Gillard to flag early exit

Chris Johnson April 17, 2012

Prime Minister Julia Gillard will today detail Australia's Afghanistan exit plan that could see control of Uruzgan handed over to local forces next year and hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into the country for training and development.

Her speech to an Australian Strategic Policy Institute luncheon in Canberra comes after Australia's former military commander in the Middle East, retired General John Cantwell, last night questioned whether the Afghanistan mission had been worth the loss of Australian soldiers' lives.

''The only way I can see through this, so that I can sleep at night, is to differentiate. To say it's not worth it for the lives that you lose,'' General Cantwell told the Four Corners program.

Ms Gillard's insistence that ''this is a war with a purpose'' also comes amid a flash of bloody violence in the Afghan capital, as the Taliban brazenly opened the ''fighting season'' in Kabul with a series of bombings.

Ms Gillard will say the renewed insurgent attacks in Kabul ''remind us that as the insurgency comes under greater sustained pressure in the field, the prospect of high-profile attacks aimed at disproportionate global public impact remains''.

But she will also stress the attacks were stopped by the Afghan security forces without direct support from International Security Assistance Forces, which was ''an encouraging sign for the future of the counter-insurgency and for the success of transition to Afghan security lead''.

The Prime Minister requested two weeks ago that she present a speech to ASPI today. She will stress that progress is being made in Afghanistan, that it ''is a war with an end''. But she will also warn ''there will be hard days ahead, there will be new days of grief''.

She will detail the argument she will be taking to next month's NATO summit in Chicago.

Her speech will emphasise the mid-2013 milestone recently set down by US President Barack Obama for the international strategy.

''A crucial point - when the international forces will be able to move to a supporting role across all of Afghanistan,'' Ms Gillard says.

It was previously planned for the military withdrawal to be complete by the end of 2014, but in November Ms Gillard hinted it could be earlier.

The Prime Minister will also flag an upcoming speech by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that will detail the areas of Uruzgan province where the transition to non-combat roles for Australia will begin by the end of this year.

''Once started, this should take 12 to 18 months. And when this is complete, Australia's commitment in Afghanistan will look very different to that we have today,'' she says.

''We will have completed our training and mentoring mission with the 4th Brigade. We will no longer be conducting routine frontline operations with the Afghan National Security Forces.

''The Australian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team will have completed its work and the majority of our troops will have returned home.''

But Ms Gillard insists that the international community must continue its support for the ANSF beyond the transition.

''To maintain full responsibility for security in Afghanistan after 2014, the Afghan National Security Forces will need the right support - including funding and training,'' she says.

''In Chicago I will be arguing strongly for broad and substantial international support and 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.''

The government has already showed a willingness to consider a limited Special Forces contribution to Afghanistan beyond 2014 if the circumstances require it. This would entail training and working alongside the ANSF conducting counter-terrorism operations.

Ms Gillard hopes to sign a comprehensive agreement with Mr Karzai at the Chicago summit formalising a long-term partnership between Australia and Afghanistan.

It is expected to provide hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade for development assistance to Afghanistan.

''Australia has a national interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists,'' Ms Gillard said.

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