SYDNEY— Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to declare an end to his country’s longest war. Abbott said the return to Australia of more than 1,000 troops before Christmas would be “bittersweet” because Afghanistan remained a dangerous place where many foreign soldiers had died.
Speaking at a special ceremony at the Australian-run base in Tarin Kot in Uruzgan province, Prime Minister Abbott announced the end of his nation’s longest military engagement.
Canberra will order home about 1,000 troops by the end of the year, although Abbott has pledged to support Afghanistan in the future.
There is a commitment to train Afghan National Security Forces and several hundred Australians will continue to serve in non-combat roles in the country.
Abbott hopes the U.S.-led campaign will leave a positive legacy in Afghanistan.
“Australia's longest war is ending not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that's better for our presence here,” he said.
Abbott said that Australian troops in Afghanistan have helped to build 200 schools as well as health clinics, while roads have been upgraded.
He said Australians don't fight wars of conquest but fight for peoples' right to live their own lives and worship in their own way.
But Australia, like all other foreign forces, has paid a high price during the long conflict.
40 Australians have died during the war in Afghanistan and 260 wounded. The cost of the war to the government in Canberra is estimated to be about $7 billion.
Richard Tanter, a Professor of International Relations at Melbourne University, believes Australia’s involvement has mostly been a failure.
“In no sense has it been worth it," he said. "There was never a serious Australian strategic interest in the occupation and the war in Afghanistan for more than a decade and a half. The Taliban government was overthrown within three months of the initial invasion. If there was ever a justification for going in there, that was the time to get out. Since then we've stayed there simply because it was a requirement of our alliance with the United States, so-called alliance maintenance.”
In an official statement released Tuesday, Abbott said the mission in Afghanistan had been critical to Australia's national security.
Similar to the United States' other NATO allies, public support in Australia for the Afghan war has waned over the years. A Lowy Institute public opinion poll released in June indicated that a majority of Australians say the war was not worth fighting.
However there remains strong public support for Canberra’s security alliance with the United States as well as support for basing U.S. troops in Australia.