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US backs Australia's Afghan mission resolve

AVARUA -- U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Friday said she was gratified by Australia's resolve to see its Afghan mission through, as the nation's worst combat losses since Vietnam prompted questions about the war.

Australia suffered its worst day in the long-running conflict this week, when three troops were shot dead by a rogue Afghan soldier and two commandos died in a helicopter crash hours later.

Clinton, visiting the Cook Islands after a Pacific island summit, said she telephoned Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to express her condolences over the deaths.

“I am gratified that despite the challenges we have all had, including the losses that we have suffered at the hands of insurgents and turncoats, we are all resolved to see this mission through,” Clinton told reporters after talks with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

Clinton said Afghanistan had made “impressive” progress in some areas, including health and infrastructure, since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001.

“We cannot afford to see Afghanistan turn back into a haven for terrorism that threatens us all,” Clinton said.

Australia, a key ally of the U.S., has said it is committed to remaining in its base in Uruzgan where it has some 1,550 troops until it can hand over security to local forces, likely in late 2013.

Gillard said Friday that Canberra had entered the war, which is backed by both the center-left Labor government and the conservative opposition, because it was in the nation's interest to prevent it from becoming a terrorist haven.

“We went because we had seen a terrorist attack, which did take the lives of a number of Australians,” Gillard said, referring to the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

She said she could not countenance leaving before the mission was complete.

“If we left now we would leave a security vacuum (in) Uruzgan province and then more broadly across Afghanistan,” she said.

Australia has so far lost 38 soldiers in the war, and the climbing toll has prompted conservative MP Mal Washer to publicly question Canberra's involvement.

“We've got to question, when we lose five good men and have two great men wounded there, why are we still there? And what's the reason?” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“Well, the reason's obvious and transparent — we're there to appease the Americans, and it's part of our closeness to America, but beyond that there's no other reason I think of to rationally be there.

“Afghanistan's hardly a threat to the security of Australia.”

Asked whether he felt like he had blood on his hands, Washer said: “Certainly, I feel like it's on my hands and that's why I speak out against this. This is utter stupidity.”

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