By Daniel Flitton
Australia will decide its future military presence in Afghanistan beyond a planned withdrawal in 2016 after negotiations later this year with Western allies.
But following urging from Afghanistan's new president to Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop for the West to stay involved in the country — and warnings of an Iraq-style collapse — close observers believe there is almost no chance Australia's troops will withdraw entirely.
Australia's former top commander in Afghanistan has also cautiously supported an extension of the military deployment that does not impose "great risk or great cost".
"Frankly, I'm torn because I'd prefer we got out of the damn place because it is the cause of so much hardship and loss," said retired Major General John Cantwell.
General Cantwell said if a couple of years' extra training and support from Australian troops to Afghan forces could help prevent "inevitable backsliding", this would do justice to the costs Australia has already incurred.
But he said the deployment should not again become direct military action.
Ms Bishop met Afghan president Ashraf Ghani at the weekend and said afterwards he made a "compelling" case for reviewing the planned 2016 deadline for withdrawal set by the Obama administration.
The meeting coincided with warnings from an influential US analyst that Afghanistan threatened to become the "forgotten war" and could deteriorate in a fashion similar to Iraq.
The report by Anthony Cordesman at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said the conflict in Afghanistan is far worse than official reports suggest, with corruption continuing to bedevil the country's economy.
But former military officer and security analyst James Brown of the US Studies Centre in Sydney said Australia needed to have a debate about why it should remain in Afghanistan.
"I don't think there is much point in keeping a foot in the game for the sake of it," Mr Brown said.
About 400 Australian troops remain in the country, and it is expected this number could fall to a residual force of as few as 20-30 for defence cooperation by the end of next year.
But the size of the contingent will depend on talks this year with the US and European countries, with Australia unwilling to maintain a presence alone.
This article was originally published in Fairfax Media