SYDNEY — Australia said Aug. 31 it would complete its mission in Afghanistan despite suffering its deadliest day in combat since the Vietnam War and the prospect of further deaths caused by rogue soldiers.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith said the “terrible combination” of three troops being shot dead by an Afghan colleague and two others dying in a helicopter crash within 24 hours was the worst scenario he had seen in the job.
“It doesn’t do anything to my resolve to stay the course, because staying the course is absolutely the right thing to do,” Smith told reporters.
“We can’t stay in Afghanistan forever, we don’t want to stay in Afghanistan forever, and equally it would be wrong to leave prematurely or to leave tomorrow as some people suggest.”
Smith said an immediate withdrawal would “increase the risks,” compared to the planned gradual transition in which Afghan forces will take control of security in Uruzgan province from the Australians by late 2013.
“We would increase the prospect of Afghanistan again returning to a breeding ground for international terrorism,” he said.
Late on Aug. 29, three Australian troops were shot dead at close range by an Afghan soldier inside a patrol base near Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan, where some 1,500 Australians are deployed.
In the second incident, two Australian special forces soldiers were killed when their helicopter crashed in Helmand province early Aug. 30.
NATO has struggled to counter the so-called “green-on-blue” attacks in which uniformed Afghans turn their weapons against their international allies.
This was the third such incident to target Australians.
Smith said the attacks eroded trust between the troops and led to extra precautions, such as the use of a “guardian angel” in which one armed foreign soldier is tasked with watching Afghan soldiers to prevent attacks.
But he also said there was no guarantee it would be the last insider shooting.
Officials named the rogue Afghan soldier as Sergeant Hekmatullah, who they said had spent five months training in Kandahar before being sent to Uruzgan in July. They said his motives were unknown.
“We are not yet aware of any relationship he has with the Taliban,” Australian Defence Force Chief Gen. David Hurley said, adding that his troops had now adopted “enhanced force protection measures”.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said events of the past 48 hours were shocking as she reminded Australians why they are involved in the decade-long war, which has cost 38 Australian lives.
“We went because we had seen a terrorist attack, which did take the lives of a number of Australians,” she said, referring to the 9/11 attacks on ally the United States that prompted a U.S.-led coalition to enter Afghanistan.
“We went to Afghanistan for our national interest.”