BRUSSELS — Australia vowed in an apparent U-turn Thursday to keep combat troops in Afghanistan through 2014 after Prime Minister Julia Gillard had indicated they would come home earlier than planned.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Defence Minister Stephen Smith made the pledge during talks with NATO counterparts to fine-tune the coalition’s plan to hand security control to Afghans over the next two years.
Progress in Uruzgan province, where most of Australia’s 1,550 troops are based, shows that transition of security control to Afghan forces “is achievable by the end of 2014 — possibly earlier”, Carr said.
“All of us, however, must continue to be present in support of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) and be combat ready to do so until transition is finally complete at the end of 2014,” he said.
Gillard indicated on Tuesday that most Australian soldiers would be withdrawn next year following significant security gains over the past 18 months.
Gillard said they would begin leaving as soon as Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared Afghans would take responsibility for Uruzgan province. Once he did, the withdrawal should take 12 to 18 months, she said.
While NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Australian announcement was within the agreed transition plan, German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Wednesday said he was “surprised”.
The alliance has been at pains to explain its transition strategy ever since US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta indicated in February that NATO hoped to switch to a backup role some time next year.
Since then, NATO officials have stressed that Afghan forces are expected to take the lead nationwide by the end of next year but that NATO troops would continue fighting the Taliban until the end of 2014.
Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said the Australian and American statements about the transition had been misunderstood.
“From our conversation with the high offifials from both countries I think that both statements were misinterpreted,” Wardak told reporters at the end of two days of NATO talks in Brussels.
“Australia reaffirmed they will stay in Afghanistan in 2014 and beyond,” he added.
In the statement to NATO partners, the Australian ministers said their government was ready to support the training and funding of Afghan security forces after 2014.
Gillard will outline her country’s contribution at a summit of NATO and Afghan coalition partners in Chicago next month, the statement said.
The bill to sustain the Afghan security forces after 2014 is estimated to cost $4.1 billion a year, with the United States paying around half and NATO nations the rest with the help of the international community.