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ASPI’s decades: The war in Afghanistan

Posted By on September 6, 2021 @ 06:00

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation.

As ASPI was formed in August 2001, the first new war of the 21st century was only weeks away. The US air campaign in Afghanistan, following the 9/11 attacks, began at the start of October.

After the overthrow of the Taliban, Australia marched out of Afghanistan in 2002. In June 2005, our contribution to security in Afghanistan was one officer. Then our forces slowly returned. This became our longest war.

As part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the 190-strong Australian Special Forces Task Group returned to Afghanistan at the end of 2005, joined by a rotary transport contingent of 110 personnel and two Chinook helicopters.

In 2006, Australian Defence Force personnel joined a Netherlands-led provincial reconstruction team in southern Afghanistan. It’s emblematic that there were different English spellings of the province’s name. The ADF called it Uruzgan. ASPI at first spelled it Oruzgan but eventually switched to the ADF orthography.

Uruzgan became the frame and lens of the Australian experience in Afghanistan.

Elsina Wainwright wrote in 2006 that Afghanistan had far fewer international troops on the ground per capita than efforts in East Timor, Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq. Afghanistan also received far less aid per capita than Solomon Islands, East Timor, Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq. The US view, she said, was that, compared to Iraq, Afghanistan was ‘containable’ [1]. Yet Afghanistan was an ‘acutely fragile state’ with social indicators among the worst in the world. The escalating insurgency, narco-economics and politics, high-level corruption and rampant banditry all created a climate of lawlessness and impunity.

Reconstruction teams moving into the south and east of Afghanistan would face significant threats, Wainwright wrote:

[I]insurgency activity is increasing in part because international troops are now moving into areas where they have not been in large numbers before, and … greater resistance is therefore being encountered. Predictions have been made that insurgents will test the arriving ISAF troops: forces could face suicide and roadside bombings.

The Dutch–Australian operation in Uruzgan would therefore need a significant security emphasis, and more robust mandates, rules of engagement and equipment, than required in the north and west of Afghanistan.

When the Rudd government took office in 2007, it inherited plans for a military build-up and a rising aid budget in Afghanistan. But Labor’s defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, worried: ‘We are winning the battles and not the war … We have been very successful in clearing areas of the Taliban but it’s having no real strategic effect.’ The problem, Jacob Townsend wrote, was that the ‘war’ was a state-building project [2]:

To have lasting effect, it must establish a functional government that can compete successfully for legitimacy and territory with its predecessor, the Taliban. Our alliance and counter-terrorism interests currently point in the same direction. We need a legitimate Afghan government that can lead the counter-insurgency campaign, a campaign whose success depends on external events and which stretches well into the future.

The Rudd government wrestled with a policy conundrum. While committed to the state‑building project and reconstruction, it confronted the Taliban insurgency and the perceived lack of progress in Afghanistan.

Canberra thought the international strategy in Afghanistan lacked coherence [3], Raspal Khosa wrote, suggesting that Australia’s commitment might be in vain if the West couldn’t persevere for at least another decade: ‘Afghanistan is not a country for quick victories and we must accept that this is a long-term intervention in a dangerous environment.’

During eight years working for ASPI, Khosa established himself as a leading commentator on Australia’s mission in Afghanistan. He visited the country on  five occasions, with the ADF, NATO and the US military.

In a report titled A long and winding road [4] in 2009, he discussed the ‘main focus’ of the ADF mission, helping to build a capable Afghan National Army:

This effort is critical to the success of the coalition’s new strategic approach to stabilise the volatile region and deny violent extremists a sanctuary along its borderlands. The government’s much anticipated troop increase, announced by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on 29 April 2009, will see a near 50% expansion of the ADF presence in Afghanistan by 2010, with troop numbers rising from 1,090 to 1,550 personnel. The operational goal of sending extra forces to Afghanistan is to raise the effectiveness of an ANA infantry brigade so it can assume primary responsibility for security in Oruzgan Province, thereby creating the conditions for the withdrawal of the ADF over the medium term.

Australia had defined its long journey in one province, yet the ultimate purpose of the international force was still being argued. Khosa noted divisions in NATO, which commanded the international security force: ‘There is still fundamental disagreement among NATO states on whether the ISAF mission in Afghanistan is counter-insurgency … or stabilisation and reconstruction.’

The US took comfort or cover in the ambiguity of a series of ambitious aims, Khosa commented:

Somewhat surprisingly, the daunting task of contested nation-building in Afghanistan is not an avowed US strategic goal, but one of five supporting objectives that includes establishing effective democratic government control in Pakistan. This deliberate policy ambiguity is intended to sell the strategy to a domestic audience in America and war-weary coalition allies in Afghanistan, who are reluctant to contribute further resources to what many increasingly perceive is a flawed enterprise in the midst of a full‑blown insurgency.

The Dutch withdrew in 2010; in the Netherlands, the coalition government had collapsed because of divisions over NATO’s request to extend the Dutch military mission in Afghanistan. Formal command of Task Force Uruzgan was transferred from the Netherlands to what was called Combined Team—Uruzgan, a multinational melding of military and civilian contributions.

The Dutch–Australian partnership had been a meeting of two military cultures [5], illustrated by the Australian jibe that DUTCH stood for ‘don’t understand the concept here’. A force that deployed with its own anthropologist certainly showed the ADF other ways of thinking.

The most public disagreement was about food. Initially, the Dutch did the catering, and herring for breakfast was not to Aussie tastes. Visiting Uruzgan over Christmas 2007, just after being elected, Rudd recalled [6] his first question from among 900 Australian troops: ‘Prime Minister, Dutch food is shit. We want our own tucker. Can you please fix it?’ Rudd replied, ‘That’s precisely why I’ve brought Angus with me. And Angus will deliver.’ Standing beside Rudd, the chief of the ADF replied, ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, as Rudd later wrote: ‘And so, a few months later, the Dutch kitchen was dispatched into the annals of history.’

Casualties in Afghanistan split Dutch politics. The Dutch view of NATO and the US was a complex multilateral equation compared to the bilateral alliance embraced by Australia’s governing parties.

The Labor–Liberal agreement on Afghanistan was firm throughout—even as casualties mounted and Australian public opinion turned against the war. Campaigning for the 2007 federal election was suspended so the prime minister and opposition leader could attend the funeral of the first Australian soldier killed by enemy action in Afghanistan. The shared political stance on Afghanistan was a contrast with the Liberal–Labor divisions over Iraq, where Australia suffered no ADF deaths.

ADF personnel became the most numerous of coalition forces operating in Uruzgan. Australia, though, refused the command role vacated by the Netherlands. That was taken by the US.

The formal transfer of command in Uruzgan took place while Australia was in the midst of the campaign for a federal election on 21 August 2010. In the week before the vote, three Australian soldiers died in southern Afghanistan; two days after the poll, another Australian soldier was killed. At that point, 21 ADF personnel had been killed in Afghanistan [7] and a further 149 wounded.

For Australia, the peak negotiations on Afghanistan were with the US, after which the detailed coalition work was done with NATO and ISAF. Rudd wrote that the 2010 AUSMIN alliance talks [6] dealt with:

Australia’s new Afghanistan strategy, which clearly defined Uruzgan province as our core mission—in particular the effective training of the Fourth Brigade of the Afghan National Army over the following three years, by which time Australia could complete its mission, hand over responsibility for the province to the Afghan national security forces and bring our forces home.

The cabinet-endorsed timetable set 2013 as the date for the withdrawal. In 2012, Australia accepted the Uruzgan command, saying that that would help manage the transition process.

When the Australians left Tarin Kowt in December 2013, the chief of the ADF, General David Hurley [8], said the eight years in Uruzgan had degraded the insurgency and seen the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade and Afghan National Security Forces develop into a capable force. The provincial reconstruction team and managed works team had successfully built and restored basic infrastructure and essential services throughout the province: ‘Sadly our mission has also come at a cost with the loss of 40 ADF personnel and the wounding of a further 261. We have honoured our fallen by completing the transition of security lead in Uruzgan to the ANSF.’

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021 [9].

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/aspis-decades-the-war-in-afghanistan/

URLs in this post:

[1] ‘containable’: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/import/SI_Afghanistan.pdf?VersionId=nJ8VM0Om56Vdh20ljVmbXME3Xc9pMNxP

[2] ‘war’ was a state-building project: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/import/Policy_analysis17.pdf?VersionId=MVHZ8T_ID45w77.LqMlJlJrZgGK3Yo3N

[3] lacked coherence: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/import/SI40_Afghanistan.pdf?VersionId=958l61G_r8RDjeEJd67jsjkLN.DFv3sK

[4] A long and winding road: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/import/SI_47_Afghanistan.pdf?VersionId=dn6_QuRjzAjbIWRWmPjJNsB4T6bBcpfW

[5] two military cultures: https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/military/No-Front-Line-Chris-Masters-9781760111144

[6] Rudd recalled: https://www.google.com.au/books/edition/The_PM_Years/YwreugEACAAJ?hl=en

[7] killed in Afghanistan: https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/import/7_10_43_PM_Policy_Analysis67_Australia_commitment_Afghanistan.pdf?VersionId=JUkP4gGt62e_eQxlFKkxtdZ.umjxxIEl

[8] David Hurley: https://news.defence.gov.au/media/media-releases/statement-chief-defence-force-conclusion-adf-operations-uruzgan-province

[9] An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/informed-and-independent-voice-aspi-2001-2021

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