Australia said Wednesday it could complete its core mission and pull hundreds of troops out of Afghanistan within three years, days after suffering its worst casualties in the near decade-long war.
CANBERRA- Defence Minister John Faulkner said soldiers in the southern province of Uruzgan could transfer responsibility for security to Afghan troops within two years, and spend another year in an "overwatch" role, before withdrawing.
"Australia should complete its training mission with the Afghan National Army in a period of two to four years," Faulkner said.
"What it means is that at some point in that two to four year time-frame we would see our training mission transition to an overwatch role and that would obviously mean at that time we would start to see a reduction in the number of Australian troops in Afghanistan," he told reporters in Canberra.
Faulkner's comments come as the nation's military suffers its deadliest month since joining coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2001 -- with five soldiers dying in a bomb attack and a helicopter crash since June 7.
Australia has some 1,550 soldiers in Afghanistan, mostly working alongside the Dutch in southern Uruzgan province training Afghan National Army 4th Brigade soldiers.
The minister refused to provide a definitive time-frame for withdrawing and said any changes would be influenced by conditions on the ground at the time.
But he said Australian force numbers would not be reduced when the Dutch begin to pull out from August 1.
"And I can assure you also that our resolve in Afghanistan remains unchanged," Faulkner said.
Australia, which has refused to fill the void left by the Dutch, said a new US-led multinational unit under a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force flag would take over from the Netherlands.
Faulkner noted that operations in Afghanistan, where some 142,000 foreign soldiers from 46 countries are battling to quell a Taliban insurgency, have remained difficult and dangerous.
"However, despite the challenges, and the losses, it is critical that we continue to play our part in the international effort against terrorism which remains a threat to both the Australian and international community," he said.
Three Australian commandos were killed when a helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan Monday, in the country's worst single loss of life in the war it first joined in 2001 before pulling out the next year and returning in 2005.
The crash, not suspected of being caused by enemy action, brought Australia's death toll in the warzone to 16 and followed hard on the deaths of two Australian soldiers killed in a bomb blast on June 7.
NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the Australian withdrawal plan was "not an unrealistic proposal" and was part of the alliance's goal of handing security responsibility to Afghan forces.
"We all hope that at a certain stage in the coming years we can start drawing down the number of forces," he said.
"Drawing down in four years is not an unrealistic proposal. But it has to be based on the necessary conditions and that means training."
The war in Afghanistan has bipartisan support in Australia but Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who likely faces an election this year, has noted it is an unpopular conflict.
The subject is likely to be on the agenda when Rudd meets US President Barack Obama at the G20 meeting in Toronto this weekend.