An Unwinnable War: Australia in Afghanistan By Karen Middleton Melbourne University Press Melbourne 2011

Inside Pine Gap: The spy who came in from the desert By David Rosenberg Hardie Grant Books Melbourne 2011

Karen Middleton has a good eye for what journalists call a fascinating detail—for that inessential touch which brings the story alive and lingers in the memory. Here, for example, is Australia 10 years ago in the tense days after 9/11. The Qantas 747, which was bringing prime minister John Howard back to Canberra from America, could not land at the airport. The air traffic controller had slept in! Or here are Australian soldiers at the Dutch-Australian base in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, complaining to then defence minister Brendan Nelson about having to eat Dutch pickled herrings for breakfast. And here are the anthrax hoaxes of 2002 when parliamentary staff were publicly sheep-drenched—showered fully clothed and then naked—in the prime minister’s courtyard, a one-off winter exercise which Middleton observed from the window of a heated second floor.

If you think these droll anecdotes are mere folderol, consider Middleton’s report of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s press conference about the 21st death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan in August 2010, just after the federal election. The journalists questioned her closely about the spike in casualties. They asked repeatedly: ‘Is the war being won?’ ‘When will there be a full Parliamentary debate on the war?’ As the media left the room, Gillard turned to then defence minister John Faulkner and said: “That’s the moment”—the moment when it was clear that the public attitude to the war had changed from support to scepticism. Middleton calls this chapter “Turning Point”.

The whole book, An Unwinnable War, is about this turning point, the lead up to it and the subsequent conduct of the war. Her title does not mean that she thinks a conventional defeat is inevitable. She means that we are engaged in a conflict that may last for generations without resolution. She asks if we are really prepared for that.

 Middleton’s book is a sort of Afghanistan notebook or diary of the war, politics and personal experience. She has been to Afghanistan twice and in March 2007 was the target of a rocket-propelled grenade that just missed her chopper; her cameraman filmed it. But the diary starts in Washington on the morning of 9/11. Middleton was nursing a hangover from a spectacular barbecue the night before in the grounds of the Australian ambassador’s residence. At the same time a tracksuited John Howard and his besneakered staffers were exercising along the capital’s boulevards. Just before 9am a plane hit the World Trade Centre. Back in Melbourne, then opposition leader Kim Beazley said: “There goes the election.”

On October 22, at the peak of the campaign for the 2001 federal election, an advance party of the Australian Special Air Service set out for Afghanistan. Howard wanted Australia to be part of a short, surgical operation with no messy nation-building. Within a year, following the early defeat of the Taliban regime and the installing of a new government in Kabul under Hamid Kazai, our forces came home. As general Peter Cosgrove put it later: “Australia is not running around looking for wars to stay in.”

But there were game-changers: in Bali, London, Madrid, Jakarta and Baghdad, and above all the resurgence of the Taliban. By March 2007 we were back again in Afghanistan with forces finally numbering 1550, including what was later named the Mentoring Task Force and was committed to nation-building. Meanwhile, the Howard government was defeated in November 2007, political parties changed their leaders, and public support for the war in Afghanistan declined. But Prime Minister Gillard sees no repeat of the ill-judged withdrawal of 2002. This time we are there, she says, for the long haul—at least until 2020.

Middleton ends her book quoting two assessments. Professor Hugh White, from the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, is a prophet of doom and doubts that our commitment will bring about a better life for Afghans or even reduce the risk of terrorist attacks on Australia. But Ric Smith, speaking as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, says that to leave now will encourage extremists everywhere and gravely damage the American alliance.

We cannot cut and run.

An Unwinnable War is a useful, sensitive and readable summary of the war years. My main quibble is that while she sums up the pros and cons of the war, she squibs on a definitive judgment of her own. We expect a bit more than her last line: “It’s been 10 years. Perhaps it’s time.”

The Australian effort in Afghanistan has not been limited to the Special Forces or the Mentoring Task Force; it has also included the intelligence gathering of the joint US-Australian defence facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs.

Professor of Strategic and Defence Studies at the Australian National University, Desmond Ball, says the base is “one of the largest, most important, and most secret US intelligence collection stations in the world.” Its satellites suck up signals from around the world “like a vacuum cleaner”, as described by former CIA employee Victor Marchetti, and beam them down to Pine Gap for analysis.

In his autobiographical and jargon-free Inside Pine Gap: The spy who came in from the desert, the American David Rosenberg describes his 18 years as “a hi-tech spy” in the facility, where he had access to top-secret data and operations, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It ends with his disenchantment with US policies under president George W. Bush, his adoption of Australian citizenship, and his decision to write this book. Desmond Ball advised him that the “intelligence mandarins” in Washington would “have apoplexy” when they heard of his plan. But in the end the US National Security Agency approved his manuscript with only limited censorship, and Ball has written a congratulatory foreword.

The book honours the work of Pine Gap and strongly supports the American-Australian alliance, yet Rosenberg clearly has reservations. When the Afghanistan-based al Qaeda terrorists attacked the United States on 9/11, the American intelligence agencies, including Pine Gap, were taken completely by surprise. Rosenberg’s worried and sometimes panic-stricken American family and friends privately sought his expert advice on what they should do. Rosenberg urged them to do what he was doing: watch CNN. It knew, he said, more about what was going on than he and his colleagues did.