Australia's main base in Afghanistan will close and most of its troops will be home by the end of the year, Defence Minister Stephen Smith said on Tuesday, admitting the mission had run too long.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, has decided to shut the base in Tarin Kot in Uruzgan province, and this means an end to Australia's main mission.
With ISAF's closure of Tarin Kot, "the majority of Australia's troops will come home from Afghanistan", Smith said in a statement, calling it a significant milestone.
The move is in line with Canberra's aim of withdrawing the bulk of its 1,550 troops in 2013, earlier than planned due to security gains, and Smith told reporters the time was right to pull out.
He said that by the end of the year "we will see at least 1,000 Australian personnel return home", with those remaining based in Kabul or Kandahar.
"We've been there for over a decade, and that's far too long," Smith said, adding that the war was "the easiest thing in the world to get in, hardest thing in the world to get out".
The formal date for the NATO-led combat mission to fully hand over to the Afghan government is December 31, 2014, and Smith said conditions for the people of Uruzgan were now much better.
"If we were not confident that transition would occur in Uruzgan by the end of this year, then this decision would not have been made," he said.
"The security in Uruzgan is in a much better state than when we first arrived."
But he also admitted that international forces would not be leaving Afghanistan as "a perfect society" when they hand over control at the end of next year.
"Will Afghanistan continue to be difficult? Yes. Will it continue to be variable in terms of security? Yes. Will it continue from now on to be dangerous for Australian personnel? Yes, it will," he said.
"The risk is different but nonetheless there is still a risk."
But he said that come January 1, 2015, he was confident the Afghan army and police "will be able to maintain security and allow a newly elected Afghan president and government to start do the things that they want to do for their people".
Australia, a close ally of the United States and whose Afghan deployment began in 2001, has lost 39 troops in the protracted conflict.