Australia may start Afghanistan pullout in 2 years
CANBERRA, Australia — Australia may start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in two years if its mission to train Afghan soldiers goes as planned, the defense minister said today.
The timetable, while loose, was the most detailed yet given by Canberra for bringing troops home from an almost nine-year-old war that is increasingly unpopular among Australians. And it added pressure on a U.S. administration struggling to show progress against a stubborn insurgency, while losing key allies along the way.
Most of Australia's 1,550 troops in Afghanistan are in Uruzgan, a southern province with a significant Taliban presence, where they are training an Afghan National Army brigade to take over security and stability.
The mission had been expected to take between three to five years. Defense Minister John Faulkner shortened that Wednesday, saying the latest advice from defense chiefs is it could be completed between two and four years.
"What that means is that at some time in that two-year to four-year timeframe we would see our training mission transition to an over-watch role, and that would obviously mean ... we would start to see a reduction in the number of troops in Afghanistan," Faulkner told reporters.
Faulkner's comments marked the first time an Australian official has offered a possible timetable on plans to begin pulling forces out of the war-torn country.
Neil James, executive director of the independent security think tank Australian Defense Association, described the announcement as significant.
"They're no longer talking about restoring security to the province. They're saying, 'once we've trained up the Afghans, that's it,'" James said.
Polls show public support for Australia's military involvement in Afghanistan is waning, raising pressure on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to find an exit.
That pressure was underscored by the deaths of five Australian soldiers in the past two weeks in Afghanistan, for a total of 16 since the war began in 2001 — the country's worst record of military deaths abroad since Vietnam.
Other U.S. allies have even firmer plans to leave Afghanistan — the Netherlands is pulling out its 1,600 troops in August, and Canada plans to withdraw its 2,800 troops next year. Poland wants to scale back its 2,600 forces starting next year.
Britain's new government is reviewing its Afghanistan strategy, though Washington's staunchest ally says no reduction in troop numbers is being considered anytime soon.
Faulkner also said a U.S.-led multinational force will replace the Dutch troops in Uruzgan, where they have a leadership role.
Observers had said Australia was well placed to increase its own troops and take over from the Dutch, but the Australian government ruled out sending more soldiers.
Faulkner sidestepped questions on the controversy enveloping the Afghanistan war commander, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, over disparaging comments he made about President Barack Obama and his top aides.
Obama has summoned McChrystal to Washington for a rebuke.
"I do believe that is matter for Gen. McChrystal and the U.S. administration, but ... I note that he acknowledged he shouldn't have said what he did say ... He's apologized for his error of judgment," Faulkner said.
In a similar vein, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said McCrystal's comments were an issue for Washington and made no difference to his country's commitment to Afghanistan. New Zealand has about 140 troops there.