Afghan militia fighters were secretly flown to Australia to train with its special forces in a contentious new strategy against the Taliban insurgency, Australia's defense chief confirmed Friday.
Six fighters allied to influential warlord Matiullah Khan trained last week at Australian bases to strengthen military operations against the Taliban, said Air Marshall Angus Houston, the head of the Australian Defense Force. The training was first reported by The Sydney Morning Herald.
Houston told reporters that the militiamen would be "fighting side by side with our special forces when we do the next deployment."
The Australian officers are to be deployed to Afghanistan, where Australia has 1,550 troops based in the southern province of Uruzgan.
"If we want to get our act together so that we have an absolutely seamless operation, it is absolutely imperative that we train with the people we are going to be fighting side by side with," he added.
The newspaper reported that the Afghan fighters were shown combat training displays at bases in South Australia state and on Sydney's outskirts. The Defense Department has not disclosed further details.
U.S. and NATO troops often pay local warlords in some areas of Afghanistan to ensure safe passage for their supply convoys.
Paul Maley, director of the Australian National University's Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, warned that Khan was a questionable ally whose men had been accused of extortion at road blocks in Uruzgan and of simulating Taliban activities to justify their own security role in the province.
Maley also warned that U.S.-led forces' emphasis on Khan's tribe already had alienated other tribes in the province.
"For all the friends that one might make by cuddling up to the likes of Matiullah, one may at the same time be acquiring additional enemies," Maley told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
"Very often it's all too easy to be seduced by the charms or the apparent skills of a particular tribal actor without properly absorbing the extent to which this then reshapes the wider environment in which one is working in an undesirable direction," he added.
Retired Maj. Gen. Jim Molan, an Australian who was the U.S.-led international forces' chief of operations in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, said training with Khan's militia was a calculated risk.
"It's not confirmed that they're worse than the Taliban and if you can do a greater good, then I think morally you've got to take a risk," Molan told ABC.
Neil James, executive director of the independent security think tank Australian Defense Association, said be believed the Afghans were the first militia to train in Australia and he approved of this new step in relations with Khan.
"He's the most powerful figure outside the government in the province; I suspect its a case that they don't really have much choice" but to work with Khan's fighters, James said. "Hey, this is a war, and sometimes interesting compromises have to be made."