CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia is sending special forces commandos back to Afghanistan to hunt down the leaders of the resurgent Taliban as part of a doubling of Australia’s troop numbers there, Prime Minister John Howard said on Tuesday.
The deployment of 300 special forces troops to the southeast of Afghanistan, near the heart of the Taliban rebellion, is part of an increased effort needed to win the war in Afghanistan, Howard told a media conference.
“We have done this against the background of a deterioration in the security environment in southern Afghanistan,” Howard said.
Australia will also send air force radar crews to Kandahar, extra logistics and intelligence officers, and extend the deployment of a team providing protection and security, Howard said, taking Australia’s deployment to about 950 by the middle of this year and growing to more than 1,000 by the middle of 2008.
Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the Australian Defence Force Commander, said the special forces would hunt Taliban commanders.
“Essentially their operations will be targeted on the Taliban, disrupting Taliban operations and going after the Taliban leadership,” Houston told reporters.
Australia withdrew its special forces from Afghanistan in September last year, but kept about 500 troops, including engineers and tradesmen, to help with reconstruction work in Uruzgan province.
Over the past month, NATO and Afghan troops have been engaged in a major offensive in the southern Helmand province, the opium heartland of Afghanistan, the world’s biggest producer.
Last year saw the bloodiest fighting by Taliban insurgents since they were ousted from power in 2001. Britain and the United States have already committed more troops to the country.
The new Australian deployment came after Howard last month held talks with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and NATO commanders in Kabul.
Australia, a close U.S. ally, was one of the first nations to commit troops in late 2001 to the U.S. led war to oust the Taliban and al Qaeda militants from Afghanistan, and also has about 1,500 troops in and around Iraq.
When last deployed in Afghanistan, Australia’s special forces were sent on clandestine missions in small teams to penetrate deep in to the Taliban heartland, spending weeks at a time away from their base.
They were involved in heavy fighting and 11 Australians were injured, although none of the injuries were serious and none were killed.