News - Afghanistan
Australia said Thursday it would take leadership of security in Afghanistan's southern Uruzgan province from the United States as it prepares to begin drawing down troops from the conflict.
Chief of defence forces David Hurley said the shift, which was approved by Canberra this week, would put Australia "in the driving seat" of a security handover to Afghan forces and withdrawal of its troops and equipment.
"This is a major operational phase. Having a strong voice in that process is very important," Hurley told reporters.
The United States would continue to provide support to the Australians, who work with Singapore and Slovakia in the restive Afghan province and will take lead responsibility in late 2012.
US troops have led operations in Uruzgan since the Netherlands withdrew from Afghanistan in 2010 - the first Nato ally to do so.
The International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), the Nato-led force in Afghanistan, welcomed the announcement.
"Our gratitude goes out to the government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Australian people, who have sacrificed so much in this conflict," said coalition commander John Allen, describing Australia as one of Isaf's closest allies.
Australia has some 1,550 troops stationed in Afghanistan with a focus on training and mentoring Afghan National Army soldiers in Uruzgan.
It has lost 32 soldiers in the decade-long conflict.
Gillard last month said that Australia would begin withdrawing troops in 2013 - quicker than planned due to significant security gains - though her government has since stressed to Nato it will be "combat ready" through 2014.