If we flee Afghanistan now, we leave it to the terrorists
When Australia joined the United States and other allies in sending forces to Afghanistan in 2001, the aim was crystal clear. It was to remove the Taliban regime which provided a haven for Al Qaeda - the terrorist group responsible for the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. That was quickly accomplished.
But after John Howard returned our forces to Afghanistan five years later the objective was far less obvious. In fact, within months of being elected in 2007, the Rudd Labor Government held a meeting with top military brass and strategic planners to ask the blunt question: “What is our mission in Afghanistan?”
The response was vague, apart from the obvious explanation that it was an exercise in “alliance maintenance” - keeping on side with the Americans.
A more detailed strategic plan was then drawn up that set out Australia’s role in training Afghan security forces and establishing infrastructure to make Oruzgan Province more governable when control is eventually handed back to the locals.
This had the advantage of laying out an exit strategy, at least in theory. When the stated objectives were ticked off Australian forces could pack their gear and go.
The tragic deaths of five Australian troops in one day - two killed in a helicopter crash, three shot dead by a rogue Afghan soldier who was supposed to be guarding their base - has increased pressure for our Afghanistan commitment to end.
The objectives set out in that Rudd Government plan have been largely accomplished, it is claimed. Australian forces have little more to contribute. So bring them home now.
In many ways, the case is compelling. Opinion polls show it is an unpopular war and Australian voters want us out. Our forces are clearly over-stretched. As The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan pointed out yesterday, some SAS troops “have done more fighting for a longer period than anyone did in World War II”.
Whether we pull out of Afghanistan now or in 2014, President Barack Obama’s exit date, the central government in Kabul will not be able to control provinces like Oruzgan.
Large areas of Afghanistan will revert to being wild and dangerous places, locally ruled. The Australian Government is well aware of this.
And then there is the impact on Australian public opinion of so-called green-on-blue attacks - the killing of coalition troops by Afghan soldiers and police who are supposed to be fighting alongside them.
The shooting of the three Australians on Wednesday brought to 15 the number of coalition soldiers killed in this way in August. The total for the year so far is 45.
Some of the Afghans involved in these “insider attacks” were Taliban recruits or sympathisers, but others were motivated by personal grudges and anger at the behaviour of foreign soldiers.
According to The Guardian newspaper in Britain, an investigation by US military psychologists has found members of the Afghan National Army see American troops as “a bunch of violent, reckless, intrusive, arrogant, self-serving, profane, infidel bullies”.
Australian troops, like other coalition force members, presumably, get caught up in this perception.
There will be people in this country who think, like many Americans: “If they dislike us so much, why are we there?”
But, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard made clear in the wake of Australia’s worst day of combat losses since the Vietnam War, there will not be an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“We cannot have a circumstance where loss dictates how we will engage in this war and see our mission through,” she said. “In my view, that wouldn’t be appropriately honouring the men we have lost.”
A senior official told me yesterday: “Withdrawal would be a knee-jerk reaction. It would set the precedent for others to pull out, too.”
According to Defence Minister Stephen Smith, if the government pulled our forces out now: “We would increase the prospect of Afghanistan again returning to a breeding ground for international terrorism.”
But that will still be a danger after a 2014 coalition withdrawal, which is why it is unlikely that all of our troops will come home even then.
The plan is that special forces from the US, Britain, Australia and some other countries would remain in Afghanistan - based in Kabul or Kandahar - to play a counter-terrorism role.
Which means the SAS, which has already done so much, can expect little respite.
General John Allen, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, says around a quarter of insider killings could be the work of Taliban infiltrators.
But the Taliban claim responsibility for all of them, maximising the mistrust created between coalition forces and those they are supposed to be mentoring and training.
An Afghan Army Colonel recently told Newsweek magazine: “The Taliban are hunting two birds with one arrow. They are killing coalition soldiers while at the same time hurting relations between our allied forces.”
The next two years in Afghanistan could be tough indeed for our Diggers.
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