SYDNEY (AFP) — Australia's new government has warned NATO and its allies they will lose the war against hardline Taliban forces in Afghanistan unless they urgently change tactics, a report said Monday.
The country's new Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon issued the stark warning at a meeting in Edinburgh last week of eight nations engaged in the conflict, including the United States, The Australian newspaper said.
The coalition of NATO and allied forces engaged in the conflict since 2001 must overhaul military and civil programmes aimed at fostering stability in the troubled country if they are to win the conflict, he cautioned.
The minister's comments to the closed-door gathering were based on classified intelligence assessments prepared for the previous Australian government of John Howard which painted a bleak picture of the Afghan conflict.
"The previous government would have us believe that good progress is being made in Afghanistan. The reality is quite a different one," Fitzgibbon told The Australian after returning from the meeting in Britain.
"We are winning the battles and not the war, in my view. We have been very successful in clearing areas of the Taliban but it's having no real strategic effect," he said.
Fitzgibbon also told the meeting in Edinburgh, attended by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, that while NATO and its allies had been successfully "stomping on lots of ants, we have not been dealing with the ants' nest".
"We need much more than a military response," he said. "This is largely about winning the hearts and minds of the more moderate of the Taliban and other sections of the Afghan community," he said.
Fitzgibbon took office two weeks ago after the new centre-left government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was sworn in following its sweeping election victory against conservative Howard, whose government was closely allied to Washington.
Rudd was elected on promises to withdraw Australia's combat troops from Iraq but to continue the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where Canberra has around 900 troops.
In Edinburgh last week, Fitzgibbon expressed frustration that some NATO nations were failing to pull their weight in the fight against the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, where the once vanquished Taliban are resurgent.
"We have been frustrated about that for a long, long time," Fitzgibbon said in the Scottish capital, ruling out any increase in Australian troop numbers while some nations, which he did not name, were not pulling their weight.
"We believe there is a lack of coherent strategy and, of course, we are frustrated by the fact that some NATO nations, in our view, are not doing enough or making a sufficient contribution to the campaign."
Australia's troop contingent in Afghanistan mostly assist a Dutch-led reconstruction operation in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, a former Taliban stronghold.
Meanwhile Afghan police said Monday that security forces supported by international troops killed more than 20 Taliban insurgents during a hunt for rebel hideouts in southern Afghanistan.
Nearly 10 other militants were injured and four detained during the operation in southern Kandahar province's Zhirai district on Sunday, the Kandahar police chief, Sayed Agha Saqeb told AFP.
"We and the coalition had a joint operation against Taliban in that area. Yesterday (Sunday) we came in contact with the enemy and over 20 enemy were killed," the police commander said.
He was referring to the US-led coalition force which has over 15,000 troops based in Kandahar mainly helping local security forces hunting remnants of the Taliban who are waging a deadly insurgency.
A separate force of over 40,000 Western troops operates in Afghanistan under the command of the NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
It was not possible to verify the police chief's figure independently and officials from the Western military forces were not immediately available for comment.
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