Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced on Tuesday April 17th that troops will begin to leave Afghanistan this year, a year earlier than planned. Under the new schedule, Australia’s troops would be home before the end of 2013, and possibly before the country’s federal elections next year, which must be held by Nov. 30.
In a keynote speech shortly after a wave of coordinated Taliban attacks in Afghanistan left 51 people dead, Ms. Gillard said that the withdrawal would begin as soon as President Hamid Karzai declared that Afghanistan’s forces were capable of taking over responsibility for security in Oruzgan Province, where most of Australia’s 1,550 troops are stationed. Karzai is expected to make the announcement "in the coming months." Once the transition is underway, Ms. Gillard estimates that the process will take 12 to 18 months.
The Australian military has the largest contingent of any non-NATO member fighting in Afghanistan. At least 32 Australian soldiers have been killed and 219 wounded in Afghanistan since 2001, and in recent years the war has become increasingly unpopular with the Australian public.
Ms. Gillard insists that the decision to withdraw early was not a political decision but based on Australia’s assessment of the growing capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces; “the Afghan National Army’s 4th Brigade is increasingly capable of planning and conducting operations on its own and the Afghan security presence across the province is expanding.” However given the wide opposition to the war in Australia, the upcoming elections, and the fact that Ms. Gillard is struggling in the polls – it is unlikely that domestic political considerations did not play a role in the decision. Ms. Gillard has nonetheless robustly defended the war against critics, insisting that participating in the conflict has been in the country’s interest.
The new withdrawal timetable will be formally presented to a NATO summit in Chicago next month; Ms. Gillard says that she is “confident that Chicago will recognize mid-2013 as a key milestone in the international strategy, a crucial point when the international forces will be able to move to a supporting role across all of Afghanistan.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has insisted that Australia’s announcement was "fully within the framework" of a transition roadmap agreed by NATO and its partners in Afghanistan. "All 50 allies and partners within the ISAF coalition have committed themselves to the basic principle of, ‘in together, out together.’ And I know that the Australians are committed to that principle as well," Rasmussen said. But German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere on the other hand said he was "surprised" by Gillard’s announcement. He said that his Australian counterpart had declared "something different" during alliance talks in February.
Another major contributor in Afghanistan, France, may also review its own pullout. President Nicolas Sarkozy announced earlier this year that French troops would switch from a combat to a support role in 2013 and Socialist candidate Francois Hollande, who is leading polls to defeat Sarkozy in the upcoming two-round election, has said he wants to bring troops home by the end of this year. Critics have denounced early withdrawal plans including NATO’s 2014 deadline saying that Afghan forces will not be able to ensure security by then.
The Afghan response to the attacks of April 15th in Kabul, allegedly by the Haqqani network, suggests that the Afghan forces may not be as inept and incapable of taking over as critics claim. With little NATO muscle, the Afghan forces pinned the attackers down and stormed the holdouts. There was a swell of Afghan national pride with the release of footage showing brave, bloodied commandos protecting the nation’s people. What the attacks also highlighted according to NATO commanders is the need to turn attention away from Kandahar and Helmland and towards disrupting the Haqqani network’s supply and infiltration routes in the eastern provinces.
Kristina Olney is a dual U.S.-Australia citizen who returned to the States in 2009 as a fellow of the John Jay Institute for Faith, Society, and Law. After completing an internship on the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2009, Kristina worked for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom for two years and is now a subcontrator for McKinsey & Company.