Finishing the job
In central Asia, the mountains stand beautiful but in striking contrast to the valleys and landscapes below. Snow-peaked, barren, and bare above the tree-line, the grey behemoths peak at nearly 14,000 feet (4,200 m) above sea level, a product of the collision of the Indian and Eurasian continental plates fifty million years ago. There, among bone-coloured rocks lies the glacial detritus of a never-ending cold. The sky is blue and clear and stretches forever beyond the ranges. These are the mountains of the Hindu Kush. From their extremity in central Afghanistan, they stretch more than five hundred miles to the east where they meet with the even more forbidding Karakoram Ranges of Tibet and Pakistan. From here one can view the ‘roof of the world’ – the mountainous interior of Asia, including the Pamirs, the Himalayas and the Altai Mountains.
The landscape below is green, pastured and fertile, irrigated by streams of melting snow. Some stands of cedar and pine trees cloak the foothills. Where these give way to the open meadows, there are villages of mud-bricked houses, forming wherever there is a spring or a stream. Around them lie areas that have been cultivated and sewn with wheat, beans, barley and sometimes rice for thousands of years; while closer to the dwellings, mulberries, jujube and walnut trees predominate. These small settlements are predominantly of the Pashtun, Tajik and Hazara peoples, who live in parallel to nomadic herdsmen. The nomads, or Kuchi, keep horses, sheep and goats whose meat and milk are exchanged or sold for grain, vegetables, fruit and modern necessities. To the Western eye, it is a strange, pre-modern environment. And it was into these mountains in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan Province that Australian troops returned on operations in 2005.
The deliberate crashing of four commercial jetliners into the New York World Trade Centre and Pentagon buildings on 11 September 2001 by al-Qaeda terrorists galvanised the world. It was a shocking, asymmetric act, craven and ignoble in equal measure. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and 9/11, as it came to be known, precipitated an existential threat to the United States unseen since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier. US President George W. Bush’s intelligence services quickly learned that several of the hijackers had trained in Afghanistan; and there, the al-Qaeda organisation and its leader, Osama bin Laden, were granted sanctuary by the brutal Taliban regime. Matters moved quickly. Australian Prime Minister John Howard was present in Washington during the 11 September attacks and they had a deep effect on him. He returned to Australia two days later to invoke the ANZUS Treaty for the first and only time in its history. “It is an attack upon the way of life we hold dear in common with the Americans. It does require the invocation of ANZUS. The provisions of ANZUS do in our view apply and the Cabinet came to that view.”
The US administration’s immediate plan was to oust the Taliban from power as a means of disrupting al-Qaeda. On 20 September, Bush demanded that Taliban leader Mohammed Omar “deliver to United States authorities all the leaders of al-Qaeda who hide in your land.” Omar refused and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), the US-led effort to depose the Taliban and destroy Osama bin Laden’s network, began on 7 October 2001 under the aegis of UN Security Council Resolution 1373.
Howard was firm that Australia’s military support to the US would both target the Taliban regime and showcase an Australian métier for operational excellence. Australia’s Operation SLIPPER commenced on 22 October 2001 when a Special Forces Task Group (SFTG) deployed to Afghanistan. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) also deployed a headquarters to Kuwait, several ships to a Multinational Force in the Persian Gulf, and various aircraft to different locations across the Middle East, with an emphasis on Western technology. It comprised long-range precision air power integrated with real-time targeting provided by mobile Special Forces teams embedded with anti-Taliban Afghans. Using this “Afghan model”, Coalition Special Forces cut supply lines and communications, destroyed many hundreds of vehicles and bunkers, and captured or killed thousands of Taliban fighters.
By December, Kabul was in Coalition hands, and the Taliban regime was in flight. An interim government was formed and the UN mandated an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to provide security as reconstruction began across the nation. In March 2002 Operation Anaconda marked the ‘final’ battle of this short conflict when Coalition (including Australian) forces pushed into Afghanistan’s high eastern ranges, where hard-core Taliban and al Qaeda militants held out. The Taliban were decisively defeated, though bin Laden, rumoured to be with them, evaded capture.
The war appeared to have been won with relative ease. In April 2002 President Bush outlined the path ahead. “We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army.”
The bulk of US combat troops withdrew, leaving a force to assist in the transition to a stable government. Australia left a sole advisor in Kabul. In May 2003, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced an end to “major combat” in Afghanistan. NATO subsequently assumed leadership of the international force in August 2003, and democratic elections were held on 9 October 2004. Hamid Karzai was voted into a five-year term as president. Western attention was now fixed on the parallel conflict in Iraq, and the Taliban – never quite vanquished – used the vacuum to best effect.
Karzai led a powerful central government with weak regional outreach. His was a nation beset with sectarian and ethnic divisions, and one in which the Taliban rapidly reasserted its presence with tactics modelled on those being used in Iraq. By 2006, Afghanistan was a nation of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs); where the rule of fundamentalist violence usurped the rule of law. It was an ‘acutely fragile state’ with social indicators among the worst in the world. The escalating insurgency, narco-economics and politics, high-level corruption and rampant banditry all created a climate of lawlessness and impunity.
Return to Afghanistan
One of the questions stemming from this period centres on why the ADF returned to Afghanistan in 2005. Given the security situation, the answer seems straightforward – but there are nuances to this. For much of its federated history, Australia had understandably relied on friendly 'great powers' in matters of economics and military strategy. Australia had a small population and a lengthy seaboard. It was isolated from its modern European heritage, and it lay in the southern hemisphere, where it has been described as ‘an island off the coast of Asia’. Until the Statute of Westminster was enacted in 1942, Australia’s status as a Dominion in the British Empire also ensured that it had legal ties to the United Kingdom. Australia’s post-war foreign policy followed a similar path. Australian combat troops deployed widely to Malaya and Borneo with the British during the 1950s and 1960s.
However, it is the 1951 Australia, New Zealand and United States (ANZUS) Treaty that has been most enduring. The articles of ANZUS outline the commitments of the signatories to “consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened” and “act to meet the common danger”. This rationale underwrote the commitment of troops to Afghanistan in 2001. Howard’s government also held that defeating threats such as those posed by the Taliban represented a security interest that lay beyond Australia’s immediate region. Again, Australia subsequently committed troops to Iraq – with little reservation – when the US invaded that country in 2003. Even so, in 2001 ANZUS provided a neat arrangement that had served Australian interests well for more than 50 years.
The invasion of Iraq shifted Western focus from Afghanistan. By 2005, there was undoubted hedging associated with the Australian government’s decision to return there. But the notion of returning ‘to finish the job’ was a subtlety not lost on those observing parliamentary exchanges at the time. It was also inherent in the ministerial announcement that troops would redeploy. “We think it’s important that the progress made in Afghanistan is preserved and consolidated and that the resurgence of violence and the resurgence of attempts by the Taliban to undermine the Government of that country are not successful.”
Notwithstanding this, the government did not want to bear the cost associated with the commitment of a large force. It therefore pledged another 190-strong Special Forces Task Group to provide security in Uruzgan Province in central Afghanistan. The SFTG was shortly joined by a supporting contingent of 110 personnel and two Chinook helicopters operating from Kandahar airfield to the south of Uruzgan. The decision to use an SFTG was measured. Australian Special Forces were considered reliable, highly professional and were less likely to incur casualties. They offered a niche skill similar to their role in 2001. The group deployed in September 2005. By 2006, the SFTG’s work had expanded to prepare the ground for a Dutch-led ISAF Provincial Reconstruction Team which would arrive late in the year. The Dutch command would also include a follow-on ADF 270-man Reconstruction Task Force (RTF) deployed to Uruzgan’s Tarin Kowt.
Under the leadership of a NATO member state, the Australian RTF commenced building Afghan infrastructure and the SFTG rotated back to Australia. It was tough going. Despite the achievements of the SFTG, the conflict continued to descend into a counter-insurgency. This made it an incredibly complex affair. Conducting a counter-insurgency required a ‘whole of government’ approach geared to providing governance, stability, as well as security. Depictions of Australian troops in combat still featured regularly in the media, but a ‘whole of government’ approach meant more than military operations.
Nation-building activities were initiated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Federal Police and Australian Aid. Despite this, the US still bore the brunt of work in wider Afghanistan, and it continued to lobby Australia for further contributions. In late 2006, the US requested that Australia assume responsibility for command and control of the battlespace above Afghanistan by deploying an Air Force Air Battle Management (ABM) Mobile Control and a Reporting Centre (MCRC) to Kandahar airfield. This was high-end technology that gave the Coalition a decisive edge in combat operations.
Air Battle Management is arcane, but it is worth describing. It involves the collection and dissemination of radar and communications data which are used to build situational awareness in a three-dimensional battlespace. It is a difficult skill to achieve. Even so, the Royal Australian Air Force is one of the few air forces in the world that has mastered the technical and cognitive requirements of this aspect of air power. This fact, in addition to the small 75-man footprint taken up by the MCRC and its equipment on a secure airfield, was a persuasive feature for deploying the capability. Indeed, over its 100-year history, the RAAF’s ability to employ interoperable equipment to best effect, in concert with larger partners, has made Australia a trusted friend. In February 2007, the new Minister for Defence, Brendan Nelson, received notice that the RAAF could meet a commitment to deploy the MCRC to Kandahar, and the government gave this undertaking to the US in March. Deploying in June, the MCRC offered an essential service to ISAF for the next two years. There was more: the security situation in Uruzgan had again degraded to a point where the Australian government made the decision to redeploy a Special Operations Task Group back into the province. These rolling commitments would have a cumulative effect.
It is difficult to pinpoint a particular time when ‘mission creep’ started to occur for Australia in Afghanistan, but if there was one, then it surely stems from the period after late 2006. Around this time, the focus for subsequent Reconstruction Task Forcess turned from infrastructure development to mentored reconstruction as ISAF sought to hand responsibility over to Afghanistan. From 2007, Australia further widened its contributions from kinetically degrading (shooting) Taliban insurgents, to one of mentored reconstruction. Developing indigenous capacity, building the Afghan army, partnering it into battle: none of these things had been part of the original charter.
The ADF remained in Uruzgan for eight years. The war resulted in the deaths of 41 Australian troops and another 260 wounded. Australia invested more than $16 billion into Afghanistan and then departed with apparent confusion. There were awful allegations of Australian criminality on operations, and the Taliban easily reclaimed the territory the West had wrested from them. In hindsight, it is difficult to conceive how the Australian government or ADF did not recognise the potential for these circumstances to eventuate in Afghanistan – but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Australia entered the fight in Afghanistan in 2001 with good intentions. In mid-2003 the new nation was at a point of transition, from which a very real potential might have been realised. Major operations had ended, and humanitarian support was facilitating an emerging government’s reconstruction efforts. It did not work. The resolve of the Taliban was indefatigable; the challenges confronting the West in this foreign land were too difficult to overcome. In Australia, the debate will continue for many years over why and how we became embroiled in a conflict two decades long. The lessons will be many and sometimes hard, but these are lessons that the nation should learn well.