There seem to be encouraging new prospects for a major downturn in the foreign military presence in Afghanistan. President Donald Trump has been pushing since last year for a quick US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, while the Taliban is now claiming to have reached a draft agreement with US negotiators on foreign troop withdrawal within 18 months of an agreement being signed.
Trump had already announced plans to draw down US forces in Afghanistan from 14,000 to about half that number - although the Pentagon seems to be dragging its feet on implementation.
The “withdrawal” developments seem good reason for us to re-evaluate whether it is in our interest to be in Afghanistan and, if so, what our defence commitment should be.
Our Defence Department notes that “Australia remains committed to a stable and secure Afghanistan and continues to support the NATO-led train, advise and assist mission called Resolute Support which has replaced the previous NATO-led International Security Assistance Force mission”.
The real reason is of course to show we are a willing ANZUS and Western alliance partner in order to be well regarded by the US and receive the defence and intelligence benefits that go with active membership of the Five-Eyes relationship. Afghanistan per se is of little strategic importance to Australia.
What do we have by way of defence personnel in Afghanistan?
About 300 Australian Defence Force members and Defence civilians are deployed in “Task Group Afghanistan” as part of “Operation Highroad” headed by a one-star, Brigadier Jane Spalding.
Task Group Afghanistan's headquarters is at Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport. It comprises a command element of about 40 defence force personnel that coordinates administration, communications and logistics support for all defence force members deployed to Afghanistan performing in a variety of specialist and advisory roles as “embeds”.
Defence force embeds work with members of the US-led coalition, Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, and Afghan security ministries to assist in “institutional capacity building”.
Australia also contributes to the UK-led training support element at the Afghanistan National Army Officer Academy at Qargha near Kabul, and Australian soldiers provide a force protection element and mobility support for Resolute Support and our various commitments.
A small contingent of Australian Special Forces personnel provides support to NATO’s “Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan” and to the Afghan “General Command of Police Special Units Special Forces”.
In sum, we have a large support contingent for a relatively small number of people performing operational missions. Many of the latter are apparently not in-place long enough to provide full value. I met with an American colonel at one of the Afghan training schools who spoke highly of his two Australian instructors, but said they were just becoming familiar with his training requirements when they were rotated out. (He was on a two-year posting, while the Australians were only there for six months.)
The security situation in Afghanistan has not improved in the 17 years we have been there; in fact, it has become worse. Most of Afghanistan is controlled by the Taliban and local warlords who have little time for the Kabul government whose writ does not extend much below province level.
In those 17 years we have had 41 defence force personnel killed and 261 wounded - seven of the deaths were from insider attacks by our Afghan allies. (I can’t recall any other international training mission where we have had to protect ourselves from those we were training.)
The financial cost so far to Defence of being in Afghanistan is close to $10 billion Australian dollars. (Since 2001 it has cost the US over one trillion US dollars.)
Perhaps it is time to look constructively at the security situation, what our interests are, and what we can do about it.
The Taliban, the main insurgent group threatening the Afghan government, is not a problem for Australia because it does not pose an external threat - except to Pakistan.
The main security problem for the West has arisen from foreign self-invited terrorist groups in Afghanistan, initially al-Qaeda and now Islamic State. Islamic State has been building capability in Afghanistan as the Islamic State Khorasan network. Islamic State has a global intent to attack its Western enemies, including Australia, so its containment is something we do need to be concerned about.
Islamic State Khorasan has 3500-4000 fighters in Afghanistan and is growing in numbers. Its lethality in Afghanistan and Pakistan is beyond question. Between January 2014 and July 2018, there were 211 Islamic State Khorasan attacks in Afghanistan resulting in 1511 deaths.
The Taliban is - as part of any agreement - prepared to crack down on Islamic State Khorasan elements in Afghanistan and prevent Afghanistan-based groups from attacking the US or its allies.
The best and most cost-effective way for Australia to contain Islamic State Khorasan would be to assist its local, mainly Taliban, enemies and integrate more defence force personnel to work in US drone operations against them.
We are largely wasting our time supporting successive corrupt Afghan governments and their ineffectual Afghan security forces.
As in Iraq, our special forces should remain in Afghanistan as our token combat and training support contribution for any ongoing foreign presence; Afghanistan will continue to provide a useful coalition operational training environment for them at relatively low risk - possibly even working with the Taliban in a post-agreement Afghanistan.
Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU’s Centre for Military and Security Law and an adjunct professor at ADFA.