BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Australia pulled back on Thursday from its announcement that it wanted to withdraw early from Afghanistan, saying it would stick to its original commitment to keep combat troops there through the end of 2014.
Australia’s foreign and defense ministers said in a statement that the country was committed to seeing through a transition plan agreed by NATO allies in Lisbon in 2010, which calls for most foreign troops to pull out by the end of 2014 and hand over responsibility over security to the Afghan government.
In a surprise announcement two days after a major assault in Kabul by the Taliban, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Tuesday that Australia would start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan this year and expected all international forces there to be playing a supporting role for Afghan forces by mid-2013.
Australia has about 1,550 troops in the country, and has lost 32.
“Australia is committed to seeing through our mission in support of transition - as set out in the Lisbon strategy - and to providing support to Afghanistan beyond 2014,” Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr and Minister for Defence Stephen Smith said in the statement issued during a meeting of NATO allies and partners in Brussels.
“All of us ... must continue to be present in support of the (Afghan security forces) and be combat ready to do so until transition is finally complete at the end of 2014,” they said.
They were attending a meeting of ministers from members of NATO and other countries contributing to the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF).
The meeting aims to prepare the ground for a summit of the 28-member NATO alliance in Chicago on May 20-21, which will seek to clearly define Western withdrawal plans and outline measures to ensure Afghanistan does not collapse into civil war when foreign troops go home.
The Australian ministers also said transition in Afghanistan was successful so far and could be completed as planned.
“Australia believes ISAF transition is working,” they said. “(It) is achievable by the end of 2014 - possibly earlier.”
In Brussels, Britain has so far been the only country to publicly pledge an actual amount of cash for post-2014, though a number of other countries have said they would provide significant financial contributions.
The Australian ministers said they would soon decide on a contribution, including financial, beyond 2014.
Reporting By Sebastian Moffett; Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Alessandra Rizzo