Cmdr: Aussie troops keen but tired in Afghanistan

AP News
Posted: Jul 08, 2011 4:57 AM
Cmdr: Aussie troops keen but tired in Afghanistan

Australian special forces are showing signs of fatigue in Afghanistan but the elite regiments' high retention rates show that soldiers remain eager to fight the decade-old war, their commanders said Friday.

Lt. Col. Grant, whose family name was not released for operational security reasons, held a rare media briefing on Friday after recently returning from Afghanistan where he spent seven months commanding Australia's 300 elite troops from Commando and Special Air Service Regiments.

Criticisms were raised earlier this week that the special forces were being overworked when a 35-year-old commando was killed during his fifth tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Australia provides the largest special forces contingent in Afghanistan after the United States and Britain.

Grant, a veteran of three tours since 2001, said he monitored troops in Afghanistan closely to ensure optimal performance and had to rest them on several occasions when they tired.

"You do watch for signs of fatigue, you watch people to see if their tempers are fraying, you look around the camp and if it starts to become a little bit untidy around the edges, you start to get a sense that the guys are starting to get a little bit tired," Grant said.

Operations were then halted for 48 hours.

"To be honest, once the guys have had a couple of days' rest, they're raring to go." he added.

Maj. Gen. Gus Gilmore, national commander of Australian special forces who like Grant first fought in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, said his most important responsibility was managing fatigue and battle readiness. He said there was no limit on how many tours of Afghanistan a soldier could serve, and that one Special Air Service soldier had done eight tours.

"I'm not seeing any indicators or warnings that it's a significant problem," Gilmore said of battle fatigue.

Indicators would include soldiers transferring out of elite regiments or taking extended leaves from service, he said.

"Our retention is actually amazingly good," Gilmore said, without giving a figure.

Australian special forces tours of duty range from a month to a year, with four months considered optimum in heavy combat roles.

Grant said Australian special forces based in Uruzgan province patrolled for 170 days in the past six months, coming under fire from insurgents armed with rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

They captured three Taliban leaders during the winter and 20 in the spring, he said.

Australians launched 80 operations in 100 days during the winter targeting Taliban supply and command outposts, seized 50 munitions caches and enough bomb-making materials to build 150 explosive devices, he said.

The Australian Defense Association, a respected security think tank, says Australia's special forces are over-stretched. Twenty-eight Australian soldiers have died in Afghanistan and 180 have been wounded.

The special forces are part of a 1,550-member Australian military contingent which is focused on training an Afghan National Army brigade to take security responsibility for Uruzgan. Australia is the 10th largest military contributor to Afghanistan and the largest outside NATO.

The government says Australia is on track to withdraw troops in 2014.