Tuesday, November 8, 2011


How to make sense of what's happening in Afghanistan?

I certainly don't have any concept of the way things are going to play out after my brief month in the country with the Australian Defence Force.

Nevertheless, it's incumbent on journalists to attempt to understand some of the more significant and pressing concerns that surround us, which is how I've attempted to frame this particular column . . .

Sinking the SLIPPER; or Australia in Afghanistan

The regular astute reader of this column will be well aware that I spent the past month in Afghanistan. They will also have discerned this morning that the usual, hirsute photo of a bearded (but craggily rugged-looking) man has been suddenly and abruptly replaced by a clean-shaven one. Such are the rigours of marriage.

The opportunity to pontificate on my newfound special subject – Operation Slipper, with particular reference to Australia’s military deployment in the mountains of Orüzgan –didn't last long after my return to Canberra. Regrettably, this seems to be the reality of our relationship with the world. Any interest in such matters is merely tangential. Back at home we’re concerned with truly important things, like which political party will tax less and whether house prices are rising again.

It's a pity. The tragic death of three and serious wounding five other diggers will provoke the usual litany of platitudes and trite clichés from our politicians this week, unmatched by any resurgence of interest in what the troops are actually doing. Perhaps that's because our operational methods have changed and now appear to be working.

The Army's finally settled on a strategy that appears to be working. This doesn't mean it's pretty. The targeted “removal" of insurgents from the battlefield has created space for a rudimentary civil society to begin functioning in this one province. This is not something, however, that I have any knowledge of. Most reporters are kept well away from the Special Operations Task Group. It operates cloaked by successive (and, I believe, unnecessary) veils of secrecy.

The Mentoring Task Force, however, is performing its role of training the Afghan's as efficiently and effectively as you'd expect. Particularly given that, this year alone, four of them have been killed by the very people they are trying to help.

The (Australian) deputy commander ‘in-country’, Colonel Dave Smith, is confident the strategy is right. He says he needs time to make it work. Unfortunately the sands are already rushing through the narrow hourglass of Canberra's political patience. Soon they will begin a final cascade into the void until support for continuing the mission has vanished completely.

The political reality is that John Howard unilaterally committed our forces to Afghanistan twice, first in 2001 and then again in 2006 after it had become obvious that country was again about to fall into the grip of jihadist extremists. Then Kevin Rudd embraced this as the good war, in contrast to the ongoing conflict in Iraq. Both politicians relied on broad-brush rhetoric: neither attempted to explain the potential cost or the fine detail of the strategy, let alone the tactics our soldiers would pursue.

This has naturally resulted in the collapse of any enthusiasm for the deployment. Today a majority of Australian's want our boys (and girls) home. This inchoate mood remains unformed and there are no moratorium protests. Yet.

Perhaps some are afraid that if we knew more about what's happening in Afghanistan there would be renewed calls for an exit. While the military strategy is working in Orüzgan, this has less than two more years to run. Questions abound about what will replace it. Serious gains have been made over the past 18 months – whether the government in Kabul will manage to hang on to these seems doubtful.

It certainly doesn't deserve to. President Karzi is surrounded by a web of corruption and duplicity. We've done the right thing by strengthening the government in Kabul, simply because this was the “least bad" option. But in doing so we're pouring dollars collected from the Australian taxpayer directly into the pockets of a few individuals who are using the money for their own ends.

This funnelling of wealth isn’t a story Defence wants told. Neither are the stories about heroin production or the marijuana crop, even though these are both huge success stories. It isn’t as though our commanders aren’t aware of these problems; they’re just (apparently) limiting themselves to the military mission, doing what they can and willingly accepting the political blinkers that have been placed over their eyes.

What’s unfortunate about this is that the politicians aren’t looking at the bigger strategic picture. As emphasised above, two politicians (alone) have moulded the shape and structure of our deployment. Most recently this was born of Kevin Rudd’s political need to show swinging voters he was tough; tough enough to withstand casualties; tough enough to ‘get the job done’.

That political need has surely vanished. Today the western powers are backing towards the door, seeking simply the right moment to politely exit. Everyone has decided the cost has been great enough. Ever since Alexander the Great first arrived some 2335 years ago, Europeans have simply passed through Afghanistan. It seems we’ll be unlikely to be any different.

Oh, and don't think that we are fighting for “Western values" or something like that. That would come as real news to the women of Orüzgan, hidden in their compounds or behind their burqua’s.

Our deployment has done virtually nothing to change Afghan society – and perhaps that's exactly how it should be. You can't impose change with a consensual, take it or leave it approach. Much of our recent development work has been appreciated. The locals are keen to have dams and electricity. Other offerings have been less successful. Just take the “schools" we've built. I spoke to one authoritative source who insists the vast majority either remain empty or are being used as madras's. Another person, who I also trust (but who has a vested interest in the success of our development program) disagrees. Who knows where the truth lies?

The hospital in the provincial capital of Tarin Kowt is making a difference, as are the Dutch built roads. Life is undoubtedly better than it previously was. Women, however, remain locked away in a mediaeval existence governed by traditional practices most Australians would find utterly abhorrent.

Make no mistake; a visit to the bad-lands quickly explodes any post-modernist conceits about not making value judgments on the relative merits of particular societies and ways of living. Maybe even Canberra isn't so bad, after all.

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