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Australia Hints Afghan Troop Withdrawal May Start in Two Years

Australian Defense Minister John Faulkner says Canberra may start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in two years if its mission to train local soldiers goes as planned. It is the first time an Australian official has offered a possible timetable on pulling forces out of Afghanistan.

Australia's main focus in Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan province has been training the Afghan National Army. Canberra could start to pull its troops out in two to four years if that mission proceeds as expected.

Australia has 1,550 military personnel in the troubled country, including elite commandos, reconstruction units and training specialists.

In Canberra, Defense Minster John Faulkner on Wednesday for the first time gave a timetable for a possible withdrawal of Australian troops. "At some point within that two-to-four-year timeframe we would see our training mission transition to an over-watch role," he said.

Public support in Australia for a distant and increasingly bloody war in Afghanistan appears to be waning.

This week three Australian commandos were killed in a helicopter crash, bringing the nation's number of fatalities in the Afghan campaign to 16. The cause of the crash is unknown, although officials say it was not the result of an attack by insurgents.

Among those killed was 27-year-old Ben Chuck, a former crocodile handler from Queensland.

Despite his son's death, his father, Gordon Chuck, supports Australia's involvement in Afghanistan. "Ben will always be remembered as a young, vibrant man and in our eyes he will never grow old," Chuck said. "He believed in the reason he was there and so do we."

Australia supports Washington's assertions that the solution to the Afghan insurgency lies beyond simply military might.

In August, Dutch forces will return home from Uruzgan province and will be replaced by U.S. troops.

Canberra has ruled out sending more soldiers, saying its relatively small armed forces are already stretched by other missions overseas, including East Timor and the Solomon Islands.