Australia has announced it will start pulling out troops from Afghanistan this year, with most soldiers scheduled to be withdrawn by 2013. Australia had been expected to remain in the war-torn nation a year longer.
Australia is to withdraw troops from Afghanistan a year earlier than planned, Prime Minister Julia Gillard declared on Tuesday.
Speaking ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago focusing on Afghanistan next month, Gillard said Australia would begin pulling out troops this year, with most soldiers withdrawn by the end of 2013.
With the exception of France, which has also pledged to withdraw its forces by 2013, most foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Despite this internationally recognized deadline, Gillard said she expected troops to hand over responsibility to Afghan forces a year earlier.
"I am now confident that Chicago will recognize mid-2013 as a key milestone in the international strategy," Gillard said in a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, calling it "a crucial point when the international forces will be able to move to a supporting role across all of Afghanistan."
Gillard under pressure
Australia has some 1,550 troops stationed, primarily in Uruzgan province, and has lost some 32 soldiers in the conflict. With many Australians against the deployment to Afghanistan, the government has come under mounting pressure to withdraw troops ahead of an expected election this year.
Western withdrawal plans are expected to be further defined at the Chicago conference in May. NATO leaders must also outline measures to ensure that Afghanistan does not collapse into civil war once international troops have left.
Concerns over Afghan forces' ability to control security were heightened this week after eight security force members and three civilians were killed in a major Taliban assault.
ccp/acb (Reuters, AFP, dpa)