Wow! As I write this I'm winging my way to Pembroke College, Oxford, for a conference ON the 'Changing Character of War'. That's not exciting in itself, of course.
What is wonderful, however, is that I have been asked to give a presentation on "the Australian experience in Uruzgan". When I found out I sat, happily admiring myself for weeks on end.
Eventually the pleasant, warm feeling of smug self-satisfaction wore off. I suddenly realised I would need to work, hard, if I was going to have anything worth saying. That's where my problems began.
I'd thought, innocently enough, how hard could it really be? But now, some 50 interviews later, I've simply got more questions than ever.
Some people have declined to speak to me. Those who did, however, were truthful and forthcoming. The more I spoke to decision-makers, staffers, officers and soldiers, the more I've been impressed with their determination to "do good", executing their mission professionally, with accountability and a real grasp of what they were attempting to achieve. Everyone wanted to improve governance and make the province better.
I've decided, at this stage, not to attribute any quotes to particular individuals. That's because I have now come to believe that there was a strategic failure right at the heart of the intervention.
Despite a number of (failed) attempts to rectify matters and bring the deployment into alignment with the overall mission, there was no central agreement on exactly what Australia was attempting to accomplish or how we might achieve it.
Today the result is plain to see.
The governor's word barely runs to the edge of the provincial capital Tarin Khot. Every other district is marked as either "contested" or under Taliban control. The insurgency is dominant. That's not just because the diggers have left. Even when our deployment was at its height nobody - except, occasionally, special forces - would venture into large swathes of Uruzgan.
So why was the mission a failure?
I've ended up isolating three, simple things.
Both John Howard and Kevin Rudd were rightly ambitious for Australia to genuinely contribute and ensure our deployment made a difference. That's why Howard sent a crack special forces contingent and Rudd significantly upped the numbers in the reconstruction (later 'mentoring') task force. The problem was neither government was prepared to deploy anything like the sorts of numbers that would have been required to achieve the task they were given.
Their governments endorsed loosing strategies.
The SAS, for example, are meant to target critical enemy capabilities and take them out - removing them completely from the board. This is a strategic asset. Instead they were used tactically, time and time again, in a repetitive, pedestrian role. It was like using a screwdriver as a hammer, ignoring its special capabilities than simply turn it.
We also deployed a reconstruction force, later changing its role to mentoring the Afghan army.
But none of that great engineering we were doing - building mosques and wells and other stuff - was ever linked back to the central government in Kabul. Afghans appreciated the work, don't get me wrong. But when the force suddenly descended to build something, this didn't convert locals into advocates of the central government. Their lives went on regardless.
Later we shifted to mentoring the Afghan army (conscripts, unlucky enough to be sent to Uruzgan and who had no desire at all to be in such a backward area). But it really didn't matter how many soldiers we "trained" anyway, because they had virtually no influence on who controlled the province. They wanted to stay in their barracks. It was the police and, even more importantly, the local (armed) police who controlled the roads and villages. They were the key determiner of what happened. As a result, no matter how many troops we trained, all that work was (essentially) irrelevant.
The vital ground, the key terrain was the human territory of the province, but we didn't have enough troops or, critically, understanding to enable the defeat of the insurgency.
This leads us to the real issue; the major cause of the discrepancy between our objectives and what was achieved.
It was failure at the operational level - linking strategic objectives to tactical abilities - that eventually resulted in the dysfunction that crippled the effort. No individual - from the colonels in Tarin Khot to the generals in the Middle East to the Commander, Joint Operations - was ever given the information, power and responsibility to resolve the discrepancy between what the strategists desired and the tacticians could achieve.
The military is full of "can do" people. Nobody rises to the top by pointing out problems - they get promoted precisely because of their enthusiasm. They keep trying, even when the difficulties appear insurmountable. And that's exactly what they did in Uruzgan.
Normally a story has a hero and a villain. The difficulty here is that the problems didn't have a human face - they existed in the structure of the mission. It wasn't that we'd bitten off more than we could chew; the issue was rather that nobody (and least of all the politicians) was prepared to face the fact that there were not nearly enough forces deployed to achieve all the things we were attempting to do.
The failure was inevitable. It should have been avoidable.
The trouble is I'm not convinced we've learned anything.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer