EVERY patrol and forward operating base in Oruzgan will be emptied of Australian soldiers by the new year, according to the Department of Defence, providing yet more evidence that Australia's combat role in Afghanistan is all but over.
While Australian special forces - commandos and the SAS - will continue to undertake missions, a Defence spokeswoman confirmed that all Australian regular troops were preparing to vacate the many small bases they have occupied - in many cases built - in recent years.
Defence Minister Stephen Smith (right) revealed the plan earlier this week from a NATO conference in Brussels. He said that all four of the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade's infantry kandaks - the Afghan name for battalions - will be operating independently ''by the end of the year''.
''Once all of the … kandaks are operating independently it is envisioned that most [Australian troops] will operate from Tarin Kowt, however [we] will maintain the capability to operate across Oruzgan as required by the situation,'' a Defence spokeswoman said.
Earlier this week Australian soldiers officially handed over control of Patrol Base Wali in the Mirabad Valley to the first of the four kandaks.
Wali was previously the only patrol base in Oruzgan where Australians and Afghans lived in an unsegregated camp.
In July Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that Afghan forces in Oruzgan would begin taking control of security, allowing Australian troops to gradually reduce their presence before a complete withdrawal between July and December next year.
But the reality is that much of Australia's presence in Oruzgan will have left well before that date.
Australia has lost 38 soldiers in Afghanistan since 2001. Five were killed in a single day in August in two incidents.
Three of them were killed in a so-called ''green on blue'' attack, in which an Afghan soldier turned his gun on them.
The Australian force in Oruzgan, the 3 RAR Task Group, numbers about 730 personnel. It is due to return to Australia by the end of the year and will be replaced by the 7 RAR Task Group, which will begin to arrive within weeks.
While Defence would not discuss the size of the 7 RAR force, a spokeswoman said the end of the mentoring mission would affect its size.
''The 7 RAR Task Group has been structured to meet the requirements of this change in emphasis and is smaller in size,'' she said.