Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan will be “defined and finite”, with the government laying the groundwork to announce a timetable for the partial withdrawal of troops.
The government is making it increasingly clear the mission for Australia’s trainers in Afghanistan – who make up about half of the 1550-strong commitment – will be completed once troops have fully trained the 4th brigade of the Afghan National Army in Oruzgan province.
And Defence Minister John Faulkner has signalled an imminent announcement on how long that training mission may take.
Public support for the war is on the wane, and it is likely to continue to fall following the deaths of three commandos in a helicopter crash on Monday.
The latest accident – just a fortnight after two soldiers died in a roadside bomb blast – takes to 16 the number of diggers who have died in Afghanistan since Australia committed to the war in 2001.
The government now appears to be getting ready to put in place a timetable for the withdrawal of the trainers in the face of growing Australian frustration about the war.
Both the government and the coalition support the commitment in Afghanistan, though Labor has repeatedly stressed the current force of around 1550 is appropriate while the coalition has flagged it could be boosted.
With the government taking a pounding in the opinion polls, MPs may be worried about how the unpopular war is playing out in the community.
A poll by Essential Research showed 61 per cent of respondents wanted Australia to withdraw from Afghanistan – and that opinion was evenly split between coalition and Labor voters.
Mr Rudd assured caucus on Tuesday that Australia’s mission was clearly defined – the training of the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army. We have a “defined and finite role” in Afghanistan, he told them.
Senator Faulkner has indicated he will put forward an expert assessment of a timetable for the completion of training in the near future – it could come when he makes a ministerial statement on Afghanistan this week.
He had been due to make the announcement on Tuesday but delayed it due to the deaths of the commandos.
“I … intend to make some announcements soon about what the best professional assessments we have from the ADF (Australian Defence Force) and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) about the timeframe involved in completing that training mission will be,” Senator Faulkner told ABC radio.
“We are certainly making progress in that regard and, as we achieve that, we obviously want to see, and will see, a conditions-based transition to Afghan National security forces so they can take responsibility for security and stability in their own country.”