Finally, an exit strategy for Afghanistan
THIS week Julia Gillard did something most Australians have wanted their Prime Minister to do since John Howard renewed Australia's commitment to the Afghanistan war in 2005. She announced a plan for withdrawal. In a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, Ms Gillard said that most of the 1550 troops deployed in Afghanistan would probably be home by the end of next year. This is welcome news, not least because it is 12 months earlier than the end of 2014, which most speculation had previously identified as the likely date. In response to a question after her speech, the Prime Minister said she had already told Parliament that a military withdrawal before 2014 was possible. That does not, however, diminish the significance of her announcement; only now is there anything resembling a schedule.
Yet, as with most previous statements on the war, by this government and its predecessor, Ms Gillard managed to obfuscate rather than to clarify both the conflict and Australia's involvement in it. ''This is a war with a purpose, this is a war with an end,'' she declared. Yet she also conceded that some Australian troops, including special forces, would remain indefinitely beyond the pullout date. If the war has an end, either it does not appear to be in sight or the Prime Minister is unwilling to say in any specific way what that end might be.
Ms Gillard did, however, hint at the reality in Afghanistan, by quoting the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, General John Allen, who has said: ''Throughout history, insurgencies have seldom been defeated by foreign forces. Instead, they have ultimately been beaten by indigenous forces. So in the long run our goals can only be achieved and then secured by Afghan forces …'' In plain English, this appears to be an admission of what has long been apparent: that the international coalition cannot win its war against the Taliban.
No such frank admission is going to be made, of course. The Prime Minister devoted a considerable part of her speech to the success of Australian troops in their primary mission, training the Afghan National Army's 4th Brigade in Oruzgan province. She also said, more contentiously, that ''we continue to see steady gains in the fight against the Afghan insurgency''. But this was immediately qualified by the acknowledgment that ''in some areas these [gains] are fragile and not beyond reverse'' - an observation that, only days after a seven-pronged onslaught on major Afghan cities by an offshoot of the Taliban, the Haqqani network, seems almost like witheringly ironical understatement.
The fighting did indeed demonstrate an improvement in the calibre of the Afghan troops, who repelled the attacks, but it also revealed a comprehensive intelligence failure by the Afghan security forces, NATO and the ISAF. The Haqqani fighters had to cross several hundreds of kilometres, carrying ammunition and heavy weapons, including rockets, to launch coordinated attacks on their targets, three of which were in what are supposedly the most secure districts in Kabul. Yet their movements were not noticed or pre-empted.
The Taliban have not won a military victory, but the attacks indicated their resilience. More than a decade after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled them from power, they are still a force in the land, with which the Kabul government will have to reckon after 2014 when the bulk of the ISAF has departed.
The truth is that the ISAF is going because the US is going, and the US is going because in this election year President Barack Obama does not want to have to tell Americans that their country will be indefinitely mired in another unwinnable war. And Australia? In leaving we are taking our cue from our principal ally, just as we did when we entered the war. If only Australian governments could say so frankly.
Failure of care; failure of state
THE key word is ''risk'', and what part it played in contributing to the swift and violent murder of Carl Williams by Matthew Johnson, a fellow inmate at Barwon prison, two years ago today. It is precisely this question of risk that precipitated Victoria's Ombudsman, George Brouwer, to conduct an investigation into Corrections Victoria's management of Carl Williams in his time in custody. It is one of five separate inquiries into the incident.
Mr Brouwer's report, which was tabled in State Parliament yesterday, having been delayed because of Johnson's trial and sentencing, is direct and forceful. It says Williams' death ''raises important questions as to how it is possible that a high-profile prisoner in Victoria's highest security prison unit could be killed with an unsecured metal pipe from an exercise bike, and that prison staff did not find out about the incident for some 27 minutes''. Moreover, Mr Brouwer concludes that Corrections Victoria failed in its statutory duty to ensure Williams' safety. Specifically, the report questions why Justice Department secretary Penny Armytage and other senior officials made the decision to move Williams from isolation to a jail unit with two other prisoners, including Johnson. This was in spite of an email sent to Ms Armytage in January 2009 by the then acting commissioner of Corrections Victoria, Rod Wise, that stated ''there is little doubt that Johnson is capable of causing Williams harm if he were to find out the true nature of Williams' co-operation with police''. Despite this, the Ombudsman says, Mr Wise and Ms Armytage supported Williams' move on the condition the placement be carefully monitored.
It should be noted that the Justice Department has accepted practically all of the 56 recommendations in the report concerning management and supervision of high-security prisons across the state.
As The Age's investigative unit revealed in February, the department's decision to publicise details of its reforms was the first public acknowledgement of its failings in the high-security prison system. Indeed, in Ms Armytage's response to the Ombudsman's report, she says, ''There are clearly many areas where the system can, and must, improve.'' Whether these improvements can satisfactorily be made while Ms Armytage is still in charge is a matter for the government to determine.
Yesterday Premier Ted Baillieu said the government had confidence in Ms Armytage. Given Mr Brouwer's determinations, what are the risks for departmental credibility if Ms Armytage stays on?