AFTER 11 years of grinding war, Australian combat operations in Afghanistan are set to all but end by December, with an assessment that the Afghan troops Australia is mentoring are ready to operate on their own.
The surprise announcement - that all four Afghan infantry battalions in Oruzgan are expected to begin operating independently by December - was made by Defence Minister Stephen Smith at a NATO conference in Brussels this week.
It means that aside from Australian special forces troops, and possibly a small quick-reaction force based in the provincial military headquarters at Tarin Kowt, Australian combat in Afghanistan will be over in January.
While the decision was hailed by some as a sign of improving security in the rural southern province, it stands at odds with two recent bleak assessments of the war.
The statement also follows Mr Smith's announcement on Wednesday that the first of the four 400-to-600-man Afghan National Army battalions, called kandaks, was this week declared able to operate independently.
''We expect the other three infantry kandaks currently rated as effective with advisers to also commence independent operations by the end of the year,'' he told the Brussels conference.
An Afghan analyst for the Lowy Institute, James Brown, said the announcement was a milestone.
''What this means is we are going to start seeing Australian convoys rolling down to Kandahar, moving equipment out of Oruzgan by early next year,'' he said.
Kandahar, the province directly south of Oruzgan, is the country's southern military headquarters and where the ADF will likely move its personnel and equipment before leaving the country entirely.
Mr Brown, who has served with the Australian Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the announcement meant that after more than a decade, Australia's major combat role in Oruzgan was only weeks from ending.
''What they're saying is the job is done,'' he said. ''Which means we don't need to have advisers out with [the Afghan army in Oruzgan] over the winter.
A comment from Defence indicated the end of combat operations in Afghanistan.
''Once all of the [Afghan National Army] 4th Brigade infantry kandaks are operating independently it is envisioned that most of the task group will operate from Tarin Kowt, however will maintain the capability to operate across Oruzgan as required by the situation.
''[Special forces] will continue to conduct operations more broadly across Oruzgan and adjacent provinces,'' a defence spokesman said.
Another topic of discussion between the various leaders in Brussels would have been two assessments released on Monday by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Crisis Group, which say Afghanistan is heading towards a crisis precipitated by the hasty departure of international forces.
''I am filled with concern as I leave this country,'' outgoing head of mission for the ICRC, Reto Stocker, said.
''Since I arrived here in 2005, local armed groups have proliferated, civilians have been caught between not just one but multiple front lines, and it has become increasingly difficult for ordinary Afghans, particularly out in the rural areas, to obtain healthcare when injured or sick.''