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With trust eroded, the Afghanistan mission is doomed

Date

Nicholas Stuart

Although the fort had been hastily erected from dirt-filled sandbags and metal containers, its design was as ancient. Two thousand years ago, in a nearby valley, the armoured phalanx of Alexander the Great had built forts exactly like this one - open in the centre and with walls and towers girdled round. Then, as now, the castles served two purposes: they dominated the surrounding ground and, critically, provided a vital refuge for the soldiers inside. It was a space where they could relax, talk, and rest, rebuilding after the turmoil of the day.

Today it's Diggers who are wearing the heavy armour and helmets. Until last year they'd return from patrol, put down their weapons, and remove their breastplates. Not any more. It's impossible to ''partner'' your Afghan allies when you don't trust them. Instead of representing safety, the interior of those rocky compounds has become the new killing ground in this, our longest war.

Lance Corporal Andrew Jones was the first to die. Last May the cook woke, climbed out of his camp stretcher, and wandered over to the latrines at patrol base Mashal. Normally two Afghan soldiers manned the machine gun in the sandbagged tower, but at that particular moment only Shafidullah Guhlamon was on duty. No one knows why he opened fire on Jones; he jumped and ran as soon as the body of the Australian had hit the dry, dusty soil of the compound. Shafidullah was later killed in a US Special Forces raid - Jones died on the operating table after being airlifted back to the medical facility at the base at Tarin Kowt. There was no apparent reason he was targeted.

Three months later I stood where Jones had been shot. The same Afghan National Army soldiers still patrolled the perimeter, but the Diggers had pulled out. Further tension had inevitably crept into the relationship between the Aussies (blue) and the ANA (green). A couple of days after I left Mashal, three more Australians were killed in the south of the province by another Afghan soldier; although this time it was a premeditated attack that appeared to have been inspired by religious reasons. Now, another three have died, with more wounded.

Since May last year seven Aussies died in a hail of allied bullets; three in helicopter crashes; three in action and two from improvised explosives. Our soldiers have been told to wear body-armour and keep a loaded rifle with them whenever they're moving around their bases. Trust has evaporated: it's a simple fact.

You can forget the babble from Russell about the ''marvellous relationship'' between the Diggers and the Afghans and what ''great cultural ambassadors'' our soldiers are. No magic cloak of wishfulness will ever provide security against a full-metal jacket of an M-16 rifle tearing through skin and bone. That's why our soldiers have been ordered to keep loaded weapons nearby at all times and wear their body-armour when moving around the bases.

When Julia Gillard says she's ordered ''protection measures'' to be put in place to give our soldiers extra security, it sounds like a positive. The reality is, however, that it's a signal the Taliban are winning. Each extra barrier that's erected between the Diggers and the Afghan soldiers they're meant to be mentoring eats away at the trust that's vital to accomplish the mission.

Defence will not admit it yet, but the requirement has subtly changed. Protecting our soldiers is now the first priority. There's nothing more that can be done to ''train'' the Afghans. They're well aware our soldiers will be pulling out in a year's time: no new battalion's been designated to replace the current rotation. This one will be the last.

The ANA's recruited from different ethnic groups from all over Afghanistan. Most of the soldiers have no desire to die, certainly not for Hamid Karzai or any of the provincial governors. Most just want to survive long enough to return to their families in other parts of the country. But just two per cent of people manage to stay alive until they're 65 and violent and sudden death is the norm. In an environment like this the immediate becomes omnipresent. Rational calculations about the importance of survival become warped by concepts about honour and religion. Survival relies on cultural bonds and norms that make nonsense of the Western enlightenment.

Two utterly different ways of life are clashing in Afghanistan: our world and another that's existed since long before the Ancient Greeks first charged across the rocky ground and barren soil on their way to the Khyber Pass. The locals know the latest superpower will pass by just as quickly as the last one did. American know-how and ingenuity has proved somewhat more resilient than Moscow's efforts two decades before - but not by much. The local way has triumphed.

The PM's ''vowed'' to keep the soldiers in Afghanistan until they complete their mission. Tony Abbott talks similar rubbish. But let's get real. The Afghan government is corrupt. Utterly. Discreet peace feelers have already been extended to the Taliban as part of a desperate attempt to allow the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces to depart with some dignity. At least we're maintaining the pretence of somehow propping up the kleptocratic regime in Kabul. But this nonsense is only for domestic consumption back home. Our efforts are ending with the same realisation of futile emptiness that led the Dutch to pull out years ago.

Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith have cut short important overseas trips as a result of the killings. It's a triumph of form over substance. They will achieve nothing back here apart from mollifying the Australian electorate with a reassurance that the politicians treat the sacrifice of so many young lives seriously.

But platitudes won't rebuild trust. This is the one, vital commodity that's necessary if Afghanistan is ever to be rebuilt, yet the deaths of another three Australian soldiers will do nothing to restore it.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.

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