All Australian defence personnel might be withdrawn from Afghanistan unless a suitable legal agreement can be negotiated with Kabul, parliament has been told.
While the government remains committed to the post-2014 NATO-led mission to train, advise and assist Afghan national security forces, it will be subject to legal arrangements.
“Without a status-of-forces agreement in place there is very little likelihood of Australian forces remaining in Afghanistan,” Defence Minister David Johnston said on Monday.
Australia concluded all combat operations in Afghanistan last year, with more than 1000 troops returning home.
About 400 remain in a variety of roles to advise and mentor the Afghan National Army in skills such as logistics.
The International Security Assistance Force mission concludes at the end of this year and for troops to stay on, there needs to be legal agreements that, among much else, exempt them from prosecution under Afghan law.
The US, which plans to keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, has negotiated a detailed bilateral security agreement that needs only the signature of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to come into effect.
Australia and other nations plan to use the US agreement as the basis for their own.
But Mr Karzai has declined to sign, saying that should be left to his successor who will be chosen at the election on April 5.
The poll might not produce a conclusive result and could require run-off polls later in the year.
Senator Johnston raised the issue in annual Australia-United Kingdom ministerial talks last week.
He and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop attended the UK parliament’s national security committee, canvassing issues such as the growing number of Australian and UK citizens fighting alongside Islamist forces in Syria.
That was a major security threat to both countries, the defence minister said.