Australian troops leaving Afghanistan early

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced on April 17 that most of her nation's troops will return by the end of 2013, one year ahead of their scheduled departure. Now numbering 1,500 troops, Australia's contingent among the allied forces in Afghanistan is the largest provided by any non-NATO country.

Aussie troops have been mainly engaged in training an Afghan National Army brigade to take responsibility for security in Oruzgan Province in the Central Asian country. Some 32 Austrailian troops have lost their lives in the Afghan conflict, while 100 more have been wounded. Public pressure in Australia to bring the Diggers home has steadily increased.

The announcement comes just two days after the Taliban launched a series of attacks across Afghanistan. The U.S. embassy in Kabul was hit by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades in what the Pentagon admitted was a failure of military intelligence. Pentagon spokesmen have averred that 'gaps' in intelligence must be plugged.

According to RFE/RL, Australian PM Gillard said she would present the plan for the troop withdrawal to a NATO summit in Chicago next month.  "I'm now confident Chicago will recognize mid-2013 as a key milestone in the international strategy. A crucial point when the international forces will be able to move to a supporting role across all of Afghanistan," Gillard said. The prime minister said the troops would start pulling out of Afghanistan as soon as Afghan President Hamid Karzai declares Afghans can take responsibility of Oruzgan Province, where most Australian forces are based.

12-18-Month Withdrawal

Gillard said Karzai is expected to make the announcement "in the coming months," and once he does, the withdrawal should take 12 to 18 months to complete. "I also expect President Karzai to make an announcement on transition in Oruzgan and other provinces in the coming months, including which areas of Oruzgan will begin the process first," Gillard said. "Once started, this should take 12 to 18 months, and when this is complete, Australia's commitment in Afghanistan will look very different to that we have today."

Gillard said Australia stands ready to provide training to Afghan security forces after international combat forces complete their withdrawal in 2014. The prime minister said she and Karzai will sign a partnership agreement at a meeting of NATO nations' leaders in Chicago in May 2012. Gillard's announcement means most Australian troops are likely to be home before parliamentary elections due by the end of 2013, but the prime minister denied it was a political decision. Nonetheless, current polling shows that Gillard's Labour Party is flagging in popularity.

- from RFE/RL and agencies.



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