to do so.
      And quite rightly, too.
      We are assisting the US in Afghanistan because it is in our best interest. We are fighting to prevent a much larger conflict.
      The Taliban, rebel war-lords, Iran, Syria, and a couple of other nations may soon want to all hold hands and sing for Allah.
      I’m glad we’re doing something now.

    • Learn facts says:

      12:27pm | 05/11/10

      “in the face of the RAN & RAAF, which are both miles ahead in terms of technology than anyone in our region.”

      Sounds pretty arrogant to me. Thats just what the British view was of the Japanese before they took Singapore. Have you seen the south east asian countries are equiptment with?

      For example Singapre:
      F-15, F-16, F-5 with the good missiles and supporting aircrafts, pilots trained in USA and Australia.
      Navy equipted with La Fayette Figates, more capable that Anzac or Perry Class that we have. New quiet submarines.

      Malaysia - FA-18/D, Sukhoi Su-30 (dont underestimate them). Your joking if we have superiority in the region. Whilst these nations are unlikely to be on our bad side, actually contra Australia does not have superiority in the south east asian corridor as you think.  Dont think 2 SQN of superhornets can dominate our north.

      Many nations are equipted with US technology, just be grateful our ADF train to a very high standard, it that which may give us an edge. But equiptment wise, dont under estimate our region.

    • jeffb says:

      05:35pm | 05/11/10

      With regards to Malaysia you’re talking about what 8 F18s & 18 Su 30s?

      Singapore has what 24 F16s & 24 F15s on order? The F5s are 1960s era kit and are being replaced by the F15s.

      If you want to just look at numbers and types Australia still has a significant advantage, with what 70+ F18s alone. When you also consider the air to air refueling capabilities, you know the stuff planes need to operate, or the AEW&C capabilities, even ignoring JORN, the gap continues to widen.

      This is just looking at the RAAF. Its not arrogance, just facts.

      An easy question to consider, how long can the Malaysian or Singaporean Air Force operate in the sea-air gap before needing to return to base, just on fuel alone?

    • jeffb says:

      05:46pm | 05/11/10

      Also Ironsides numbers for the Singaporean defence force got me curious, the real number appears to be closer to 70,000, including some 40,000 conscripts, not 500,000+. Just alittle different.

    • John says:

      01:09am | 05/11/10

      We are not fighting for America we are fighting for those who have hijacked America. Real America’s are fighting the occupiers of America. It’s enemys are the media cabal, central bankers, money lovers who uses American military machine for their interests alone, with no interest for the American state or it’s people, but for their interests alone.

      They manipulate the people via the media networks they have influence, they influence the corput politicians into following their will. Democracy is farce, Republican or Democrats they are still carpet bombing and spending billions of borrowed money on a war that is of no interest to the state of America or it’s people.

      The American democracy is simply a facade. Those democratic nations involved in this war I also see as facade’s. The west needs to wake up and punish everyone involved in this facade. Do we need to wait for Jesus to bring law and order to the world? or allow this unethical lawless criminality to continue.

    • Marilyn Shepherd says:

      05:59pm | 05/11/10

      John, bless you brother.  Why we have to mindlessly follow the moron yanks into these unwinnable quagmires is beyond me, they are the worst soldiers on earth.

      Drug addicts, ill educated losers most of them who become brutes and savages in ten seconds flat.

      Another stat. people might like when we claim we are “helping the Afghan people” - our aid budget for the 500,000 people of Oruzgan we like to pretend our 1550 soldiers are “helping” was $1.6 million last year or $3.20 per annum per person for people living on $70 cents per day, which is why the death rate for under 5’s is 37% compared to 25% nationally.

      This year it went to a massive $20 million or $40 per annum per person, just about the level of 75 cents per week.  In the meantime they have spent $200 million building Curtin jail for 750 Afghans who have fled the war, $50 million for 200 women and kids in Leonora prison, $50 million for Shergar airbase upgrades to jail 100 Afghans, and now want to spend another $165 million rebuilding the Northam army base for a whole 1500 people on a temporary basis just so we can continue the pretence that it is a crime to ask for protection here.

      And we spend $2 billion per annum on soldiers and equipment to accomplish the massive death toll of under 5’s, the 81% illiteracy and not actually build a thing and then call it “foreign aid”.

      What a sick joke.

    • The Badger says:

      02:29pm | 06/11/10

      I think you meant the moron yank (Bush).
      I seriously don’t think that Australian troops are “Drug addicts, ill educated losers most of them who become brutes and savages in ten seconds flat.”
      Sounds like you are describing the Qld or WA Police force.

      PS - your financial information is very confusing. Are you sure you got those numbers right? ($70 cents) (1.6 million) and
      wtf is an under 5? a football league for kids?

    • FFS says:

      03:07am | 07/11/10

      Marilyn pretty much makes up figures, stats and situations in her head. The utter tripe that she comes out with is laughable. My guess would be that Marilyn is a first-year arts student running hard with the holier-than-thou kneejerk anti-American, anti-government, pro-everything-non-western, completely illogical, ridiculous and without a single basis of fact sentiment that seems to grab a lot of people who didn’t get enough attention as kids. Best just to laugh it off as the ramblings of a delusional twat with a higher shoe-size than IQ.


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