Australia has an interesting record on troop commitments over the last two decades. We have committed, withdrawn, and recommitted at an eye-watering rate. One has trouble identifying the overarching strategy that should lie behind such activity.
In East Timor, we committed brilliantly at short notice at high levels. The aim of our commitment was to stabilise East Timor to hand over to the UN. The UN was not fully up to the task, and Australia then had to recommit troops.
In Iraq, Australia committed special forces in 2003 for the invasion and withdrew them the same year. We committed personnel embedded in US units and combat trainers, pulled the trainers out, committed logistic trainers, and then pulled them out as well. Combat forces were deployed to Iraq in 2005 and then withdrawn over 2008 and 2009. Air elements were introduced intermittently and naval assets were kept in the region for decades, but with different tasks and in different areas. To counter Islamic State after 2014, we recommitted, with combat aircraft operating in Iraq and Syria, the naval forces that had remained in the region, some special forces, and a training element.
We rapidly and effectively committed special forces to Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, withdrew them, and then recommitted during 2005 and 2006. In 2007, we put in a larger force that was withdrawn by the end of 2013, leaving the small training element that remains today.
The government has announced this morning it will send 30 additional troops to Afghanistan after a US request. This was the likely outcome, reflecting the importance of the relationship between Australia and the US at present, the personal relationship between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and President Donald Trump, and the security situation in Afghanistan.
In the past, Australian governments considered it right to be in Afghanistan in a combat role at some cost in lives and treasure. Given we are still there now, albeit with a low troop level and engaged in a relatively safe activity, the government and the opposition must consider a military presence worthwhile.
I assume the government believes Afghans do not deserve to live under the Taliban, especially given that a clear majority of Afghans don't want to return to Taliban rule. I also assume the government believes some degree of success in Afghanistan and Iraq is important to the credibility of alliances and the 'western' coalition, because military credibility supports the world order that has delivered unprecedented security and prosperity to Australia. The Turnbull administration would probably also agree that failure in Afghanistan would embolden those that do not subscribe to the rule of law and that represent a threat to everything the West stands for, a group that in my view includes Russia, Iran, China and North Korea, as well as Islamic extremists including IS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban. Afghanistan was a safe haven for terrorists before, and under Taliban control it may become one again. And one assumes the government believes there is some hope for military success in Afghanistan, the eighth-most corrupt nation in the world, on which other non-military forms of success might at some stage be built.
If the government does not believe that we should be there and that there is some hope for some form of success (in some circles known as 'winning') then we should withdraw troops.
Like the government and opposition, I support a military presence by Australia in an Afghanistan coalition for the reasons above.
We know that there is no military solution to insurgency, but we also know that no real improvements in any area can occur unless there is a degree of security created by military and paramilitary forces. These set the conditions for the politics. We also know that a political solution requires not just troops for security but civilians to help Afghanis produce, over time, something that passes for civil society. Post conflict, this worked in Germany, Japan and Korea, but it took commitment and time.
We know that the Afghan military and police, for all their faults, are fighting for their country and have suffered 5000 casualties this year so far. It is a fact that the Afghans critically lack support for the combat units – including attack and transport helicopters, fighter aircraft, and intelligence – because we left them on their own too soon. Most importantly, we are told by General Nicholson, the US military commander, that the military situation is a 'stalemate' and he needs a few thousand more troops, interpreted in other places as 3000 to 5000, from all sources including Australia and NATO. He tells us in reported testimony that what he needs those troops for mentoring on the battlefield at battalion level or below. Currently, advisers are working at command-level. The shortfall, he said, was in those who train and advise 'at a lower level', at 'units in the field'.
If we are to fulfil the need of Afghanistan and our ally, in addition to the Australians who are training Afghan officers, it is right that Australia should contribute not formed units such as battalions to fight the Taliban, but small groups of combat soldiers who can accompany the Afghans into battle, and train and advise them at the lower level.
During the Vietnam War such small groups were known as 'advisers', the most famous being the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, or AATTV. We called them advisers in the early stages of the Iraq war but in Afghanistan they seem to be referred to as mentors. There can be one or two advisers per 100-person combat company or, as we had in Iraq, about 30 per 800-strong battalion. Their roles include: providing combat advice to commanders; acting as a conduit for intelligence; ensuring soldiers are paid and ammunition arrives; coordinating fire support; and ensuring operations are legal. Their presence also gives each Afghan soldier some assurance that he will not die pointlessly and, if he is wounded, a greater chance of evacuation.
Like most combat activities the adviser role is dangerous. They are there to help the Afghans fight, not fight themselves. However, this can only be effective if the adviser is on the spot where advice is needed, and that is normally where the fighting is. There is also danger in this war from rogue Afghan soldiers. This risk can be reduced to a certain degree like most combat risks, but never eliminated. Risk is an inherent part of combat soldiering. That is why we have soldiers.
A meaningful contribution by Australia does not have to be large and should not be combat forces. One hopes it is in the context of some decisive strategy that is linked to winning, however this is defined, and not just to securing a safe presence, a strategy that would reflect the usual embarrassing scramble by allies to grab the safest task in the safest area and leave the danger up to the US. It should be designed to meet the need as expressed by the commander, it should be there for as long as the task is there, and it should contribute to military and political success.