The Sydney Morning Herald

So far 33 soldiers have died, some at the hands of Afghan troops we are training.


THE conflict in Afghanistan has lasted more than 10 years, longer than the combined length of our participation in World War I and II. Never have so many people on both sides of the Pacific been questioning its value. An Essential Research poll this week showed support for Australia's withdrawal from Afghanistan has increased from 47 per cent to 64 per cent in the past year, a figure matched in US polls. Yet in his address to Parliament last week, President Barack Obama dedicated only one paragraph to the conflict. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, skipped the subject altogether. One is left with the impression that our political leaders increasingly find it harder to justify a war which drains us of blood and treasure, with no promise of a happy ending.

Make no mistake: we were right to invade Afghanistan in October 2001 to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, and topple the tyrants who gave al-Qaeda shelter. But as the then foreign minister, Alexander Downer, has recognised, that mission has mainly been accomplished. Other goals - routing the Taliban and building a viable democratic state - are beyond our reach.

The government remains a basket case; the local president is corrupt; his brother has been involved in a vast illicit drug trade; our ally Pakistan cannot be trusted; the occupation is costing the Americans $10 billion a month; and Australian deaths have nearly trebled in the past 18 months.

To what extent will the planned withdrawal of 33,000 US troops expose our Diggers to even greater risk? Gillard has failed to answer this. No one should doubt the skill and bravery of our armed forces. But our war aims are incoherent, our exit strategy is never explained, and our presence is exacerbating the problems we went in to solve, serving to destabilise Pakistan rather than to stabilise Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban does not yearn for global martyrdom; they merely want to restore Pashtun rule in Afghanistan. That may not be ideal for the people of that country, but it hardly represents a threat to critical Australian interests.

Would Canberra precipitate a crisis in US-Australia relations by withdrawing our 1550 troops? Hardly. Most NATO leaders have rejected Obama's appeals for extra troops in the south, where most of the fighting is taking place; and other allies - Canada, the Netherlands - have pulled out.

We should leave Afghanistan to the drones and the US elite and specialised forces, and search for a negotiated political settlement. That is what most Australians want. But political pressure needs to grow stronger if withdrawal is to be achieved any time soon.

Tom Switzer is the editor of Spectator Australia and a research associate at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney.


I HAVE been an aid worker with my wife and three kids now, in various parts of Afghanistan since 1999, since before Afghanistan was on the world's lips, before it became a byword for ruination and violence. During these years, I've been shot at, my wife was struck by Taliban thugs, we lost our home and everything in it in the 2001 evacuation; our work has been corrupted, interrupted, our offices shot up and ransacked, our staff beaten and imprisoned, our things stolen and sold, and in the past few years, we have seen our Afghan and international colleagues and friends killed. The Minister for Health in Mazar-i-Sharif still has our office sofas, tables, and last time I was there, he was using my stationary. But one reason why I am still here is because I am waiting for the troops to go. Not just the Australians - all of them. The utter futility of the military effort is not really apparent unless you have been in Afghanistan a long time; but for those of us who have - and there are many in our agency who have been here two and three decades - it is clear that this war is not being won, and will not be won by the international military. Nor will the international aid circus pave the way to peace. If the heads of the coalition effort ever stopped to ask those of us who live here, who speak the languages, who know the culture, and who have seen the folly of short-term hearts-and-minds efforts, the ridiculousness of soldiers teaching plumbing to country boys in towns without running water, we would tell them: it is not working - leave. Take the troops out tomorrow, reduce by 90 per cent the aid budgets. Save yourselves the money, the trouble, the embarrassment.

The Afghan government has no political, security nor economic legitimacy: it is the government in Kabul only, propped up by the US. The Afghan army and police are hopeless, as every Afghan knows (at a recent gunslinging in the next street, the police arrived, the belligerent threatened to shoot them, the police ran away), and the economy rides on a cloud of foreign money, with only 8 per cent of the budget generated internally. To remove the troops will lead to a crash, but that crash is inevitable, and better to have and get it done now, than waste more years.

Go away, and let us keep doing our work, alongside our Afghan colleagues. They will sort it out, slowly, untidily, incompletely. But it will be their solution, and if they aren't altogether sick of foreigners, we'll be here to assist. On their terms, in their time.

Phil Sparrow is a volunteer with TEAR Australia (Transformation, Empowerment, Advocacy, Relief).


I UNDERSTAND completely that the deaths of Australian military personnel at the hands of Afghan National Army colleagues have hastened calls for Australia to return from Afghanistan immediately. But making strategic decisions on the basis of emotion alone is problematic, and satisfies only our enemies.

One commentator likened an immediate departure to a surgeon abandoning surgery halfway through, quickly sewing the patient up and leaving them on the operating table to fend for themselves. We must base our Afghanistan strategy on sound judgment, not on opinion polling and snap responses to unforeseeable battle casualties. There is no science which can predict how many casualties Australia will suffer before we return, no mechanism by which we can adjust our military strategy to reduce the risk of casualties to zero.

The war in Afghanistan has been resourced effectively only since 2009. Before the US surge of 30,000 troops into southern Afghanistan much of Uruzgan couldn't be reached by the International Security Assistance Force; there were simply too few helicopters to move them around. The US deployed a combat aviation brigade into Kandahar airbase in 2009, bringing with it more than 100 helicopters. A substantial proportion of these are based with Australian forces in Tarin Kowt. That surge of capability has been a game changer, allowing coalition forces to strike into Taliban safe havens in valleys throughout Uruzgan and neighbouring provinces. This has created a window of opportunity in which the Afghan National Security Forces and Uruzgan provincial government have been able to expand their influence and protection. But when the US draws down its military presence in southern Afghanistan, so too will we.

Even in the best military scenarios for Afghanistan there is no decisive victory over either the Taliban or the corruption that plagues the fledgling Afghan governments. Security, development, and governance alike will all be only a little better than before. But a little better is everything to the Afghans. A military colleague recently recalled driving through Kandahar in 2002 and seeing nothing but grey. Now colour proliferates in the villages of southern Afghanistan. That's still worth fighting to preserve.

James Brown is the military associate at the Lowy Institute and served in Afghanistan with the ADF.


AFGHANISTAN has long been one of the most crucial regions for global security. In the 1980s the Soviets fought a long and brutal war, killing almost one million people. The CIA, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia confronted the USSR by sending money and arms to the most extreme factions of the Afghan resistance such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whom we fight today. When the Soviets withdrew, the West turned its back while a brutal civil war raged that led to the rise of the Taliban and the emergence of al-Qaeda. The region became a major source of heroin. Then came September 11 and a mismanaged US intervention that neglected the task of state-building, missed crucial opportunities to reconcile with the deposed Taliban leadership, and overemphasised the use of force. As a result, the Taliban began a new insurgency that is only now showing signs of being overcome.

The Afghan conflict is a product of the damage done to a complex society by decades of war and bad policy. Such damage cannot be repaired quickly. Critics of the war are right to raise concerns about casualties, human rights, corruption and the time it is taking to see success. However, to withdraw Australian and other ISAF forces before 2014 would compound past failed policy with something even worse.

The danger is that the Taliban would resurge, and brutalise other ethnic groups as it mounts a new drive on major cities. The Afghan army could fracture and warlords take over, providing a semblance of security in their own regions but fighting viciously among each other. The economic and human costs of such a conflict would dwarf anything Afghanis suffer today. Extremists could flow back to Taliban-controlled territory, and a nuclear-armed Pakistan be further destabilised.

Since at least 2009 Afghanistan's diplomatic partners have been committed to finding a military and policy approach that will reform Afghanistan, bring security to its people, and give them access to education, health and economic opportunities. Its aim is also to end the war as soon as is feasible. If that process is too slow, let's criticise that, but not destroy the gains that have been made. With direct military support to 2014, and other assistance after that, Afghanistan has its last and best chance to break free of its terrible past.

Anthony Burke is associate professor of international politics at UNSW, Canberra.