Australia could end combat and training operations in Afghanistan and withdraw most of its troops by the middle of next year, the Prime Minister Julia Gillard will announce shortly in a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The announcement brings forward the timetable for Australia’s withdrawal from the war-torn country, which was initially scheduled for the end of 2014.
The Prime Minister will take the new plan to a NATO summit in Chicago next month, where world leaders will recognise “mid-2013 as a key milestone in the international strategy”, Ms Gillard will say.
After Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, announces later this month that Afghan National Security Forces have taken responsibility for Oruzgan province - where most of Australia’s 1550 troops are based - the withdrawal process “should take twelve to eighteen months. And when this is complete, Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan will look very different to that we have today.
"We will have completed our training and mentoring mission with the 4th Brigade. We will no longer be conducting routine frontline operations with the Afghan National Security Forces.
"The Australian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team will have completed its work. And the majority of our troops will have returned home.”
The decision means Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan would be largely over by the next Federal election.
Australia would still be prepared to provide “niche training” to the Afghan National Security Forces, as well as ongoing financial support, Ms Gillard will say.
“And, finally, as I have stated previously, we are prepared to consider a limited Special Forces contribution - in the right circumstances and under the right mandate.”
Thirty-two Diggers have died in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. More are likely to die before Australia leaves the country, Ms Gillard will say.
“None of this is easy. There will be hard days ahead - there will be new days of grief.
"We did not enter this conflict lightly and we do not persist in it without great care. I know that the peoples of the world’s democracies are weary of war. This is as it should be.”
Ms Gillard will declare the counter-insurgency launched 2½ years ago by US President Barack Obama a success.
About half of Afghanistan’s 30 million people live in areas where the Afghan National Security Forces have begun taking lead.
“Bin Laden is dead. Most of al Qaeda’s senior leaders have been captured or killed. We have pushed al Qaeda’s remaining leaders to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.
"Their freedom of movement, and capacity to plan and execute terrorist operations from Afghan soil, have been significantly degraded.”