AUSTRALIAN soldiers stationed in Afghanistan's Uruzgan province will start heading home as early as the middle of this year, says Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
Australia's mentoring taskforce, which has been training Afghan forces to take over their own defence operations, could be among the first to return home.
Mr Karzai announced on Monday that the third tranche of provinces would begin the transition to Afghan-led security responsibility.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard welcomed the announcement, saying the transition included the mentoring task force, Special Forces and the Provincial Reconstruction team.
She said more than 75% of Afghanistan's population would be living in areas under Afghan security once the third tranche was complete.
"At the Lisbon NATO International Security Assistance Force Summit in November 2010, Afghanistan and ISAF countries agreed that Afghan security forces would take responsibility for security by the end of 2014," Ms Gillard said.
"President Karzai's announcement is a strong signal that the transition process is on track.
"Australia is firmly committed to Afghanistan and to the agreed transition strategy and its implementation.
"Transition is a gradual process, not an event, achieved when the conditions are right on a province-by-province and district-by-district basis," she said.
The transition process could take up to 18 months, with the final tranche of Australia's defence forces in Uruzgan likely to return by the end of 2014.
Ms Gillard said Australia would continue to support Afghanistan after the transition, through training and advice as well as a possible continued special forces role.
"This ongoing commitment to Afghanistan will be a feature of Australia's contribution to the Chicago NATO-ISAF Summit next week, which we will attend," she said.