Gillard on back foot on timing
JULIA Gillard wanted to lay out a clear direction for Australia's Afghan exit strategy, and give a sense of momentum, conveying the message this was not a war without end.
Instead she sparked a debate about whether we will get out too soon, invited claims of political motives, and created considerable confusion in official circles.
The truth seems to be that the withdrawal is on the course it has been for some time. It has just been articulated more specifically - at least, up to a point.
The international community has had a strategy dating from the 2010 Lisbon conference whereby the foreign troops would hand over responsibility for security to the Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
This is to be done in several tranches, with Australia's forces in Oruzgan province in the middle tranche, allowing them to finish earlier than the cutoff date.
The government originally said the bulk of Australian forces would be out by the end of 2014, though more recently Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith have hinted it would be earlier, as progress was on track.
Instead of giving the impression of momentum, the government ended up, in the previews of yesterday's speech, with the (wrong) impression of rush.
So yesterday Gillard had to hose down suggestions that troops will start coming out when the handover begins mid-year. Most of the departing troops would leave at the end of the 12 to 18 months handover period, but a sizeable number will remain through 2014, with a smaller contingent staying later.
But even with her clarifications, it is not clear when most of the troops will be home.
The speculation that the timing had to do with the election is false. The timetable is driven by the international community, which means primarily the US. For it, this year's election is an important factor in looking to its drawdown. But Australia is very much a follower.
The Afghanistan announcement was a case study in this government's communications problems. It needed to marshal its experts to get across to the media exactly what it was doing and when, and how that flowed from what has gone before.
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