CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia will start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan this year and expects all international forces there to be playing a supporting role for Afghan forces by mid-2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said on Tuesday.
Gillard will take her timetable for Australia’s troop withdraw a year earlier than planned to a NATO conference on Afghanistan in Chicago in May.
“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.
“A crucial point when the international forces will be able to move to a supporting role across all of Afghanistan.”
All foreign combat troops are due to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and Australia had been expected to withdraw then too.
U.S. President Barack Obama and other NATO leaders are expected to define more clearly Western withdrawal plans at the Chicago conference and outline measures to ensure Afghanistan does not collapse into civil war when foreign troops go home.
Gillard rejected suggestions the faster timetable was being driven by Obama and his desire to have withdrawal plans finalized before the November U.S. presidential election, saying it was reliant on progress agreed by Afghan and international forces.
A major assault in Kabul by the Taliban this week has raised questions about whether Afghan forces will be able to control security after foreign troops withdraw.
A spokesman for NATO’s Afghan force said its members were drawing up plans for handing over responsibility for security to Afghan forces and Gillard’s announcement would be taken into account.
“We are at the stage where all nations are discussing their plans and their role in transition,” the spokesman, Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, told Reuters.
“This will be carefully orchestrated with the government of Australia,” Jacobson said. “This is nothing that is in any way out of what we are all doing.”
U.S. forces number about 90,000 of the 130,000-strong NATO-led force. France has 3,600 troops in Afghanistan and Britain 9,500. Australia has about 1,550.
Jacobson said 2013 would be decisive for Afghanistan’s transition and the aim was for Afghan forces to take over responsibility for security for the entire country by the end of that year.
Gillard said she expected President Hamid Karzai to make an announcement on the transition in the coming months, and that it would take twelve to eighteen months to complete the pull-out.
Australia would argue at the Chicago summit for broad and substantial international support in Afghanistan, Gillard said.
“I will go to Chicago prepared for Australia to pay our fair share. Australia will also be prepared to provide niche training to the Afghan national security forces after 2014,” she said.
More than 10 years after the Taliban government was toppled following the September 11 attacks in 2001, the U.S. administration appears settled on a steady withdrawal of most of its troops by the end of 2014, leaving only a small U.S. force to advise Afghan forces and conduct targeted strikes against militants.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is facing a difficult re-election campaign, has announced he would pull French troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013.
With 32 Australian soldiers killed and hundreds wounded, the Australian government is under mounting pressure to withdraw troops, and faces an expected election next year which Gillard is forecast to lose.
Additional reporting by Jack Kimball in KABUL; Editing by Michael Perry and Robert Birsel