Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement on 15 April that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) would withdraw from Afghanistan by September brings closure to Australia’s longest, operational military deployment. With ongoing uncertainties about Afghanistan’s future, was that deployment worth it?
For me, the ADF deployment, initially military-only and later part of a whole-of-government mission, which resulted in the loss of life of 41 soldiers, was justified because it served key national security interests. The ADF’s initial deployment in October 2001 of a Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) comprised of SAS troops, was in response to the 9/11 attacks on the US by the Afghanistan-based international terrorist group Al Qaeda. Prime Minister John Howard invoked Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty and committed ADF support to the “US alliance” and preventing Afghanistan again becoming a safe-haven for terrorists. This was the underpinning rationale for all ADF deployments.
Originally part of US Operation Enduring Freedom, in December the SOTG became part of the UN-mandated and US-led coalition International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The SOTG mission was counterterrorism (CT) and targeted Al Qaeda only, not the then Taliban government. By late 2002, ISAF had defeated Al Qaeda, whose remnants fled to Pakistan. Mission accomplished, the SOTG, along with most foreign forces, was withdrawn in November 2002. The Taliban government was also ousted by indigenous elements who would become part of the new Afghan government.
However, the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated after the withdrawal. By 2005, the Taliban, with Al Qaeda remnants and other foreign support, including from Pakistan, had established an effective insurgent force that threatened the stability of the new Afghan government. The US sought the recommitment of coalition partners to help combat this threat and assist with national reconstruction.
The 2002-2005 period coincided with the deadly bombings in Bali in 2002 and 2005 and the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004 by Jemiah Islamia (JI), a terrorist group with known links to Al Qaeda. It also coincided with Australian high priority peace and nation-building commitments in East Timor and the Solomon Islands and a new commitment supporting US interests in Iraq. The Australian government, therefore, was acutely aware of the international terrorist threat and key role of civil-military operations for stabilisation and reconstruction.
As documented in the 2016 Smith Report, despite the Howard government’s wariness about any long-term involvement in Afghanistan, the national-interest case for recommitting to Afghanistan was compelling. Subsequent Labor and Coalition governments had similar concerns but maintained that commitment.
The second SOTG, deployed in August 2005, soon became part of a much larger Australian government commitment to Afghanistan. The expanded ADF deployment assumed a counterinsurgency (COIN) role as Australian involvement transitioned to a whole-of-government civil-military commitment. Troop numbers increased from 150 in 2001 to a peak of 1,550 in 2012-14. Missions by Army and RAAF elements included CT/COIN, force protection, reconstruction tasking, support to other civil aid programs, and training and mentoring the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Most deployments were to Uruzgan province. Initially Dutch-led, Australia took over responsibility for the local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in 2010, and leadership of all coalition assets through Combined Team-Uruzgan (CT-U) in 2012. Other ADF personnel, including multiple “embeds” within ISAF, were deployed mostly in Kabul and Kandahar.
In 2014, the long-planned “transition to transformation” occurred, and responsibility for national security and nation-building became “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led.” This impacted on all stakeholders, including Australia. ADF units were progressively withdrawn, as were other ISAF forces. As of writing, some 80 ADF personnel remain deployed in Afghanistan, undertaking ANSF train, advise, and assist (TAA) roles in Kabul.
All up, some 39,000 ADF personnel have served in Afghanistan at a cost of about $9 billion – a relatively small part of the Defence budget over the past 20 years. Australian aid, including police law enforcement training has cost an additional $1.51 billion. Of the 51 coalition partners, Australian troop numbers were the tenth highest, and Australian casualties – 41 soldiers killed and more than 260 wounded – were the ninth highest. For a non-NATO country, Australia more than played its part.
However, despite this input and the commitment of many able Afghans, since 2014 the Afghan leadership has failed to win the “hearts and minds” contest and establish a stable national system of government or nation-wide security. The Taliban now control or have significant influence across some 60 percent of Afghanistan, mostly in rural areas including much of Uruzgan. There are complex reasons for this, including ethnic and tribal issues, contesting warlords, religion, and related motivations and commitments, which have played out in ways contrary to Afghan national, UN/coalition, and Australian objectives.
Notwithstanding, the ADF deployment is justifiable in terms of both US alliance and broader CT outcomes. Australia has well demonstrated its commitment and credibility as an alliance partner, both politically and militarily. For the ADF, specific benefits include enhanced professionalism across capabilities, inter-operability, and relationships. These directly benefit mutual security interests within the Asia-Pacific region.
The initial SOTG CT mission was successful. CT/COIN operations since 2005 have been a qualified success. Although the Taliban were not defeated in Uruzgan for the reasons above, COIN operations during 2005-14 effectively disrupted them, enabling the implementation of aid and other programs which positively benefited district and provincial recipients. These, subsequent TAA and other ISAF missions post-2014, have assisted the ANSF to maintain control over some 40 percent of Afghanistan, especially major urban areas.
But Afghanistan remains a work in progress. It is not a given that the Taliban will significantly increase areas under their control or harbour international terrorists within controlled areas, especially if reconciliation proceeds. But sustainability will be challenging as, at least presently, the prospects for short- or long-term security and stability are bleak.
Separately, the above experience in a civil-military context updates lessons learned from the ADF’s role in East Timor and the Solomon Islands. It has also given Australia credibility and influence in the transnational CT community and seats within the Global CT Forum and UN Global Coordination CT Compact, adding to the security of Australian citizens and interests at home and abroad.
There are other valued experiences and lessons learned. These include the challenges of working at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels in a whole-of-government environment, and closely with NATO partners. The Smith Report also details 17 important lessons for government and the ADF, including policy, planning, risk assessment, command structures, leadership, alliance and coalition management, force protection, prisoner handling, and public affairs. While these lessons devolved from operational experiences, joint exercises and gaming will be important for maintaining currency and adaptability.
One negative from Afghanistan is the alleged war crimes by a very small number of the troops deployed. These must be investigated and justly resolved. But they must not overshadow the highly professional and commendable service by all others who served.
While I believe the key national-interest outcomes do justify the ADF’s deployment, I appreciate it is up to the bereaved families of those soldiers who died to assess their loss in this context. Historically, my own family has had to make that judgement.
Ian Dudgeon is a presidential associate of the AIIA and former ACT branch president.
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