More Australian leadership is needed in Afghanistan
On returning last month from 10 days in the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) that included five days in Afghanistan in Kandahar and Tarin Kowt, I was shocked to hear of another attempted extremist Islamic terrorist attack, on that occasion in Times Square.
This only reinforces my view that unless we defeat the Taliban and remove the opportunity for their Al Qaeda allies to spew venom through indoctrination, training and support, we will continue to fight them in our own backyard.
The Dutch unfortunately have decided their contribution has come to an end in Afghanistan leaving a capability vacuum in Oruzgan Province where the bulk of Australia’s combat forces are. The military has a maxim that ‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.’ Likewise 10 days with our troops on operations was fertile time to reflect and I’ve personally concluded that Australia should consider expanding its contribution to fill this vacuum and take the lead in Oruzgan Province.
In his second headland speech, in reference to leadership in Oruzgan Province post the Dutch withdrawal, Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, stated that, Australia would “consider sympathetically in the context of our capabilities and various other military commitments, the case for enhancing our contribution in Afghanistan and re-examining the existing caveats.”
Australia has approximately 2350 troops in the MEAO including 1550 troops in Afghanistan. While our Afghanistan force includes embedded staff officers in HQs, aviation and logistics assets and a Special Operations Task Group, the bulk is a Battalion Group at Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan Province, with responsibility for mentoring the 4th Afghanistan Brigade.
The Dutch have 1100 troops in Tarin Kowt consisting of higher HQs, an AH-64 Apache Ready Reaction Force detachment, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), self propelled artillery, medical, engineering and logistics forces and like Australia, a number of Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs).
If Australia was to assume command of forces in Oruzgan and replace the Dutch, we could not provide armed attack helicopters (they’re still being introduced into service) or self propelled artillery (the Labor Government has deferred the procurement), thus others would need to provide these enablers. The wider command elements, and a battalion size plus grouping of infantry, logistics, UAVs, engineering and specialist services including medical are all assets Australia has. Whilst the question of deployability remains a military one, – and Chief of Army Gillespie indicated in late 2009 that Australia could do it, - the question of “should we be looking to provide this leadership” remains a political one.
In all the conflicts in which Australia has been involved, we have always fought to win. We have always done our best to live up to the expectations of our allies, as we have always expected them to live up to ours.
The Prime Minister tried vainly to demonstrate some extra capability when he offered up another 75 embedded staff officers that General McChrystal didn’t ask for and frankly would prefer were bayonets outside the wire. This view was confirmed when the top US military commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, said earlier this month that he would welcome more Australian troops in Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister has also restricted the Australian Commander to a cap of 1550 troops in Afghanistan whilst there are a further 800 troops within the MEAO. If a cap has to be imposed, it should be on the total 2350 in the MEAO allowing the ability to surge troops into Afghanistan as required. This would make an immediate difference to operations and would be a good first step towards taking our leadership and alliance responsibilities seriously.
Our troops are doing an amazing job in difficult and dangerous circumstances. The terrain is inhospitable, the weather harsh, the dust overbearing, the Islamic extremist enemy resilient and our rules for engagement restrictive. Yet despite all of this our forces are boxing above their weight. Our Special Ops teams strike fear into the Taliban to the point where the enemy will break contact or manoeuvre rather than face our ‘ghosts at night’ and we’re not afraid to deploy our troops in remote Patrol Bases as part of OMLTs with Afghan forces or engage with the enemy as part of these forces. The level of trust we have built up with Afghan forces is substantial, though not helped when elements we are mentoring deployed to the recent battles in Helmand Province and the Rudd Government refused to allow embedded Australian forces to deploy with them. The message this sent the Afghan 4th Brigade is the antithesis of all the Australian military holds itself up to be - tough, courageous, committed and capable.
Mentoring the 4th Afghan Brigade has its challenges but is reaping rewards. The 4th Brigade soldiers are on three year contracts and the majority are northern Afghanis who have limited ability to get home on leave, making re-signing these soldiers to further contracts challenging but necessary. The 4th Brigade being capable of controlling Oruzgan is the key to bringing our troops home.
We should also consider that Australia is sending soldiers to fight in Afghanistan whilst young Afghan men of service age pay people smugglers to come to Australia. The question has to be asked why these young Afghan men don’t sign up with an Afghan Brigade to fight the extremist elements who threaten all Afghans. The 4th Afghan Brigade are not professional soldiers, they are young citizen soldiers on a fixed term of service who have chosen to be trained and to fight. They shed their blood alongside young Australian soldiers, while other young Afghan men who can afford to pay people smugglers to flee, do so.
I salute our men and women at war, wish them well in their mission and pray for their safe return. If we are to fulfil our duty in fighting the curse of terrorism, let’s fulfil our responsibility, not only to our alliances but to the freedom of our way of life and seriously consider a greater leadership role in Afghanistan.
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