Australia has announced that its troops will be withdraw from Afghanistan nearly a year ahead of a previously scheduled 2014 withdrawal date.
Julia Gillard, the Australian prime minister, said on Tuesday that most of 1,550 remaining Australian troops in Afghanistan were expected to return home by the end of 2013.
That timetable would see the largest force provided by any nation outside of the NATO alliance leave the country a year ahead of the proposed December 2014 withdrawal date for all international forces.
Australian forces had mainly been stationed in the central Uruzgan province, where they trained an Afghan national army brigade to take responsibility for security in the province.
“This is a war with a purpose. This is a war with an end,” Gillard said
in a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
“We have a strategy, a mission and a timeframe for achieving it.”
The deaths of Osama bin Laden and many of al Qaeda’s senior officials, along with general improvements in security were cited as reasons for the accelerated withdrawal.
Gillard has said that she will take the proposed timetable to a NATO summit on Chicago on May 20 where she is also expected to sign a partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Citing mid-2013 as a milestone period for the international presence in Afghanistan, Gillard also said that she expected the Afghan President Hamid Karzai to make an announcement on transition in Uruzgan and other provinces in the coming months.
Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting live from Kabul, says Gillard is “just pre-empting Hamid Karzai” in his statement about which regions of the nation will be handed over to Afghan security forces.
The prime minister said she expected the handover of the central province to Afghan forces to take 12 to 18 months, at which point, the Australian presence in Afghanistan “will look very different to that which we have today”.
“We will have completed our training and mentoring mission. … And the majority of our troops will have returned home”, Gillard said.
Our correspondent said that though “it’s theoretically possible that those Australian troops could have been deployed elsewhere to help the NATO efforts”, the 1,500-strong Australian forces will largely see their job as complete once control of Uruzgan has been handed over to Afghan forces.
Australia would consider keeping some Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan beyond 2014 and help fund the ongoing costs of Afghan security forces, Gillard said.
“Australia has an enduring national interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists,” Gillard said.
Opinion polls in Australia have shown falling levels of support for the country’s presence in Afghanistan where 32 Australian soldiers have died since a US-led invasion to overthrow the Taliban in 2001.
Some within the political opposition suggested the early withdrawal was an attempt by Gillard to boost support for her unpopular Labor Party.
“It would be a shameful thing if, after nearly 12 years of deployment in Afghanistan and the loss of more than 30 Australian lives, this mission was foreshortened for reasons of domestic political convenience for the Labor Party rather than on the basis of the advice of the military commanders in the field,” opposition Senator George Brandis told Sky News ahead of Tuesday’s announcement.
But opposition leader Tony Abbott signaled support for the early withdrawal, telling reporters in Melbourne he had no reason to believe “it shouldn’t be possible to finish the job sooner rather than later”.
Referencing the deaths of Australian soldiers, Abbott said, “We want to make sure that sacrifice has been worthwhile and that will happen if our troops come home soon with their mission accomplished”.