Afghanistan: Bright hope now just dust and ashes

Last week Tony Abbott told a story about his first trip visiting the diggers in Afghanistan. He was Opposition Leader, the base at Tarin Kowt was ringed with defensive barriers, sirens stood ready to blare their warning of incoming rockets, and soldiers kept weapons and body armour within arm's reach.

Nevertheless the Australian commander was positive about the soldiers’ accomplishments. The security situation was, he said, “improving considerably”. The Taliban were on the back-foot and the insurgents loosing ground. Our deployment was making a real difference.

“Great!” said Abbott. “Now let’s go and get a coffee down at the market.”

Jaws dropped open. Well, said the soldiers, doing that wouldn’t actually be possible. As Abbott investigated further, it became apparent that the much-vaunted progress was all relative. Very relative indeed. In fact, any movement beyond the perimeter blast-walls (except in heavily armoured vehicles) was forbidden and the idea of casually strolling down to mix and mingle with the locals was impossible. Abbott nodded. He understood. There would be no photo-op of him wandering in the bazaar; chatting to real Afghans.

Abbott told this story at the Australian War Memorial, while launching Afghanistan: Australia’s War, a wonderful book with photos by Gary Ramage and words by Ian McPhedran. This tome achieves exactly what it sets out to do – catalogue impressions of the conflict from the perspective of the diggers. More than 20,000 Aussies have now been posted to that country and their story needs to be told.

But that’s the story inside the wire, patrolling outwards. It’s not an examination of our commitment and we’re still lacking any official history of this conflict. Only this can set the Australian contribution in perspective, examine the geo-strategic consequences and elaborate these alongside the changing tactical and operational context.


The government has indicated it is aware of the urgent need for this. That’s good. But the time has now come to take the next step and commission a volume that can at least attempt to make sense of the various efforts we’ve made to resolve this conflict. This is vital – not simply for the families of the dead we’ve left behind but also as a guide for the future.

We need a definitive reference or we’ll go on repeating the same mistakes. It would be handy to know what works and what doesn’t when we’re facing the next bitter insurgency. If we don’t possess a factual account, detailing what actually occurred, invented myth will soon dominate our understanding.

Today, of course, we’ve left the once huge, sprawling base at Camp Holland and it would be unwise for anyone, particularly a high-profile politician, to spend too long in the streets of Tarin Kowt. It’s easy to leap to the judgement that this means the intervention failed. It’s obvious we failed to realise the bright hope that infused the campaign back in 2001.

Journalists focus on failure. In Afghanistan that’s easy to do, but is it fair? There have always seemed to be so many points at which we could have changed tack; found some other way forward; done things differently. I still think different decisions might have led to a better outcome. Others disagree.

Singer-songwriter Fred Smith is one of those searching for an answer to the question “was it worth it?” He brought his response (a terrific one-man, one-woman, drummer and double-bass show) to Canberra last week. Beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 he provides a very personal, intimate primer to our deployment, melding geopolitics with the reality of ordinary peoples lives. He provides a far better introduction to the conflict and political terrain of the province where our efforts were concentrated (Oruzgan) than the military’s induction course (RSO&I) in Dubai ever could.

Smith weighs up what was accomplished, measuring it against the loss, and presses himself hard to decide if it was worthwhile. In the end, all in all, he says we did make a difference. I’m not sure there can be an such answer. There are too many perspectives; too much we (still) don’t know.

At one point in his presentation, Smith flicked up a photo with a bright, young, energetic Afghan Army captain in the background. He was in command at Patrol Base Mashal when another Afghan soldier shot the first of our diggers. This commander was good but he would also, nightly, get on the radio to chat with and insult the Taliban. Who knew what game he was playing? Smith hinted at the inherent complexity in the conflict when he used this picture, even though few in the audience would recognise the context. Yet this is the very point.

It is beyond dispute that – despite a massive investment of force and money – any result in Afghanistan has been meagre and limited. The cancer preventing accomplishment spread from Kabul. This is something that our soldiers could never stem. We’ve left a plotting, conniving, ill-educated police chief in charge in Oruzgan who is probably responsible for the deaths of some of the few genuinely public spirited individuals who offered hope for the province. In so many ways those early hopes remain unfulfilled; the chances were squandered.

Yet, equally, it is wrong to say the entire mission was a waste and the deaths – the tragic deaths – were wasted lives. They weren’t. But the ripples of our actions only spread so far. No one could re-make policy disasters that emanated from Washington. The point was to try. Ask this question – something very different from the broader question of whether the deployment was successful – and you get a very different answer. The intervention may have been a disaster but there were real accomplishments, too. The time has come to tell that story. Officially.