Australia joins race for the exit from Afghanistan


From Elise Labott, CNN Security Clearance:  As foreign and defense ministers gather here for the last big meeting before next month’s NATO summit in Chicago , NATO officials are pushing back on the notion that countries with troops in Afghanistan are headed for the exits.

The denials come as Australia announced Tuesday its more than 1,500 soldiers could begin pulling out of Afghanistan in the coming months, and the majority of them may leave the country by the end of next year.

That timetable puts Australian forces on a quicker withdrawal schedule than Prime Minister Julia Gillard had previously described. In a speech to Parliament in November, she said the transition in the southern Uruzgan province, where most of the Australian troops are concentrated, might well be completed before the end of 2014.

Australia’s drawdown comes on the heels of an announcement by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in February that the United States hoped to end its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2013, transitioning primarily to a training role as Afghan forces take more responsibility for security. Britain, France and Germany all made similar pledges to begin an early drawdown, saying they intend to hand over their security operations to local forces by the end of 2013.

Some countries, like Canada and Norway, have already pulled out most of their troops.  (photo: CNN)

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