SYDNEY -- Australia expects to pull most of its troops out of Afghanistan nearly a year earlier than planned, the prime minister announced Tuesday, saying Australian soldiers have nearly completed their mission to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces in the decade-long war.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard cited security improvements and the death of Osama bin Laden and many of al-Qaida's senior leaders among the reasons behind the accelerated withdrawal, which will likely see most troops home by the end of 2013. But one opposition lawmaker suggested the strategy was an attempt by Gillard to win over war-weary voters ahead of federal elections.
"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."
Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan, the largest force provided by any country outside NATO. The soldiers' primary objective has been training an Afghan National Army brigade to take responsibility for security in Uruzgan province.
Australia had originally planned to withdraw its soldiers by the end of 2014, though Gillard had hinted at an early exit in November when she said the troops' mission could be finished before then. The U.S. plans to withdraw all of its combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Gillard said she expects Afghan President Hamid Karzai to announce in the next few months the transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces in Uruzgan and other provinces. Once that process starts, it will take 12 to 18 months to complete. Based on that timeframe, most of Australia's troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013.
Still, Gillard declined to give a specific date for the conclusion of the withdrawal, saying the start of the process is dependent upon Karzai's announcement.
"When this is complete, Australia's commitment in Afghanistan will look very different to that which we have today," Gillard said. "We will have completed our training and mentoring mission. ... And the majority of our troops will have returned home."
Australia will consider keeping some special forces soldiers in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and will help fund the ongoing costs of Afghan security forces, Gillard said. The prime minister said she and Karzai will sign a partnership agreement at a meeting of NATO nations' leaders in Chicago next month.
"Australia has an enduring national interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists," Gillard said.
Australia's military deployment in Afghanistan maintains bipartisan political support, but opinion polls show the popularity of the commitment among the Australian public has plummeted amid the rising the death toll. Thirty-two Australian soldiers have been killed in the conflict.
Australia's federal elections are due next year, and one of Gillard's political foes suggested the early withdrawal was an attempt by the prime minister 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 Gillard'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."
Citing the deaths of Australian soldiers in the conflict 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."
Police take their position alongside a giant picture of Afghan national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, on the roof of police headquarters in Kabul on May 7, 2012. The United States has freed up to 20 detainees from a military prison in Afghanistan over the past two years in an effort to promote reconciliation with insurgent groups, the US embassy said. (BAY ISMOYO/AFP/GettyImages)
An Afghan youth looks out from an intricately carved truck window at a police checkpoint in Kabul on May 7, 2012. Afghan forces are ready to take responsibility for security in 2013, the defence ministry said on May 7, reacting to a pledge to withdraw French troops early by president-elect Francois Hollande. Hollande made a campaign promise to pull French soldiers out of Afghanistan this year, ending his country's combat role two years earlier than NATO's carefully crafted plan to hand security control to Afghans by 2014. (SHAH MARAI/AFP/GettyImages)
|@ ISAFmedia : AP reports: Afghan Govt forces will thwart any attacks mounted by Taliban. http://t.co/qDEtWRsI #ANSFCanDo|
|@ headlinenews : Fox: What French presidential vote means for European debt crisis, Afghan war, global diplomacy: French voters c... http://t.co/E6fcgbiH|
U.S. servicemen inside of a plane before their departure to Afghanistan from the U.S. transit center Manas, 30 km outside the Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek, on March 27, 2012. A planned withdrawal of US and coalition forces by the end of 2014 hinges on building up Afghan army and police, but the surge in 'fratricidal' attacks threatens to undermine that strategy, with strained relations between NATO troops and Afghan forces marked by distrust and cultural clashes. (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/GettyImages)
An Afghan boy walks with his cow at sunset in Mazar-i Sharif, capital of the Balkh province on April 9, 2012. Agriculture has traditionally driven the Central Asian nation's economy, with wheat and cereal production being mainstays and quality fruits, especially pomegranates, apricots, grapes, melons, and mullberries being exported to many countries. (QAIS USYAN/AFP/GettyImages)
|@ JoeNBC : Looking Ahead to the Afghan War's Next Decade - Global - The Atlantic Wire: http://t.co/CWSrDjih|
Gazing glumly over millions of dollars worth of machinery which used to churn out thousands of police and army boots each day but now sits wreathed in plastic sheeting, Farhad Saffi fears he is seeing the death of an Afghan dream.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks during a press conference at the presidential palace in Kabul on May 3, 2012. Karzai hailed a new pact with the United States but warned that tough negotiations on Washington's military presence in his war-torn country after 2014 still lay ahead. (BAY ISMOYO/AFP/GettyImages)
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of the ISAF forces in Afghanistan, explains to Al Jazeera English why the handover in the turbulent country is "like building an airplane in midflight."
|@ cbrangel : As we begin our withdrawal from Afghanistan, we honor the 1,828 heroic Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice.http://1.usa.gov/IywJn3|