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Coalition Blues

Are we winning the war in Afghanistan? It’s a hard question to answer. The better question may be: which war? The military mission?

By Joel Fitzgibbon for

Are we winning the war in Afghanistan? It’s a hard question to answer. The better question may be: which war? The military mission? The war for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people? Or the struggle to secure agreement among the International Security Afghanistan Force (ISAF) partners, on a coherent strategic plan which could deliver secure democracy and stability in the war-weary South Asian country?

Before attempting to answer these questions, it’s important to first acknowledge that significant progress has been made in Afghanistan. Economic growth is currently running at an impressive 8 per cent. Healthcare in Afghanistan also continues to improve and spread: more than 80 per cent of the population now has access to basic healthcare services, and infant mortality rates continue to steadily decline. The number of Afghan children receiving an education now exceeds six million, the highest number of enrolled school children in Afghan history.

For Australia’s part, our Defence Force engineers, tradespeople and project managers are rebuilding local infrastructure. They have helped construct roads and bridges, redeveloped the Tarin Kowt Provincial Hospital and the local Boys’ High School, and assisted in the construction of a causeway across the Garmab Mandah River. The causeway has both facilitated commercial trade and improved access to health services. Our Reconstruction Task Force also built and continues to run a Trade Training School which provides the local population with the essential trade and construction skills they need to rebuild their own province.

All these facts suggest real, if only steady, progress. Importantly, they also provide ISAF partners with evidence to reassure their own citizens that the international effort to secure and rebuild Afghanistan is a worthy cause and that success is much more than a pipe-dream.

But while progress has been made, we cannot ignore the reality that more than six years after the Taliban was ousted from power, success in Afghanistan is not a given.

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I recently travelled to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, for a number of bilateral meetings and two important larger gatherings. The first was a meeting of Defence Ministers from Afghanistan’s Regional Command South (RC(S)): defence ministers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, Estonia, Romania and Denmark. That discussion followed a meeting of the same group in Edinburgh last December at which RC(S) members agreed to work on new strategies for the south and for Afghanistan more broadly. The intention is for the RC(S) plans to become our contribution to the development of NATO’s own strategic document for the future of Afghanistan.

The second meeting was a gathering of all NATO Defence Ministers and included Ministerial representation from non-NATO ISAF participants. This provided counties like Australia with a seat at the “big table” for the first time.

It is appropriate that Australia be invited to play a role and have a say on the strategic decisions which must be made to guarantee success in Afghanistan. With more than 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, Australia is the largest non-NATO contributor to the military campaign and the tenth largest overall.

Our contribution includes a Reconstruction Task Force and a Special Operations Task Group. It also has a Royal Australian Air Force Control and Reporting Unit, a national command and support element, and officers embedded in ISAF headquarters.

What many of our partners may not understand is that Australia faces enormous concurrency issues. We have a significant number of troops and assets in East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and smaller commitments in a number of other counties. Indeed, around half of our infantry and cavalry are committed to overseas deployments or the logistics supporting those deployments. On this basis, we expect our partners to understand that our commitment in Afghanistan is a substantial and very significant one.

Further, if we are to continue to send our people to war, we expect to be an equal partner – to have access to relevant operational information, and to have a say in future strategy development. No government can make informed decisions about whether to send its troops to war, or keep them involved in a war, if it does not have access to the information which allows it to assess the merits of the war plan, the risks, and the prospects of success.

For Australia, failure is not an option. Too many have given their lives for the cause. We cannot allow their efforts and sacrifices to have been in vain. Nor can we let down all those Afghans who have put their lives at risk, or indeed given their lives, by working with ISAF.

So what is the way forward? In terms of Australia’s efforts to be more included in the decision making processes, I have been encouraged by the responses I received to our request. The prospects of success in Afghanistan also remains encouraging, but only if ISAF partners show more urgency and discipline.

Constantly adapting to changing dynamics is critical to mission success. The international community is largely unified on the question of the importance of the Afghanistan project. It undoubtedly understands the consequences of failure: fuel for the growth of Islamic extremism and terrorism; a free rein for the narco-barons who cultivate more than 90 per cent of the world’s opium, a new era of misery for Afghans, particularly women and children, and regional instability. Failure to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan would have tragic consequences both for the Afghan community and the broader international community.

For Australia, the consequences of failure are real. In our own region it would likely mean new terrorist threats and the rise of a support base and network for terrorist groups. The global supply of heroin would grow and more of it would find its way to our cities, towns and suburbs.

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There is also broad agreement and acknowledgement that progress in Afghanistan has slowed, and that a new strategy, new directions and greater troop numbers will be required to achieve success. Unfortunately, this consensus does not extend to who should be committing the additional troops and under what terms and conditions they should be provided.

This particular issue was the elephant in the room in Vilnius. Minister after Minister took the opportunity to re-state their country’s commitment to the Afghanistan project. Some smaller countries announced or re-announced recent decisions to do more. But the silence of some of the larger NATO countries on this issue was deafening. If that silence extends beyond Bucharest, I fear for the future of the Afghanistan mission.

Success will require more troops with greater flexibility, better coordination, and a greater focus on non-military initiatives. ISAF soldiers are doing their bit and it is time their political masters ensured that a coherent strategy was in place to guarantee long-term success in Afghanistan.

There are encouraging signs that NATO members are coming to accept that more needs to be done. Post-Vilnius, I am hopeful that NATO’s Bucharest meeting in April will produce a new document which both recognises the current campaign’s short-comings and recommends solutions. However, the proof is always in the implementation. For example, acknowledging more troops are needed is one thing. Securing additional commitment is another.

New directions are needed in at least two areas. First, those NATO countries which are not pulling their weight need to provide more troops and remove the caveats attached to their mission which restricts what their troops can do and where they can do it. Without sufficient security we cannot succeed in Afghanistan.

NATO and its allies, including Australia, have around 50,000 troops in Afghanistan. By contrast, in Iraq, a country roughly two-thirds the size of Afghanistan, 170,000 US and other foreign military personnel are working to bed down democracy. Allied forces in Kosovo, an area less than 2 per cent the size of Afghanistan, peaked at 50,000 during the KFOR [Kosovo Force] Operations in the late 1990s. While the circumstances and challenges in Afghanistan are different to those in Iraq and Kosovo, the contrast in numbers is stark.

The commitment of NATO countries varies. The United States, Canada, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, and other countries are making vital contributions. Other NATO members are contributing to the extent they are able. There is a growing consensus that some countries remain unwilling to make hard choices and more substantial contributions. Their reasons are varied and sometimes understandable: many have already lost people and face strong pressure within their domestic constituencies. However, we support the view that ISAF is a NATO-led force and NATO has the responsibilities to provide appropriate troops as part of its leadership mission in Afghanistan.

NATO has identified the need for some 7,000 additional troops for combat and training support. Despite this, there have not been adequate contributions from the alliance’s combined 3.8 million military personnel. NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, has publicly stated that those NATO members “who perhaps are doing less in Afghanistan should think: Shouldn’t we do more?” The Secretary General went on to acknowledge that: “There are certainly a number of [NATO] allies who can do more”. At Vilnius, I pointed out that the failure of some NATO countries to pull their weight is putting pressure on countries like Australia which are heavily committed with numerous deployments around the globe.

The United States has recently announced the temporary deployment of around 3,200 marines to confront the anticipated upsurge in violence after the winter period. Poland, which is already making a significant contribution, has pledged around 400 more troops. The announcement that Germany would be providing soldiers for a Quick Reaction Force in Afghanistan is also a positive development.

Second, blurred lines of command are a barrier to success and greater coherence will be necessary to achieve the greatest effect with those forces at ISAF’s disposal.

Third, we must do more on the non-military side and better coordinate military, civil and political initiatives. Concerted military efforts in the absence of a broader strategy is a recipe for failure.

Fourth, both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police lack the critical mass required to hold the gains ISAF forces make and in the longer term, the ability to maintain the rule of law in the war-weary country.

ISAF forces are busy disrupting Taliban activities and denying the insurgents safe haven and sanctuary. This improves the overall security in the region by denying the insurgents the opportunity to plan and prepare for attacks. But our collective forces are growing tired of clearing areas of insurgents only to have them return because the Afghan security forces do not have the strength to hold them.

Fifth, new strategies are urgently needed to stem the growth of Afghanistan’s opium trade. Current counter narcotics efforts need to be enhanced. Eradication programs are currently poorly targeted which could have the effect of punishing impoverished sections of the Afghan community, while wealthy producers have often avoided destruction of their crops. International counter narcotics programs often overlap and can be counter-productive when poorly conceived eradication drives up the price of opium, or leaves poor farmers with little choice but to join the insurgents. As a consequence, Afghan opium production continues to grow and now accounts for over 90 per cent of global illicit output. This growth has occurred despite the many millions of dollars spent by the international community to counter it. The failure to counter the narcotics industry is seriously undermining the international effort, and damages the credibility of the Afghan Government. Worse, the opium trade fuels the insurgency through a steady flow of funding.

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The sixth point is about economic development more generally. Democracy cannot function without a viable economy. Greater efforts are needed to accelerate the various programs designed to stimulate economic development.

The seventh area is governance and the establishment of a fully functioning and robust justice system. Crime and corruption are the cancers of the democratic project. Again, efforts are being made, but much more needs to be done.

The eighth area is aid. Partners to the Afghanistan project need to consider the additional return they will receive for their aid investment if it reaches the critical levels required to ensure long-term success. It may be much cheaper than sustaining military efforts for decades to come.

Ninth is the overall coordination of all these activities and initiatives. The search to find a special envoy to coordinate these efforts is a worthy one. Yet producing this person seems to be elusive. President Karzai’s rejection of Paddy Ashdown is a disappointing set-back but a new player must be found soon.

Many will say that substantial work is already being done in each of the areas I’ve identified. That is true. But is it enough? Is the test the current rate of progress?

In Vilnius, work continued on the development of a new strategic, coordinated and holistic approach. The good news is that the areas requiring improvement have been identified. There are signs that greater progress will come soon. We all know what we want for Afghanistan, its people and for the safety and security of our own people. The war in Afghanistan is winnable. The real war lies in securing consensus on how to get there.

The Hon Joel Fitzgibbon is Australian Minister of Defence