New Aussie PM Reassures Obama on Afghanistan

n this photo provided by Government House, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard smiles as she is sworn in by the Governor General at Government House in Canberra, Australia, Thursday, June 24, 2010.
Australia's new prime minister said she used her first telephone conversation with President Barack Obama on Friday to assure him the country's military commitment to Afghanistan would not change under her leadership.

Some observers have speculated Prime Minister Julia Gillard may push for an early withdrawal of Australia's 1,550 troops from Afghanistan as the war loses popularity among Australians and elections loom.

"I assured President Obama that my approach to Afghanistan will continue the approach taken to date by the Australian government," Gillard told reporters on Friday, less than 24 hours after she was sworn in as the country's first female prime minister.

Support for Status Quo

"I fully support the current deployment, and I indicated to President Obama that he should expect to see the Australian efforts in Afghanistan continuing," she added.

The White House said Obama "praised the special alliance between the United States and Australia, and the shared interests, values and bonds that underpin it" during their conversation.

"Both leaders underscored their shared commitment to closely work together on the broad range of global challenges confronting both countries, including in Afghanistan," the White House said.

Gillard was former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's deputy before she successfully challenged for the ruling Labor Party leadership Thursday. Rudd had been blamed for his center-left government's falling popularity with recent opinion polls showing Labor support swinging to the anti-war Australian Greens party.

Public support for the Afghan deployment has waned, as Australia's death toll from the war rose to 16 this week.

John Wanna, an Australian National University political scientist, said he suspected the government is tempted to announce a troop drawdown in Afghanistan ahead of elections later this year.

"A commitment to pull out of Afghanistan might bring some of the left back to the government," Wanna said. "Labor is bleeding votes out to the left, not to the right."

The government under Rudd this week announced its first rough timetable for an Australian withdrawal from Afghanistan, which could begin in 2012.

No Exit Date

But the government refuses to nominate an exit date, saying that that depends on future military progress.

Gillard said she planned to phone the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, Britain and Canada on Friday. She spoke to New Zealand's leader Thursday, she said.

Her deputy Wayne Swan, who has been Australia's treasurer since Rudd's government was first elected in 2007, flew to Canada on Friday in the place of the prime minister to represent Australia at a Group of 20 economies leaders' summit. Until Thursday, Rudd had been scheduled to make the trip.