The Sunday Herald Sun


What is Australia's Afghan mission in 2012? It remains unclear.

When Julia Gillard says anything about the campaign, it's usually in response to a death or tragedy. That is no way to run a war that has lasted longer than the world wars.

The Prime Minister should instead be explaining clearly what the strategy is, why it is being pursued and why our blood (33 Diggers killed and more than 200 wounded thus far) and treasure ($1.3 billion this financial year alone) are worth it.

In the light of this month's killing of 16 villagers by an unhinged US soldier and the subsequent backlash, it's time to re-examine the intentions of Australian policy in the region.

In October 2001, we were right to invade Afghanistan for the sensible and limited objective of toppling the tyrants who were harbouring the perpetrators of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

That mission, as then-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer recognises, is accomplished. Osama bin Laden and his cohorts have been either killed or captured. And according to the CIA, al-Qa'ida no longer has a strategic presence in Afghanistan.

After more than 10 years in the war on terrorism, the Afghan campaign appears to have evolved into something utterly futile: a naive crusade to transform a tribally divided and xenophobic land into a stable, liberal, democratic country that is friendly towards women.

The Prime Minister maintains our role is to ensure democracy and a functioning government take hold. But the lesson of the Iraq and Afghanistan missions is that democracy, far from being an export commodity to alien cultures, is a do-it-yourself enterprise that requires special conditions and circumstances.

Afghanistan is hardly fertile terrain to create a viable liberal democratic state. It is one of the world's poorest and most primitive societies, its infrastructure is poorly developed, its terrain is more forbidding than that of even Iraq, the Karzai Government is corrupt and elections have been deeply flawed.

"Of course, an incident (like the killing of the 16 civilians) is a truly distressing one, but it's not going to distract us from our purpose in Afghanistan and our clear sense of mission in Afghanistan," maintains the Prime Minister. "We know what we're there to do."

In that case, Julia Gillard might like to share it with the rest of us. With Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy seeking a settlement with the Taliban and hastening plans to get the US, British and French troops out of this quagmire in the wake of recent events, it's time for Australia to do the same.

Tom Switzer is research associate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of Spectator Australia


It's hard to see progress in the Afghanistan conflict in a week in which a US soldier has massacred 16 Afghan civilians, the Taliban has broken off peace talks and our presidential ally, Harmid Karzai, has demanded all coalition troops return to their bases.It's understandable that these incidents hasten calls to accelerate the removal of Australian troops from Uruzgan. So let's consider what Uruzgan would look like if we were to heed calls in Parliament last week for an immediate withdrawal of the Australian contingent.

For a start, we need to consider the sheer logistics of moving combat troops, their armoured vehicles and hundreds of container-loads of equipment out of Tarin Kowt. It took the incoming 2007 Rudd government the better part of a year to achieve the easier task of moving Australian troops out of Iraq. The move from Tarin Kowt would be a more complex and risky endeavour. So we should appreciate that there really is no such thing as an immediate withdrawal.

But an accelerated withdrawal would mean prematurely ending the Australian Defence Forces's support for the Uruzgan rule of law program that trains Afghan police, prosecutors and judges and perhaps not achieving a critical mass of local professionals trained in justice and human rights.

It would mean aborting Australia's embryonic support for a public defender's office in Uruzgan.

A hasty departure would leave the many NGOs delivering aid and development in the province without a plan for their security and protected movement, seriously hampering Ausaid-sponsored programs that are improving primary education and rural development. The Capacity Building Project for Uruzgan, which Ausaid began last year with the Netherlands Government, aims to teach civil servants in Uruzgan how to read.

Closing that program a year early could be the difference between having a mayor in Tarin Kowt who can read and one who can't.

Removing our ADF mentor teams early might not leave the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade enough time to consolidate its position in new patrol bases, or to learn how to resupply its brigade operations with fuel and food. Shifting our Special Operations Task Group earlier might make it harder for Afghans in towns like Gizab to consolidate their own security, after having received Australian help to overthrow Taliban warlords in their area.

Amid a deluge of bad news from Afghanistan, it is easy to forget that what our people in Uruzgan achieve in the next year can still shape the future for Afghans there. But there are no quick ways to end the pain of the Afghan war and we must remain patient.

James Brown is the Military Fellow at the Lowy Institute and served in Afghanistan with the ADF