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? 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.

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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.

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.

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.

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