As the U.S. and its allies refine plans to reduce their troop levels in Afghanistan and turn combat operations over to Afghans, Australia has announced that it will pull most of its forces out next year.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the move Tuesday, under which most of Australia’s 1,550 troops are likely to be back home by the end of 2013.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization plans to finish the transfer to Afghan control by the end of 2014. U.S. officials announced in February that Afghans would take over the lead combat role next year, and that American troops would shift their focus to training and advising the Afghans.
That February announcement came just a week after French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would remove all of his country’s combat troops next year, a year earlier than planned. Sarkozy’s leading challenger in his reelection bid, Francois Hollande, has pledged to pull troops out even faster.
U.S. officials downplayed the significance of Australia’s actions. But public support for the war is falling in many countries, and in recent months U.S. officials have sought ways of heading off a push by allies to go home.
Australia has far fewer troops on the ground than other powers -- the U.S. has about 90,000 and Britain about 9,500. But experts say its action could threaten the political cover that has allowed countries to commit troops to an increasingly unpopular mission.
“Every little crack in this dike creates a danger of the whole thing bursting,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If individual nations start defecting, the public in all these countries are going to say, ‘If these guys can do it, we can too.’”
Fifty countries are involved in the coalition in Afghanistan, though some have only a handful of soldiers and others have pulled out combat forces completely. Canada bowed out last summer. Dutch troops left in 2010. Britain is under domestic pressure to reduce its troop presence. Even Ireland, with only seven soldiers there, has faced calls to get out.
Germany, which has the third-largest force among the allies, has suggested it may take more time, not less, to finish the job. During a trip to Afghanistan last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wasn’t sure whether Germany would be able to pull out by 2014, implying that it might take longer.
Several other countries still have sizable forces on the ground: Nearly 4,000 Italian troops and roughly 2,500 Polish forces were committed to the Afghan mission as of January, according to the International Security Assistance Force. Close behind are Romania and Turkey, each with more than 1,800.
Poland, whose president has complained about the costs of the Afghan mission in the past, has pledged to keep forces there through 2014, the news agency Agence France-Presse reported last month. Romanian media recently reported forces would stay through the first half of 2013 before handing off responsibility to Afghans.
The number of U.S. troops, which peaked at about 100,000, will drop to 68,000 this year. Though President Obama has insisted that a “robust” U.S. force will remain through the end of the year, what happens in 2013 and beyond is unclear. U.S. officials say some American troops are likely to remain beyond 2014, targeting Al Qaeda and its allies.
Next month, NATO will meet in Chicago to discuss how to proceed in Afghanistan.
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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard meets members of the 1st Mentoring Task Force during her October 2010 visit to the multinational base at Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan. Credit: Raymond Vance / AFP/Getty Images