Australia to offer military advisers to Pakistan

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia will offer military advisers to Pakistan to train security forces to fight Taliban and al Qaeda militants taking sanctuary there from neighboring Afghanistan, the government said on Wednesday.

Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon called for a bigger international effort, including more economic and military aid, to combat Taliban insurgents based in Pakistan’s largely lawless tribal border areas.

“We must arm the Pakistani army with the skills and means to conduct counter-insurgency campaigns and civil operations,” Fitzgibbon said in a speech, warning Pakistan must not become a breeding ground for al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah militants.

Fitzgibbon said this month he was “pessimistic” about the security situation in Afghanistan, where Australia has 1,080 troops. He said Pakistan must be secured for the U.S. and NATO-led war effort against Afghanistan insurgents to succeed.

“Despite their best efforts, and their heavy losses …, they are making only limited headway in dealing with the lawlessness in that particular region,” he told the National Press Club.

Southeast Asia-based militant group Jemaah Islamiah has been linked to a series of bombings in Indonesia, including blasts on the holiday island of Bali between 2002 and 2005 in which 92 Australians died.

A number of its leaders are believed to have been trained by al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Australia, a close U.S. ally, was an original member of the coalition that invaded the country to oust militants from their havens.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have deteriorated sharply in recent months as Kabul repeatedly accused Pakistani agents of secretly backing Taliban insurgents fighting Afghan and foreign troops.

Pakistan’s new civilian government has launched talks with militants in its tribal border region to defuse violence that has killed hundreds of Pakistanis in the past year.

But Afghan and NATO leaders say the talks have eased pressure on the militants, allowing them to send more insurgents into Afghanistan where attacks along the eastern border are up by about 40 percent this year.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting Australia last week, said Pakistan must lift its efforts to stop the flow of Taliban insurgents across the porous Afghan border.

Washington is preparing to bolster its 35,000 troops in Afghanistan with two extra combat brigades. Fitzgibbon said the Afghan army must be larger than its planned 80,000 strength to guarantee security.

Fitzgibbon said any assistance to Pakistan would have to come at the invitation of the country’s government and Australia planned to open talks on military and economic aid soon.

“I’m not talking about a deployment which requires force protection and sending people into the tribal areas. I may only be talking about military advisers in Islamabad,” he said.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, visiting the United States, said he sought to reassure President George W. Bush of his government’s commitment to secure the border.

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