Illustration: Andrew Dyson
As Australia draws down its troop commitment to the multinational force in Afghanistan led by NATO, a question demands to be answered: what has our decade-long involvement in that country actually achieved?
I travelled there in July with the Defence Force's Parliamentary Program to help answer that question. I spent four days with Australian soldiers, sailors and aircrew who were serving in a variety of roles, ranging from mentoring the Afghan army to offering force protection to troops of the multinational coalition.
With preparations under way to have the main part of our military commitment gone by the end of this year, officers and service people I spoke with were candid about the situation they were leaving behind. Overwhelmingly, they were upbeat about the enduring value of their role, and emphatic things were better for them having been in that country.
It needs to be said immediately that the Australian media, whether by intention or otherwise, has promoted two myths about our mission in Afghanistan:
Myth 1: Australian military deaths in Afghanistan have come about because security forces - local and international - have lost control of large swaths of the country to Taliban insurgents.
Myth 2: The security situation there is unstable, even deteriorating, and a Taliban ''comeback'' is likely when the NATO-led force leaves.
The evidence of those who have worked ''at the coalface'' paints a different picture. These accounts suggest that Afghan security forces - the army and the police forces - largely have the measure of the insurgents and are able to furnish high levels of stability of lifestyle to the vast majority of Afghans.
Though terrorising attacks still occur on a daily basis - roadside explosions, suicide detonations and assaults on remote police outposts - these leave the Taliban little to show for their efforts except for a grisly body count and, occasionally, morale-boosting international media coverage of their stunts.
Taliban territorial control resulting from these attacks is short-lived in the case of very small population centres and non-existent in larger ones, with the Afghan forces quickly recovering their authority, generally without the assistance of their multinational allies.
Significantly, in the population centres it is the Afghan National Police that provide the security. Most people live under civil, not military-provided, security: a clear sign of progress.
A comparison here with other countries helps put this situation into perspective.
In our region, Indonesia, Burma and the Philippines are all afflicted by long-standing and seemingly irrepressible insurgencies.
None of these insurgencies, however, are thought to have any chance of toppling the central governments of those countries.
The best assessment of the outlook in Afghanistan is that much the same can be said of the Taliban, despite the fact that it once ruled there. Since its time in power, its fighting leadership has been decimated, its popular support has withered and it is now playing for a power-sharing deal rather than outright victory.
The largest threat to Afghan stability lies not with the Taliban but with the nation's political system.
At elections due in April next year, President Hamid Karzai's term will come to a constitutionally mandated end. Afghanistan will then attempt what it has never achieved in this recorded history: the peaceful transfer of power from one government to another. The failure of that transition is the country's biggest threat, not the Taliban.
As one senior Australian officer put it to me, it's a not security problem, it's a governance problem.
It is important not to view this barely post-mediaeval country's progress solely against the values of modern Australia. A high level of violence is, and always has been, a fact of Afghan life.
Although a dozen or more deaths a day among security forces is not uncommon, this toll may be matched by deaths from intercommunal conflict based around family, property, sect or ethnicity, or from the activity of purely criminal gangs.
Surprisingly to Australian minds, this level of violence is seen as an ''acceptable'' attrition, the ''cost of progress'', undeterring to average Afghans just as our road toll apparently fails to deter Australians from driving cars.
The consensus among Australians serving in Afghanistan is this: if next year's election can deliver an ethnically acceptable, politically stable successor to President Karzai, the slow evolution of the nation towards a post-Taliban society will continue.
That is good news.
In particular, it is news that Australians, having committed so much effort and the lives of 40 servicemen, should welcome as justification of our sacrifice in that country.
Senator Gary Humphries is the federal opposition spokesman on defence materiel. He retires as ACT Liberal senator at this election.