For over a decade since the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States, Australia has been heavily involved in the military efforts against insurgents in Afghanistan. We sent troops into the country as a way of honouring a strategic partnership with USA, then we pulled out and moved operations to Iraq and then we returned with to support the international counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan. Now, as our troops finally depart from the province of Uruzgan in south Afghanistan, one must reflect on this 12-year long military campaign.
With 40 soldiers killed in battle, over 260 wounded and over $1 billion spent on foreign aid, what has the country achieved? In my opinion, barely anything.
Let us look at the objective of our military involvement . The Australian Defence White Papers in 2009 and 2013 both stated that our country has “a direct interest in denying terrorists safe haven to plan and train for attacks on civilians, including Australians, in our own region and beyond”.
Indeed, links were drawn between Al’Qaeda and the deadly bombings in Bali and Jakarta which resulted in the deaths of many Australians, and surely, as a response, something must be done. However, the reality is that Al’Qaeda do not have operational headquarters in Afghanistan. They operate in sporadic cells in many different countries including Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The hopes in removing the insurgents in Afghanistan for the sole purpose of making Australia safer from Al’Qaeda, at such an expense, is unjustifiable.
Let us look at the successes of our operations. Since 2009 we have adopted a strategy of counterinsurgency which emphasises the need to protect civilians, to eliminate insurgents and to help establish a legitimate government capable of delivering essential human services.
We sent 28 Australian Federal Police officers to train the Afghan National Police. We sent a provincial reconstruction team led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Uruzgan province to rebuild infrastructure and provide governance training. We sent 1,550 military personnel for the purposes of security and training the Afghan National Army.
So how did things go? On the record, quite promising. As far as senate hearing documents show, the Afghan Army should be up and running by 2014 after the withdrawal of the international troops and with continued support, Afghanistan should be able to manage its own security without the financial contributions from foreign countries by 2024
However, when looking at the situation in Uruzgan itself, one must beg to differ.
Uruzgan remains one of the most undeveloped provinces in Afghanistan due to the low levels of capacity accompanied by high levels of insecurity and corruption. Literacy rates are at 0% for women and 10% for men. Critics warned that as long as Uruzgan remains a hotbed of violence, corruption and insurgent activity, the impact of Australian assistance will be limited and short lived
For example, despite funding a police training centre with $32 million, which graduated over 500 Afghan national police officers, the body has been widely perceived as incompetent and corrupt, serving sectional interests at the expense of the general community.
Australian military and also civilian personnel were “consistently described negatively by Afghans” where “perceptions of the misuse and abuse of aid resources were in many cases fueling the growing distrust of the government, creating enemies, or at least generating skepticism regarding the role of the government and aid agencies.”
Last year, NATO-ISAF Commander General Joseph Dunford even revealed that the Afghan army and police are losing up to 100 men in battle every week. It will most likely take up to another five years of foreign support before they can fight on their own.
A Defence Committee report to the British Parliament also expressed similar concerns that Afghan security forces will run out of operational resources including logistics expertise, medical care and close air support.
An Australian soldier takes time for a rest in Afghanistan; Supplied: Australian War Memorial
So what have we learnt after spending so much money and effort in a country plagued by war, poverty, hunger and corruption?
We just have to acknowledge the fact that there will never be an easy fix to complex nation-building efforts. It takes years for a poverty-stricken country to develop a sustainable economy. It takes decades to eradicate the deep rooted cultures of corruption and abuse of power. The last thing the situation in Afghanistan needs right now is impatience.
Experts have commented that “the faster the international community leaves Afghanistan and the more it reduces its presence… the more the negative dynamics in the still very-problematical Afghan security environment will be intensified and the fewer means and lesser leverage the internationals will have to combat them.”
That being said, nearly two out of three Australians view the decade of fighting as not worth the human and financial cost. Australians seem to have lost patience and care for the people in a country so far away from home.
And this lack of attention span, is the reason why our efforts in Afghanistan will always remain futile.