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What can Australia learn from Afghanistan?

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COMMENTS

30 October 2012 16:50

Thomas Lonergan served in Afghanistan with the ADF.

A remarkable event occurred in Afghanistan this month when Australia took command of coalition forces in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan. This is remarkable for at least three reasons.

First, Australian governments of both political persuasions have previously steadfastly held that the ADF would not take command of the province. This bipartisan position had been held ever since Australian forces arrived in Uruzgan in 2005, so why did this shift occur? It could be fairly argued that a more natural moment to assume responsibility for Uruzgan was when the Dutch withdrew in 2010

Second, Australia is only assuming command with the end in sight and as many other nations rush to the exits. This parallels what we did in Iraq's Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces in 2005-2007: taking command late in the game in an area of low threat and limited strategic worth.

If our (arguably) most important strategic goal is to enhance the US alliance and strengthen American perceptions of us, why leave it to the last minute to show our worth? Our reluctance to take a leadership role has undermined that goal

I recognise not all of our contributions require us to 'own' the battlespace where we operate; Australia has had several successful, prominent and highly valued (by allies) special forces deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan in strike, counter-leadership targeting and reconnaissance roles.

Third, the significance of the development was missed by most of the Australian media with the exception of SBS's Karen Middleton. The modern maxim that there's no story without pictures or a press release appears true again. It's easy to report the sad stories of fallen soldiers returning home beneath an Australian flag. Such dilettantism fails to recognise the in-depth story in Afghanistan about the good work our soldiers, aid workers and diplomats are doing.

My questions and observations are not part of a policy critique. But as the large-scale International Security Assistance Force mission draws to a close and much of our national mission with it, we should not be afraid to publicly analyse what we did and how effective it was. For Australia, that should encompass asking:

  • Strategically, to what extent and how effectively has our contribution met our goal of reinforcing the US alliance?
  • Tactically, what enduring effect have we achieved in Uruzgan province (including: to what extent and for how long have we stopped it being a terrorist-extremist safehaven)?
  • As a mission, how well did the ADF perform and how effective and coordinated was the whole-of-government effort?

We should pose these questions and seek to answer them while our memories are fresh. Open dialogue should be encouraged without a fear of finger-pointing. If we don't consider how effective our national strategy was, it neither respects the sacrifices of those lives lost nor does it help future decision makers make wiser choices.

Photo of flag bearers at the Transfer of Authority parade in Afghanistan by Sgt W Guthrie/ADF.

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