We can and will win this war
Apart from the two stars stitched onto his collar, there’s not much that sets Major General John Cantwell apart from his troops. And that is the way that Cantwell, who heads all of Australia’s Middle Eastern operations, seems to like it.
Cantwell, who turned 54 on Saturday, the day he escorted Tony Abbott on his visit to the Coalition base at Tarin Kowt, in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, is an interesting study in the modern soldier.
At least, he comes across that way. Because access to the Australian military is quite limited, it’s hard to tell if Cantwell is an exception or reflects the easy intelligence – brain-power intelligence, not the secret stuff – of the Australian military in 2010.
Cantwell is not guarded when he discusses the Australian mission in Afghanistan. He talks so openly it is clear he is not conflicted about the mission, yet at the same time he believes Australians must engage in a debate about what we are doing in this part of the world.
Cantwell says a better-informed public – who at this time are quietly divided in their support for Afghanistan – would be more inclined to back the troops if they understood the engagement. He blames his own military and the government for failing to properly inform Australians of the true nature of the mission.
The troops in Tarin Kowt clearly like their boss. Without hesitation, they say Cantwell is one of them. The respect he earns seems to come from the laidback camaraderie he offers, rather than fear of authority.
As he takes up a Steyr F88 at a weapons range in the Tarin Kowt base and fires rounds at a burnt-out car wreck target, one of the troops says, so Cantwell can hear: “The safest place in Afghanistan right at this moment is inside that target.” Cantwell laughs.
Cantwell, who is constantly on the move through Dubai, Kabul, Muscat and is still overseeing Pakistan flood assistance, talked to myself and Peter Hartcher from Fairfax as Abbott took a briefing from a group of sombre, bearded men in ill-fitting uniforms - commanders of the newly formed Afghan National Army’s fourth brigade, and the Afghan police force.
In a sign of how formalised and polite (some might say apathetic) we have become back in Australia, it has been agreed that we will soon to have an orderly parliamentary debate on Australia’s role in Afghanistan. This is a far cry from moratorium rallies over Vietnam, and does not promise to be much of a debate. After all, the two main parties will agree on just about everything, with only Bob Brown’s Greens likely to demand withdrawal.
But Cantwell hopes that out of it, people will see that the Afghanistan mission is not open-ended and that the lives of the 21 soldiers who have so far died here were not wasted.
Because Cantwell was open with us, we owe it to him and the public to report his remarks at length, in the hope that it will provide better understanding of how the Australian military command views its current position in Afghanistan.
“It (a debate) is a legitimate thing for Australians to undertake,” says Cantwell. “We are conducting a deadly activity here. There are Australian men and women putting their lives on line and Australians should have a clear view of that. They don’t have to agree with it, but they should understand what is being done, for what purpose, how it’s being done, and how it will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
“Frankly, the people of Australia and the government of Australia owe it to the soldiers who are stepping outside of these patrol bases, every day, risking their lives, not ever knowing if they’re going to get home from Afghanistan or even back to their patrol base that night.
“Our soldiers need to know that the people of Australia support what they do and I firmly believe they support the soldiers’ courage and endeavour and endurance, but more than that, it’s important military operations have a sound policy and governmental footing.
“The government has a firm view on what we’re doing over here, we in the military have a view of what we’re doing here, but I do fear Australians in general don’t understand what we’re doing here and I think there’s a few reasons for that.
“From the military’s side, I would contended that we have tended to be, occasionally, too opaque about what we do. There are risks of course in being completely open and transparent, and there are some things that cannot be disclosed to be the media and the public, such as special forces’ operations and particular aspects that we use to keep out soldiers safe which if disclosed would reduce our safety.
“But there’s scope I think to be more open and honest. That’s my view as a commander. It’s important that people understand what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, that they know why were taking these risks, why we’re taking these casualties. If we don’t do that, you will have in my view a very corrosive gap between a military in the fight, risking all, and a community who doesn’t understand why we’re there, (but only) has potentially a vague notion of Anzac tradition and Digger spirit, doing good in the world. There should be a bit more meat to the understanding to that.
“We need to make clear what our mission is and I don’t think we’ve enunciated that well. There’s talk about training the fourth Afghan National Army brigade, but we need to say what that means. How many (are) in the brigade? What’s their current level? How long will it take us to train them? What are the challenges of training them? What are we doing to overcome the challenges? How long is it going to take? Do we have enough staff to do it with?
“The Fourth Brigade is the Afghan National Army entity responsible for security in the Uruzgan province. It’s embryonic. Soldiers are being trained and formed into groups and sent here. Finally, after some time, we’ve now got a mostly formed Fourth Brigade. We’ve got the Kandaks, or battalions, that make up the brigade. There are three infantry Kandacs, which would be about 4- 500 guys (each).
“There is another Kandac which does the combat support, and the fifth is a combat service support, which is logistics – bombs and bullets and stores and blankets and food and water. There will shortly be an additional infantry Kandac. Our mission is to train those guys.
“We need to make that clearer to the public and, in some cases, our own soldiers. Our mission is not to defeat the insurgency in Uruzgan. It’s not our mission to hunt down and kill and capture every Taliban or insurgent in this province. Our mission is very clear: train the Afghans to manage security around the key population areas of Uruzgan.
“That’s a limited scope. That scope is not understood clearly. I think we have been remiss, we in Defence and, dare I say it, commentators who should know better, and government, who have a role to inform the population but haven’t enunciated that clearly.
“These things need to be spelled out. They need to be spelled out in the House. (The debate) presents an opportunity for the government of the day, and the Opposition and the cross benches to discuss the issue, but more importantly lay out the real facts of what we’re doing and how hard it is and what we need to do about fixing it.”
Flying in an Australian C-130 Hercules into Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan reveals itself as an unbelievably harsh country, its landscape for the most part wickedly barren. The mountains are lifeless and grey, with only some sparse patches on green in the lower inhabited areas of the valleys.
Cantwell says firefights happen almost exclusively with the green populated zones. This means the insurgents (or, to use another term, the defiant locals) are not simply wandering about the empty landscape. They live in and receive support from – reluctant or otherwise – Afghans living in the rare patches of green. Our troops know where they are, but sorting out who is who is difficult.
Cantwell believes most of the enemy are not fully committed Taliban. There are cowed people who comply with Taliban demands and semi-committed insurgents whom he believes can eventually be won over. But Cantwell says the hardcore Taliban “have to be killed or captured”.
One of the greatest difficulties Coalition troops face here is that exactly one half of the population is off-limits to them. Coalition forces may not approach women at all – the Afghan men are “fiercely protective” of them, says Cantwell. To win over the women would be a major step towards hearts and minds victory, but it’s not easy.
“They are behind closed doors, they are behind the burqa, they’re hidden from view,” says Cantwell. “I’d love to see more medical and health care for women and children. A terrible percentage – in the order of 30 per cent of Afghan women – die in childbirth. At least 30 per cent or more of Afghan children don’t reach their fifth birthday.
“(Women) have no voice in the community but they have a voice in the home. These women are mothers and aunts and sisters and I am of the view that even in this society we should endeavour to help women to help themselves and to help their menfolk to not take the five dollars to go and bury that roadside bomb. There’s a long way to go.”
The Australians have sponsored a school for girls in the Uruzgan province, with fluctuating attendances. The best work the troops can do to persuade women is the dangerous work of clearing roads and villages of IEDs. The hope is that the women, particularly, will see that it is the Coalition partners, rather than the insurgents, who are trying to make the environment safe.
There are fairly routine and violent anti-Coalition riots outside the gates of the Tarin Kowt base, usually sparked by claims that some soldier has burned a Koran “It is just the old chestnut that is trotted out,” says Cantwell. “No coalition soldier is burning Korans. But it is a sure fire winner. If you want to stir up locals, just trot that one out.”
Given these obstacles, it is hard to see how they can win. But Cantwell’s point is that “victory” requires a broader definition than seeing the insurgents raising the white flag – because, in Afghanistan, that will never happen.
“The message missing from the debate in Australia, the commentators seem to think we’re in an all-out counter insurgency fight,” says Cantwell. We don’t need to kill every insurgent … it’s not what we’re doing here.
“The government has said repeatedly - and the Chief of Defence Force - has said repeatedly (we’ll be out in) two-to four years. That’s just not a plug. It’s good number. But it’s not a hard date. It will take us a couple of years at least to get to a point where we can with confidence transition significant aspects of the security operation in Uruzgan.
“In the next 12 months or so, we will be very much in a position to start a transition process. But there won’t be a D-day for transition. It’s a stated government position that we have a role as part of the international community in not letting this part of the world not slip back to how it was when the Talban was in charge.
“For a start, their human rights practises were appalling. They have a primitive view of the way society should run and they had a heavily distorted view of the Koran and the Islamic faith. The circumstance is that they encourage and allowed terrorism to prosper. And it’s exportable. It’s sounds trite and it’s a cliché to say we can’t let Afghanistan become a seat for transnational terrorism to gain ground, (but) it’s true.
“We have a commitment to our United States. We have a commitment to the international community to try to do something about this country. At the end of the day, whether you agree or not, we participated in the operations that started this whole thing off in 2001. As a mature, responsible democracy, it’s absolutely right that we step and do something about what we started.”
Most of the insurgents are based in the southern part of the country. Uruzgan is nestled between Kandahar and Helmand provinces, which are at this time the most violent areas. This means the Uruzgan forces cannot view themselves in isolation.
“Uruzgan is not an island,” says Cantwell. “We aren’t parked out somewhere in the Pacific. This is a province which adjoins a whole bunch of other dangerous and unstable provinces. We’re in the south of Afghanistan, the most dangerous area, which borders on to Pakistan, we sit astride major routes into and out of Pakistan and within Afghanistan. So we can’t treat ourselves in isolation.
“Which is why our special forces have approval to conduct some (constrained) operations to go to operations in northern Kandahar. Because we have to do that. We can’t just sit on the border of Uruzgan and pretend it’s not going to effect us. We have to take a wider view. Our operations here in Uruzgan provide a very important security effect on the flank of these two vital provinces, Kandahar and Helmand.
“Operations are underway already in Kandahar to try to remove some of those really stubborn entrenched insurgent safe havens around the approached to Kandahar city. We’ve got a vested interest in making sure that goes well. Our future, the safety of our soldiers, rests on our ability to intercept the lines of supply communication between Kandahar and Uruzgan, between Pakistan and other parts of Afghanistan where expertise on IEDS and weapons and doctrine and explosives move.
“We’ve got to deal with other provinces. It’s my role as national commander to keep considering those wider issues and to provide advice up the national chain of command as to how I see them affecting our interests, and within the Uruzgan province making sure that the tactical commanders are acting in ways that are sensibly aligned with those national interests.
“My job is to make sure that Australian military power is used to the best effect in line with our national goals in Uruzgan.”
Cantwell argues that now is not the time to give up. “We have invested enormous blood and treasure and heartache and loss and effort over a number of years to fight a dogged and dangerous insurgency. We have now got ourselves to a situation where we have finally got the things in our grasp, or near to our hands, to start to exploit the advantages we’ve won with so much hard effort.
“We’ve got now the fourth ANA brigade almost complete. It’s generally stable now. Before it’s been coming and going, chopping in and out, so we’ve had trouble getting our hands around the people we’re trying to train. We’ve now got that sorted.
“We’ve fought hard through this year, and taken losses in doing it, to hold the line and stabilise the province as best we can in the face of an enormous increase in operational activity by our enemy, and by the use of IEDS.
“(There has been a) 100 per cent increase by the middle of this year on what we saw with IEDs and the like last year. So we’ve fought hard. Now’s not the time to just concede that effort. We’ve got to make sure we exploit it. We’ve got the combat power to the job. We’ve got a new mentoring task force (5RAR) coming in, purpose designed for (training) the new soldiers of the Fourth Brigade.”
Cantwell says the Coalition troops are coming to end of summer fighting season and will use the winter as a good time to train the Afghan soldiers not so much in how to fight (they’re pretty good at that) but in communications and intelligence.
“Because most of this summer we’ve been fighting for our lives,” he says. “It’s hard to train an Afghan about how to read a map or how to call in artillery fire when you’re trying to keep yourself, your mate and the Afghan soldier beside you alive.
“It would be, in my view, a dreadfully short-sighted view to say, ‘Look, it’s hard, we’re taking casualties (and) other in the international community are questioning what we’re doing.’ And then walk away. I don’t agree with that at all.
“Now is not time, as I said to the Prime Minister and I said to Mr Abbott today, it’s not the time to get the wobbles, it’s not the time to lose faith, it’s not the time to forsake the loss and the sacrifice and the expense and the heartache that’s gone into this.”
Of course, there’s a risk that a war debate within Australia might flush out stronger anti-war feelings. “It might, it might not,” says Cantwell. “I am confident Australians will continue to separate what we are doing, our soldiers are doing in our name, from the policy that takes them to that mission.
“Sure, Australian soldiers want to know we are doing the right thing. We are that sort of army … but it’s important we use this opportunity for debate to lay our facts… it’s hard to get the facts out about what we have achieved. We’ll hear all sorts of venting, and we’ll also hear I hope some commonsense.”
Senator Brown’s view is that the Taliban is now in the process of talking to Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and we should therefore leave it to them to sort it all out and exit the country.
Cantwell responds: “If there was a unilateral intent for the Taliban to negotiate in good faith, there’d be some validity to that view. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. There are tentative, very tentative, and tiny steps in this direction by small parts of a large and disparate non-unified organisation.
“And one swallow does not a summer make. It’s a bit early to be running up the victory flag. We are confronting a determined, ruthless enemy. They aren’t going to accommodate the Karzai government or the Coalition any time soon.”
On the calls by Opposition Defence spokesman David Johnston that the Australians needed tanks in Uruzgan, to support them with their Bushmaster patrol vehicles, Cantwell is insistent the Australian Government has given them what they need for the mission, with both troops and firepower.
“We don’t need more tanks,” he says. “We don’t need any tanks. It’s the wrong place. I’m a tank guy and I’m telling you, we don’t need tanks. We’ve got what we need.
“My unbiased and professional assessment as a soldier with almost 38 years of service … I do not agree we need more combat forces. If we needed them, I would ask for them. Seriously, does anyone really think I would for one minute place the lives at our soldiers at greater risk than it needs to be over a matter of policy? Give me a break.
“These are soldiers. I’ve shed tears for these guys. I’ve stood beside the broken and ruined bodies of far too many soldiers this year. If I thought I needed to do more to keep those guys alive and send them home to their families, I’d damn well do it, and I wouldn’t stop shouting until I got a good answer. But I don’t feel the need to do that.”
Mentoring the Afghan army means fighting at their side, on a daily basis. The Coalition more often than not wins those encounters, because they are better trained and armed than their enemy.
The Brisbane-based 6RAR is about to rotate out after being here since February, in which they’ve had about 90 firefights with insurgents. “But this is an IED fight,” Cantwell says. The things can be found in walls, in trees, in fields, on donkeys. “Every single day there is an IED event of some sort.”
Overcoming IEDs and empowering the non-combatants of Uruzgan to reject the Taliban remains the great challenge. “This is a game of inches, to use a sporting cliché,” says Cantwell, who admits hearts and minds successes have been modest.
Cantwell cites his frustration in the example of a local leader, Mohammad Duod Khan, a young up-and-coming local leader, whom the Australians had been nurturing as a strong local contact.
Khan’s father was accidentally killed by Coalition forces a few years ago but, says Cantwell, that “hasn’t diminished his desire to do the right thing. He’s been under constant threat and people have been trying to knock him off. He’s been undermined by some of the powerbrokers who don’t like him. We’ve been trying to look after him. He’s just been sacked. It was a straight power play and now we’ve got to work with someone who is less attractive.
“That’s one of the steps back we encounter. He’s been dismissed by Hamid Karzai, on the influence of power brokers. But it’s their country. I would say his departure is unfortunate and that is an example of the complex political and tribal currents that are washing around in Uruzgan. We’re in that mix.
“On the other hand, we have good stories. Out to the west of here, in Dah Ravod, where we a couple of months ago took over from the departing Dutch and the French, the main area of Dah Ravod and the green zone around it is relatively secure. But the valleys to the north, south, west and east of there are terribly dangerous. One of those valleys is where Corporal McKinney was killed in late August. Just in the last few days, a combination operation of US special forces, Australian and Afghan soldiers, have cleared that valley.
“It cost the Americans a couple of lives – it’s been a very serious and tough fight. The good news is, they’ve cracked it. They’ve put in place for or five Afghan outposts to secure that whole valley. Next step is to get Afghan police in there to relieve the soldiers and open that whole route up. That route has not been open to normal traffic in years. That’s a great outcome. We might lose one of those outposts or we might hold it – I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. We’ll keep chipping away.
“This is emblematic of the campaign we struggle with. Good days and bad days. Politics versus operations. You take your good days when you can, and when you have a bad day, you try and find another way.”
US Colonel Jim Creighton, who is in charge of joint command in Uruzgan, says there has been a drop in insurgent activity from last year – even though the IED threat has not diminished. He cannot say whether they are just going elsewhere to fight, but says many have been killed.
“But I think the most important thing that is happening is that the senior leaders, the elders and the government within Uruzgan is bringing the young kids on side. It’s the elder in the village who is telling his nephew, his son, to come back in and be with the tribe and the government.
“I think that they’re seeing the government is more effective (than the Taliban). I think there’s a general feeling the government is here for the long haul. They see a dramatic increase in the number of ANA. In the last five years it’s gone from zero to 3000. The number of police is from 300 to about 2500. So they’ve seen a substantial amount of security forces. The people genuinely respect the ANA. You see an improvement in the ANP (Afghan National Police) every day.”
Creighton has been in command here 15 months and, as Coalition leader in Uruzgan, the Australians who have died or been wounded here are his men as well. “It is a terrible hard fight. We have lost 11 casualties since I’ve been here. That’s just Coalition. If you look at ANA and ANP it’s even greater, and we count every one of those as a very important life.
“But the reality is that we are making a difference. The reality is we’ve known this is a tough fight.” He said the focus was mentoring the Afghan army and police to make sure those casualties went down.
“(When I was asked to take command) I had to ask myself, ‘Can I make a difference?’ I think we can make a difference. I look at this terrain and I look at the people. It’s a beautiful terrain, it’s a beautiful people. Ninety-nine per cent of the people here, all they want to do is raise their families and live in a peaceful environment. I wouldn’t be here unless I thought we could make a difference.”
Creighton said visits by Australian politicians – three in as many weeks, being Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, Julia Gillard and now Abbott – were not a headache.
“No. I honestly don’t think so. This fight is based on a coalition. Coalitions are driven by political mandates. The story we have here, I believe is a good news story. Even if it was a bad news story, it’s important for the people of Australia, and the United States and the rest of the Coalition, to understand what’s happening. I welcome the visit of anyone who wants to come and understand what’s happening in Uruzgan.”
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