SYDNEY - Australia will dramatically cut the number of soldiers it has serving in Afghanistan over the next year, bringing forward to 2013 the bulk of its pullout from the war-torn nation, a report said Dec. 12.
The Sydney Morning Herald said sources had revealed that the Defence Department was working on a plan to drastically lower the number of troops mentoring Afghan soldiers in restive Uruzgan province by 2013.
Under the plan, only 150 soldiers will be rotated into Uruzgan as a group to mentor the Afghans in late 2012, a vastly reduced figure from the 900 currently there, it said, without naming sources.
"Why don't they leave a full complement of people there until the mentoring is completed to provide security for the Afghan and Australian forces?" one source told the paper. "The only reason I can think of is that it's politically expedient, and I just think that's unacceptable."
The Department of Defence had no immediate comment on the article.
Canberra has repeatedly said it intends to keep troops in the war-wracked nation until 2014, but Prime Minister Julia Gillard signaled last month that an earlier withdrawal could occur.
Gillard said the timing on completely handing over to Afghan forces in Uruzgan "may well be complete before the end of 2014" given the progress being made there.
The government has faced increasing pressure over the long-running Afghan campaign as fatalities from the conflict mount and following several incidents in which Afghan soldiers have fired on their Australian counterparts.
Canberra, which first committed to the war in 2001 before pulling out only to re-enter the arena in 2005, has so far lost 32 soldiers in the conflict. It has 1,550 troops stationed in the strife-torn country.
Gillard met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul in October, during which they discussed Australia's role in the country beyond 2014.
In an address to parliament in Canberra last month, Gillard said that Australia would be engaged in Afghanistan through this decade at least.