Aussie seeks early Afghan pull-out

SYDNEY: Australia's defence minister Wednesday said he was hoping to wrap up military operations in Afghanistan as soon as possible, despite US and NATO moves for more troops to shore up the campaign.

Defence Minister John Faulkner said Australia was studying how to complete the mission in the "shortest time-frame". Australia has about 1,500 troops in Afghanistan with no date set for their withdrawal.

"I've certainly asked the Australian Defence Force for any recommendations they have about ensuring we do complete that important role and responsibility both effectively, but in the shortest time-frame possible," he told ABC radio.

Faulkner admitted Australia's move would affect the push by General Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, for an Iraq-style troop "surge" against the increasingly powerful Taliban militia.

"I've been discussing these issues with the chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, and obviously it's a critically important matter for me," he said.

"I'm not going to talk specifically about the approaches we'll take but I do acknowledge that there will be impacts on the approach that NATO and ISAF partners will be taking as a result of General McChrystal's 60-day assessment."

McChrystal warned last month that the war could be lost within a year without extra resources to fight the resurgent Islamists, who were driven from power by the 2001 US-led invasion.

President Barack Obama is considering boosting US troops by 40,000 to more than 100,000. Political uncertainty also continues with President Hamid Karzai facing a run-off with rival Abdullah Abdullah after August's flawed polls.

Australia has lost 11 soldiers in Afghanistan with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd insisting the country's commitment was "rock-solid" following the latest death in July. However, Rudd also admitted the war was "unpopular".

Armed forces chief Angus Houston has expressed hope that international troops could hand over to Afghan forces in three to four years, although he warned against the dangers of an early withdrawal.

Rudd sent an extra 450 troops in April, acknowledging the "current civilian and military strategy is not working". However last week he said Australia would not follow Britain's move to send another 500 armed forces.

"We are in the business of raising an Afghan national army brigade, we are training Afghan police and we are also engaged in capacity building with the Uruzgan provincial authority," Rudd said.

"Once that mission is completed and we hand over our responsibility to that provincial authority, then of course Australia's mission will be concluded and our troops would come home."

About 100,000 international troops are currently based in Afghanistan, including a US contingent which will hit 68,000 by year-end and another 9,500 from Britain.

Germany has 4,200 troops while France is the fourth-largest contributor with 2,900, although President Nicolas Sarkozy is refusing to send any more.