End in sight for Australia's Uruzgan command role

Soldiers on patrol in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan.
Soldiers on patrol in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan.

Australia will formally hand over responsibility for security in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province - where most diggers are based - to the Afghan military by the end of this year, Defence Minister Stephen Smith has said.

The announcement nails down what has previously been a more rubbery date, and marks when Australia's role as head of the Combined Team Uruzgan, or CTU, will come to an end, meaning its job in that region is formally over.

Speaking in Perth ahead of talks with British officials - at which the withdrawal from Afghanistan will be high on the agenda - Mr Smith also played down reports that the US plans to leave few or even no troops in Afghanistan for the longer term.

Many nations including Australia and the NATO countries have pledged to keep some longer-term presence in the country beyond the end of 2014, when the bulk of coalition troops will be pulled out.

The Washington Post reported last week that some officials within Barack Obama's administration were pushing for only a few thousand American troops to remain - far fewer than the 10,000 or more previously discussed.

The report noted that the White House had not ruled out leaving no troops at all behind.

Mr Smith reiterated Australia's plan to leave some soldiers beyond 2014 for high-level training and special forces for possible counter-terrorism operations, and made it clear he expected the US to contribute a substantial force.

''I'm proeeding on the basis that there will continue to be a US presence in Afghanistan after 2014, and Australia is prepared to play its part in that. I'm certainly not envisaging that Australia will be there by ourselves or on our lonesome.''

The so-called ''transition'' in Afghanistan is very much a phased process. Australian troops have already largely withdrawn from patrol bases and forward operating bases, pulling back to the main base outside Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan's main town.

But they remain ultimately responsible for Uruzgan's security until they formally hand over to the Afghans. Mr Smith now says that happen by the end of the year. Previously he had said it might not happen until early 2014.

Many Australian troops will stay throughout 2014 to carry out the long and difficult process of dismantling bases and sending equipment home.

The coalition partners under the International Security Assistance Force will discuss over the next 18 months what shape the force remaining after 2014 will take.

Mr Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed at the weekend that Afghan forces would take the lead in many provinces - bringing those into line with what has already happened in Uruzgan - around the northern Spring of this year, several months earlier than previously stated.

Mr Smith and Foreign Minister Bob Carr will meet with British counterparts, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and Foreign Secretary William Hague for the annual AUKMIN talks in Perth on Friday.

This story End in sight for Australia's Uruzgan command role first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.