Sunday, June 3, 2012


Australia announced this week it will take over the lead role in Oruzgan.

There is a story behind this, but I don't know or understand what it means yet. What I've done here is simply attempt to revisit some of the complexity involved.

Of course, even this sketch is far too simplistic . . .


It almost sounded like an afterthought. More than a decade after invading Afghanistan; six years after we began assisting the Dutch in Or├╝zgan province, we’re finally taking over the “lead role”. The only thing missing from the announcement was the real reason we’re doing so. Nobody wants to admit the bright hopes of 2006 have collapsed into a rushed scramble for the exits.

Trying to discover the ‘truth’ about what’s happening in Afghanistan is like peeling away the layers of an onion. You’ll cry a great deal but still never get to the heart of the issue. Those final leaves will fall away, only to reveal they’ve been covering – nothing. It’s only by giving up any attempt to find the essence that you understand it’s the rings themselves that represent reality.

Let’s try by beginning late one afternoon, less than six months ago, on a bare, rocky hillside in the Chora valley. A keen Australian lieutenant is teaching the Afghan soldiers, the ANA, how to advance under fire. He shows them how to react when the Taliban shoot at them. He runs, dives down, crawls to a fire position, observes the enemy, aims and, finally, returns fire. This is, he urges through a translator, the correct way to act after contact. Fire and manoeuvre. Quick action will enable you to dominate the situation and control what’s happening. He shakes the ANA out into patrol formation and they practice going through the drills.

But there’s a difference. They don’t run and, if they think no one’s looking, they drift off into their own reveries and daydreams. They take their time easing themselves down. At first I think they’re slow because the ground is stony and they don’t want to hurt their knees (Our lieutenant’s wearing the new camouflage uniform with its reinforced padding at the joints.). Later I realise it’s not only that. If they rip their uniform they can’t simply go down to the Q store and ask for another. They think there’s no point destroying anything precious for practice.

But there’s another reason the boredom creeps slowly across the faces of those standing in the crisp autumn air. Many, no most, of these soldiers have more experience of battle then their lecturer. That’s no disrespect to him. He was so keen to go that he even transferred battalions (from 3 RAR to Two) so that he could join the operation. But the Afghans have grown up with war. Soviets trained their Brigade commander. Their fathers fought for the Taliban. Today they’re being fed by the government of Hamid Karzai. Who knows who’ll be leading the country tomorrow? 

As it happens, this toli, or company, saw action the previous afternoon. The senior lieutenant, Ahmad Bardis, had led about 20 soldiers out on a five-kilometre sweep around patrol base Marshal. He was one of the best officers in the entire kandak (battalion) and this seemed borne out by accounts of the contact. Although the Taliban fired the first shots, Bardis’ men had been attempting to dominate the area. But when the shooting started they went to ground and returned fire. And waited.

Although a great deal more occurred over the next six hours, nothing actually ‘happened’. No one knows exactly how many Talib were actually defending the compound when the contact occurred. Intelligence later revealed it was probably a small group escorting a suicide vest back across the border. Apparently a volunteer couldn’t be persuaded to wear the jacket.

The lieutenant brought out the rest of his company (another 35 men) and a recoilless rifle to fight the Talib. But instead of trying to cut them off, or closing in on the enemy from right angles, these reinforcements just joined the first group that had been pinned down. A long, drawn-out firefight began.

Some of the ANA must have been aiming in the right general direction, because two women and three children were killed. There were also, apparently, a couple of blood trails that might have been insurgents. Two of his men were wounded. The battle continued. Bardis radioed for assistance.

But there was nothing left. The diggers were already on a patrol and there was no quick reaction force. Bardis was told to slug it out. There would be no help. More importantly, there would be no assistance for any wounded who were watching their lives ebb away as the blood pulsed around the tourniquets. When I spoke to Bardis the next morning he begged me to report just how desperately the ANA needed helicopters for casualty evacuation. Being hit and badly wounded was, effectively, a death sentence. Aero-medical evacuation to hospitals in Germany is restricted to NATO forces. The ANA would be lucky to get a bumpy ride in the back of a dusty Ute to an overcrowded facility at Tarin Khot. It was easy to see why nobody wanted to be a hero.

The shooting continued. The compound was badly damaged. Then the toli began to run out of ammunition. Three men sent to retrieve more ammunition got lost and were saved by Bardis, who ran out under fire. Then night fell, the Taliban departed, and the ANA went back to the fort.

At night Bardis was overheard chatting to the insurgents. Sometimes he insults them. Other times he doesn’t. I’m not able to offer the details of what he says because it could breach operational security. Suffice it to say that nothing in Afghanistan is quite what it seems. The more you know, the more you realise you have to discover.

His patrol base was the same one where the first Aussie digger died from ‘friendly fire’. Later, as our boys pulled out, they expected to take our big electric generator with them. They were told that if they did so, more might die. The real story is very complicated.

Oh. And just like everything you’ve ever read about Afghanistan, even the simplification on which this column is based is untrue. There actually are people who understand the country and have a grip on what’s occurring. Try the ANU’s Professor Bill Maley, the Liason Office’s Susanne Schmeidl or Ausaid’s David Savage for a start. It’s just that any truth they’ll reveal is far more complex than the simple press releases’ offered by either Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott. Our politicians want you to believe in simple, black and white answers to a picture that’s clouded with grey. There aren’t. Neither is our “taking over” of responsibility for the province. And the enormous amount of bumph and waste paper churned out by Russell Hill on a daily basis? Well, each story may be completely true – but this doesn’t mean they tell you anything about what’s really going on. In fact, they barely scratch the surface.

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