This column attempts to look at the confusing situation for those based in the Patrol Bases who live, cheek by jowl, with the Afghan soldiers they are helping.
WAR IS ABOUT DEATH
The Lieutenant commanding the Heavy Weapons company, 2 Kandak, 4 Brigade, is about as close to a poster-boy as you can get in Afghanistan. While I was at Patrol Base Marshal (pron: Mara-shal), in the Chora Valley, he single-handedly disarmed a 10 kilogram, pressure-plate triggered, Improvised Explosive device and led his men out into the Badlands on patrol. Two days earlier his soldiers had successfully engaged insurgents who were moving through the area and forced them, eventually, to leave without receiving any assistance from Australian forces.
Oh. There is, of course, that other thing. He also, sometimes, speaks to the Taliban at night on the radio.
Welcome to Afghanistan, where nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems.
A Patrol Base is about close as you can get the front line without actually being on patrol. Dotted through the countryside, and supported by the bigger Forward Operating Bases, these are company size positions that supposedly allow the ANA to dominate the surrounding area. They are, if you like, islands of government control in the of the people.
There's strong evidence about their effectiveness. Both ways. On the positive side they've enabled the Kabul government to physically demonstrate its presence throughout the country. They limit the insurgents' ability to move at will through the countryside.
Unfortunately, the effectiveness of each base depends almost entirely on the local commander. If he's good, then the strategy is effective. If, however, he's less than capable or something negative occurs which corrupts the mood on this little island, well, that’s not good. That's because everyone has a gun and we are operating in a country where violence is seen as a normal and permissible means of resolving disputes; a place where the majority of soldiers can neither read nor write. The random, arbitrary nature of life envelops everything in Afghanistan. If you're in the wrong place, at the wrong time, things will happen. Attempts to read meaning or logic into events fail simply because there is no way of constructing them into a coherent narrative.
Understandably, sitting in Canberra, we reject this. When we're informed that in the past few months four Australian soldiers have died and another ten have been seriously wounded at the hands of the very people they are training, it's natural to assume that the strategy is wrong. But that's drawing a linkage between discrete events that may not actually exist.
Go back to Marshal. Ahmad Bardis is the charismatic young officer who flicks open an old Australian Field Survey Notebook as he begins to speak. He's obviously picked this up after our troops pulled out of the patrol base, but now he wields it as if it's a baton investing him with authority. He talks about what he needs.
“A helicopter", he says. “When I engaged the Taliban the other afternoon, two of my soldiers and one local civilian was injured. It took 10 hours for them to be evacuated."
It's an understandable request. Nobody wants to risk exposing themselves to enemy fire if a wound is likely to mean death. But the demands don't stop there. It turns out the commander has other needs as well. Material. Equipment. Pay. A Quick Reaction Force to support his outpost. Before long an avalanche of requests have been lodged: all justifiable, but none with any chance whatsoever of being provided. And before you rush to blame the Australian’s for failing to support him, consider exactly how this unit prosecutes the fight against the insurgents.
It seems that a group of about 20 ANA soldiers were patrolling the valley when the Taliban opened fire at them from a compound. They went to ground and returned fire while the lieutenant brought up about 35 reinforcements, including a recoilless rifle. The exchange continued for a couple of hours, although no attempt was made by the ANA to cut off or surround the buildings. Instead they simply blasted away at the walls while requesting further support.
Eventually they ran low on ammunition. A small group had been detached from the Kandak headquarters with a resupply. Unfortunately these soldiers took the wrong direction and were pinned down by the Taliban before being personally rescued by the Lieutenant. After another couple of hours shooting both sides successfully disengaged.
The next morning the ANA were left in control of the battlefield. It appears two women and three children had been killed, possibly by the soldiers, while a local man had been badly beaten by the insurgents when he protested against them using his house. The soldiers also found two blood-trails, thought to belong to wounded Talibs.
So what had happened? The government soldiers had managed to successfully demonstrate their presence. They didn't run away and could count the engagement as a victory – if a highly qualified one. After all, the ANA was left in possession of the ground and hadn’t lost any soldiers.
The point is not to attempt to measure success by our own, more traditional standards. And there’s another codicil to this story, one that might assist in understanding exactly why none of the ANA soldiers rushed to die for their country.
The concept of “legitimate government" has been a rather tenuous notion in Afghanistan since well before the Soviet invasion in 1979. The US has already announced it is effectively pulling out in a couple of year’s time. We will depart at the same time – although Julia Gillard's probably still hoping to be told exactly when that will be by Barack Obama during his trip next week. When we've gone the Afghans will still be there. They know that “their” President Hamid Karzai will also have options of his own. He'll be able to live in Saudi Arabia or Washington. They, on the other hand, won't be leaving.
And this explains why the mood in the little, isolated, patrol bases is so variable. They feel they've been left without support. Small events take on bigger proportions. Small groups of Australians are detached to work in these troubled locations and that's where we suffer casualties from disaffected ANA soldiers.
Our soldiers eat bacon; the Afghan's don't eat pig for religious reasons. Our soldiers have their own toilets; the Afghans cannot see why. It's casual racism, and it grates. Incidents occur. This is the sort of war we're fighting.