There is a good argument to be made for staying in Afghanistan, but not as we are at the moment.
If you insist that our current course is the correct one, then you also have to admit we are losing the war . . .
Looking back on a long war
Sometimes it's easy to forget there's a war on. Because no Australian lives have been lost over the past few weeks, Afghanistan has vanished from the headlines. Both political parties are keen to tell you “progress is being made" and so the old lie, the great lie, lingers. It's in no one's interests to burst the happy little bubble of our comfortable existence back here in pretty Canberra. That's why you'll hear nothing, not a single word, uttered by our politicians about how useless and deployment is proving to be. In the meantime, our soldiers patrol uselessly around the countryside and the people we're meant to be protecting die in sudden, searing explosions of terror and hatred.
The politicians and generals won't ask the simple, vital question – what are we doing in Afghanistan? – because they don't know the answer.
In hindsight, of course, it's easy to work out where the mistakes were made. Our rear vision is perfect. It all seems so obvious, now. We should never have pulled out of the country after 2001, once the Taliban had been toppled. We should never have invested all our political capital into one person, Hamid Karzai, even if he did have a great hat and look like a real leader as his robes swept past with a great 'swish', which kept our focus on him rather than the corruption, nepotism and chaos that followed in his wake.
Unfortunately, looking backwards doesn't provide any guide for how we might move forward. Nor, much to the military's frustration has gazing out the side windows either. Our forces made strenuous efforts to avoid the mistakes we made in Vietnam when we took over partial responsibility for Orüzgan province, helping the Dutch, back in 2006. At that time we were adamant. This was not going to be a war of 'pacification' that involved patrolling around the country and attempting to hunt down Taliban insurgents. It was obvious we had to work with the people. That's why so much effort was devoted to rebuilding infrastructure.
And yet it's hard not to feel that, even back then, our own domestic political agenda was limiting our vision. Although never admitting it, John Howard appeared increasingly keen to disentangle the country from any involvement in the middle-east. That was understandable and it was a mission that he appeared to be well on the way to achieving. In Iraq, our forces were reduced to an overwatch role in a remote, comparatively peaceful province where they spent most time confined to secure base areas. And in Afghanistan, despite considerable encouragement to take on a more significant role, Howard chose to limit Australia's role. Our forces were assigned to Orüzgan, an underdeveloped and backward area south of Kabul, however it seemed two caveats would strictly limit liability.
The military's high command assisted the politicians in ensuring that our objectives were carefully spelt out. They weren't ever intended to become open-ended commitments. Australia avoided assuming the lead role and the deployment emphasised reconstruction. A small force of SAS troopers provided the sharp end. That was then.
Everything began getting out of whack in 2007. Again, to a large extent, our view of Afghanistan was conditioned by our own local politics. Kevin Rudd emphasised that this was the “good" war, in contrast to Iraq. This idea resonated in the electorate; unfortunately, it also demanded a renewed, emphasised commitment to fighting and, in particular, managing to defeat the Taliban on the battlefield. This was necessary simply in order to prove that Labor hadn't turned “soft" on defence; but it had nothing to do with whether the insurgency could actually be defeated.
Because building hospitals and mosques wasn't working, our troops were given new tasks. They were tasked with new missions; patrolling, attempting to dominate ground, disrupting the Taliban and “taking the fight to them". Senior defence officials admitted that, at one time, it almost seemed as if each new week brought a new strategy for victory. The commanders on the ground weren't like the blimpish generals of World War I. They could see what hadn't worked and so they changed to new tactics that seemed to offer greater possibilities of success.
It wasn't their fault if they were always being forced to look at the scenery after it had passed by. Despite all Labor’s fierce talk, it turned out that there was never any desire to reinforce our commitment. Even now it seems unlikely that deploying extra troops would have made any difference to the gradual progress the insurgency was making. Sensing a political opportunity, the coalition called for the deployment of tanks only to be told by our commander (a former tank officer) that they were unnecessary. Long-range artillery, a couple of tracked howitzers, might, just possibly, have saved a few lives (while taking many others) but we don't have any of those and so once again we didn't dare to look forwards and try and work out what we needed to deploy if we wanted to reverse the province's increasing trajectory towards chaos.
Instead the top brass reassured the country with glib phrases. The empty words still ring, hollowly, in the air. “We've got it about right." And we believed the honesty and integrity of the upright man who was speaking, so we swallowed it whole. What we forgot to notice were the careful clarifications surrounding his assessment. We were achieving the mission, as it had now been re-defined, but this was no longer to bring peace to Afghanistan. Instead, it had been revised sharply downwards. Now it was simply to train a small part of their country's army so it could take over, allowing us to exit. After that it wasn't our responsibility.
Every time an Australian soldier dies we are told it's not the right time to question our commitment. That's why this is the perfect opportunity to analyse our failure. Over the past fortnight the Taliban have achieved spectacular successes that have made a mockery of the idea that we'd achieved solid gains over the winter months when the insurgents go to ground.
The insurgency has assassinated a former provincial governor and a current senior official. The fight has been taken to the central marketplace of the district capital. The insurgents are winning.
Instead of representing a bastion of control for the central government in Kabul, our province has now become the centre of a festering problem that is expanding to destabilise the entire country.