CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Most Australian troops in Afghanistan will be home by the end of the year when the international military base at Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province closes, Defense Minister Stephen Smith said Tuesday.
At least 1,000 of the 1,550 Australian troops in Afghanistan will be withdrawn by the end of 2013, he said.
The decision by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force to draw down and close the base at Tarin Kowt was made after consultation with Australia and Afghan authorities and is in line with the timetable to transition to Afghan security forces full responsibility for the province by the end of the year, he said.
"This is the most significant decision and announcement that has been made so far as our withdrawal from Afghanistan is concerned, so far as our redeployment is concerned and so far as success of transition is occurring," Smith told reporters.
"If we were not confident that transition would occur in Uruzgan by the end of this year, then this decision would not have been made," he added.
Australia has the 10th largest national force in Afghanistan and is the largest military contributor outside NATO. Australia also has the largest number of special forces in the campaign after the United States and Britain.
While Australia's military involvement is supported by both the Australian government and opposition, its popularity among the Australian public has plummeted as the war has dragged on for 12 years. In that time, 39 Australian troops have died and another 249 have been wounded.
International forces have a deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, leaving Afghanistan responsible for its own security nationwide.
The Australian military's main focus in Afghanistan is to train an Afghan National Army brigade to take responsibility for security in the province.
Since November last year, all four infantry battalions, known in Afghanistan as kandaks, within the brigade had been operating independently without Australian advisers in the province. Australian troops no longer conduct joint patrols with Afghan units.
But Australian troops remain combat-ready and special forces continue to conduct combat operations with their Afghan counterparts against insurgents.
Australia operates two camps within Tarin Kowt: Camp Russell and Camp Holland.
Camp Russell is where Australia's special operations troops are based. Camp Holland is a larger area where the remainder of Australia's military and civilian personnel in Uruzgan are based as well as the Tarin Kowt headquarters.
Smith said planning had commenced to transfer all of Camp Russell and a portion of Camp Holland to the Afghan government by the end of 2013.
In 2014, small numbers of Australian troops will remain in Afghanistan training the Afghan military in Kabul and Kandahar.
Australian Defense Force Chief Lt. Gen. David Hurley said there were still decisions pending on the further use of Australian special forces in Afghanistan after 2014.