Friday 29 May 2020 | 11:44 | SYDNEY
Friday 29 May 2020 | 11:44 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: One token after another

7 December 2009 15:15

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Rodger Shanahan is right — our response to Obama's Afghanistan surge is low-risk and low-return. But that characterises our overall response to Afghanistan.

Our troops are still restricted in what they can do (though less so than in Iraq, and they are doing some good work). Their major restriction is that there are just not enough of them. As Rodger describes, our civilian component is restricted in its movement because we have not put in enough troops to establish a permissive environment, and is limited by its tiny size.

The ten policeman whose deployment was announced in April were still not all in Oruzgan Province many months later and it would be interesting to know if they are all there now (or have they opted for Kabul?). Peter Leahy points out that perhaps the AFP is not yet ready for Afghanistan, and implies that perhaps there is a need for more security before we deploy any police. Lots of things create security, but the first is normally troops (or gendarmerie or field force police, but not the AFP).

The electoral component of Australia's 'mini-mini surge' of April, a rifle company of 120 soldiers, only became operational a few days before the election and so would have contributed almost nothing to making the election successful. Elections need months of shaping before polling day so that polling day is an anti-climax. I'm not sure if the company has now returned home. That would be a shame at a time when our major coalition partner is begging its friends for troops. Could we not even keep 120 soldiers in place for this critical year?

The Australian has questioned the overall number of our troops in Oruzgan as being far less than the 1550 that has been officially touted. The Minister responded in a letter to the editor that did not address the issue but righteously defended the ADF, saying that they were not 'risk averse'. Of course, it is not the military that is risk adverse, but the Government.

Regardless of why we are in Afghanistan, it is still pertinent to ask whether our contribution is effective. There is no doubt that what our troops and civilians are doing is worthwhile. But should we be happy with just that? Is 'being there' more important than an outcome? And if a token presence was ever of value, is that still the case now after Obama's surge?

In a recent opinion piece on the Obama surge in The Australian, I asked two questions that are pertinent to judging the effectiveness of the overall Australian contribution:

Can Australia now play its part in the restated Obama strategy in Oruzgan Province of “disrupt, dismantle and defeat”? At best, despite the fine efforts of our soldiers, we can only do a bit of disruption because there are not enough troops.

Can Australia even achieve its own goal of training the Afghan army in the province to take over from us? It is going OK at the moment but we are still only training a proportion of the total. When we need the rest to be capable, our troop deficiency will be even more obvious.

In 2004 we trained Iraqi troops in barracks and did not accompany them outside because of the risk of casualties. As a result, the brigade we trained was rendered non-operational over a period of time by intimidation and incompetence that could have been almost totally avoided if we had lived and fought with them as the US troops were doing. When I tried to deploy them into Mosul during the second battle of Fallujah, they were unusable. Almost the only Iraqi troops that were usable were those accompanied by US trainers.

To the credit of our fine soldiers, our mentors are fighting with the Afghans. Let's hope our police can do the same. When the war really gets going this year, and the Oruzgan battalions are needed by the Afghan army in another province, will their Australian trainers be able to accompany them? Training requires both trainers ('mentors') and troops to fight alongside ('partners').

Australia seems to be satisfied with a token presence in a war that no longer needs tokens, if it ever did. We are refusing to take responsibility for the province when the Dutch go, and I cannot imagine that the Dutch are going to be on the front foot over the next ten months to try to win our little part of the war in Obama's critical year. Now the PM is proposing sending more police into an environment we have failed to secure.

I am not knocking our soldiers' efforts. Their courage and tactical brilliance is the one shining light in Australia's involvement. Let's hope, like in Phouc Tuy Province, it is not all made irrelevant by a lack of understanding of what such a war is about. Security first, then put in the police and civilians.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department. Image was digitally altered for operational security reasons.