PRIME Minister Julia Gillard today will flag Australia's troops are set to start handing control to Afghan security forces in Oruzgan within months, with most of our soldiers returning home by the end of next year.
As she stares down critics - including a former senior officer who commanded the troops - Ms Gillard will insist that ''this is a war with a purpose''.
But last night retired Major-General John Cantwell, who commanded Australia's forces in Afghanistan in 2010, declared that ''at the human level'' the commitment was not worth it.
Against the background of new bloody attacks by the Taliban in Kabul, Ms Gillard will spell out the timetable for cutting back Australia's combat role, reassuring the public that ''this is a war with an end''. By the end of next year, Australia will no longer be conducting routine frontline operations with the Afghan forces. Some special forces would be among the Australian troops that remained.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai will soon announce the transition details in Oruzgan, where Australian troops are concentrated. It will take 12-18 months. After that, the majority of Australia's troops will have returned home, Ms Gillard will say in a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. She plans to tell the May NATO summit in Chicago, which will discuss Afghanistan that Australia will stump up for long-term security aid for the country. ''I will use the opportunity … to announce the details of increased Australian development assistance to Afghanistan through to 2015-16'' and beyond.
She and President Karzai will sign an agreement for an ''enduring partnership'' covering development, security, trade and cultural links.
The weekend's renewed insurgent attacks in Kabul ''remind us that as the insurgency comes under greater sustained pressure in the field, the prospect of high-profile attacks aimed at disproportionate global public impact remains''.
But she will also point out that these attacks were successfully countered by the Afghan security forces.
Major-General Cantwell told the ABC's Four Corners that as a commander he asked himself many times ''is it worth it?''
''The only way I can see through this, so that I can sleep at night, is to differentiate. You could never look at any soldier, sailor or airman and say, your life's forfeit, for some political purpose. That's …unacceptable. But at the highest level of strategy, and in the dirty ugly world of international relationships, where 'it's you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours' that those lives become less important, and taking that … hardnosed, realpolitik view, that politicians do, and must, it's worth it. But not at the human level.''
Opposition leader Tony Abbott said that ''we all want our troops to come home as soon as possible'', but that it was important the mission was fulfilled before any withdraw began.
Mr Abbott - who has toured Afghanistan twice - gave his cautious support to Ms Gillard's expected announcement, saying that ''there was no reason to suspect the job could be finished earlier than later''.
Shadow attorney-general George Brandis said it was ''shameful'' if the decision to withdraw troops had been made for political purposes.
''It would be a shameful thing if ... this mission was foreshortened for reasons of domestic political convenience for the Australian Labor Party rather than on the basis of the military commanders in the field,'' Senator Brandis said today.
''Having said that, we will listen to what the Prime Minister has to say and address the situation again no doubt later in the day.''
With Jessica Wright