CANBERRA, Australia – Prime Minister Julia Gillard opened Australia's first parliamentary debate on its nine-year military deployment in Afghanistan with optimism Tuesday that the U.S.-led coalition now has the right strategy to defeat the Afghan insurgency.
The three-day debate was unlikely to lead to any major policy change, because Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott both told parliament they were determined to stay the distance with the United States, Australia's most important military ally.
Gillard said Australia has two vital interests in Afghanistan: "to stand firmly by our alliance commitment to the United States" and to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists.
"I believe we now have the right strategy," she said. "The overarching goal of the new strategy is to enable transition" to Afghanis taking responsibility for their security, she added.
Abbott spoke after Gillard and echoed her major themes. He said pulling out of Afghanistan would tell the United States and Britain, another key ally, that Australia was an "unreliable ally and a fair weather friend."
Gillard succumbed to pressure from the anti-war Greens party by agreeing to the parliamentary debate on Australia's commitment of 1,550 troops to the conflict. Gillard relies on support from the Greens to rule since August elections gave no party a parliamentary majority.
It is the first such debate on the Afghan deployment and comes after fractures appeared in the national commitment to the war, its strategy and objectives. In Australia, the Cabinet commits the nation to war without any need to consult the parliament.
Australian soldiers are focusing on training an Afghan army battalion to take charge of security in southern Uruzgan province.
Gillard said while that mission could be completed within four years, "we will be engaged through this decade at least" with Afghanistan.
The debate was adjourned until Wednesday after Gillard and Abbott spoke. But a lawmaker in Abbott's Liberal Party, Mal Washer, and newly elected independent lawmaker, Andrew Wilkie, have announced that they agree with the Greens that Australian troops should be withdrawn.
Defense Minister Stephen Smith said the U.S.-led coalition had made a mistake in becoming distracted by the Iraq war and had taken too long to find the right strategy in Afghanistan. Smith's Labor Party was not in power when Australian supported the 2003 Iraq invasion.
A dozen members of a group representing veterans and former service personnel opposed to both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars demonstrated outside Parliament House before the debate began.
"In the history of Australia at war, this in an important day — a war is being reviewed," the group Stand Fast's spokesman Graeme Dunstan said.
Neil James, executive director of the independent security think tank Australian Defense Association, which argues for more Australian troops in Afghanistan, said he did not expect the parliamentary debate would result in any major policy shift.
"Our big hope is that the wider general public debate will become more informed," James said.
Australia is the largest contributor of troops of any country outside NATO. Opinion polls show that that Australian support of the war has slid as the Australian death toll has mounted to 21.