Australia’s bloodiest war ended 100 years ago in melancholy victory. Australia’s most recent war may end in a delayed defeat, raising an awful question: what did 41 Australian soldiers die for?
The Afghanistan conflict ended largely for Australians in 2013, when the army handed responsibility for the poverty-stricken Uruzgan province in the south to the Afghan National Army and local police.
Since then, Uruzgan has become a Taliban success story. Four of its six districts and 53 per cent of the population are under Taliban control or influence, according to the latest figures from NATO.
No other of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces have as little government control, the US Inspector-General for Afghanistan says.
Forgetting history lessons
Uruzgan is a reminder that even sophisticated democracies rarely remember the lessons of military history.
Australia’s participation in civil wars and wars of independence looks like attempts to stop the flow of history: the 1885 Sudan expedition, the Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Vietnam War, which ended 26 years before Afghanistan began.
After the Taliban government was overrun and removed in 2002, Australia was given responsibility for the province of Uruzgan, also known as Oruzgan, a dry, mountainous region closer to Pakistan than Kabul.
John Howard’s Coalition government didn’t offer a token commitment. Australia sent the largest force outside of NATO, which became a source of national pride.
The Australians were based at an airport at Tarin Kowt, the dusty provincial capital. They were not allowed to enter the small city without security details.
Whenever their vehicles entered the town, men watching from the balcony of a two-storey building in the middle of a roundabout would communicate the soldiers’ arrival on mobile phones, according to an Australian Army officer who served there, Garth Callender.
The Australians developed a reputation for professionalism and aggression. “They’re a fit, disciplined, well-trained group,” says Justin Rose, a US Marine captain who was posted to Tarin Kowt. “Outside the wire they were absolutely ruthless.”
If all they had to do was fight, the Australians might have succeeded. But their objective was to establish and sustain the authority of the corrupt Afghan government over a mostly indifferent population.
Waiting out the Australians
Taliban forces in the province essentially decided to wait out the Australians, according to Callender, because the insurgents expected to fill the power vacuum when they left.
Afghan tribal leaders, who are an important source of the power in the countryside, figured that if they cooperated with the Australians, the Taliban would eventually find out and harm them. Many refused to take sides. Others went with the insurgency.
Part of the tribes’ power came from their influence over the police force, which was drawn from the local community. “It was expected you would do what your uncle would tell you rather than your police commander,” says Callender, who wrote a book about his experiences, After the Blast. “That’s a massive security problem.”
Over time Australian political leaders became concerned that Uruzgan couldn’t be pacified. Troops were not pulled out until 2013, when Tony Abbott was prime minister.
“Uruzgan today is a very significantly different and better place than it was a decade ago,” Abbott said at the time.
“Really have to sit and reflect to yourself, you know, ‘Am I still sure this is worth it?'” former prime minster Julia Gillard said in an ABC documentary early this year. “And I would always get to the conclusion that it is, but there was a tussle.”
Vietnam was worse
Australian combat deaths were relatively low. Eleven soldiers died between 2002 and 2009, 10 died the following year and 11 the year after. In Vietnam, 521 Australians died in seven years.
After Australia pulled out, the fighting picked up. From the start of last year to August 25, there were 135 clashes in the province at a cost of 1153 lives, according to a website that tracks conflict zones.
The mountainous region provides an advantage for insurgents, who can seal off valleys to outside traffic with a relatively small force. Moving away isn’t an option for residents. Most farm land is passed down through families, and limited literacy gives them few options other than subsistence farming, mostly corn and wheat, or poppies for cash.
“The locals don’t care what happens outside their village,” Rose says. “They care about their family, their crops, their village. Their allegiance is to whoever is going to leave them alone or keep them safe in the moment.”
Booming poppy crop
One of the secondary objectives of the Western intervention was to ensure Afghanistan didn’t again become a major heroin exporter.
In Uruzgan, the poppy crop is booming. Last year production rose 39 per cent, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, one of the biggest increases in the country.
The last Australian soldier to die in Uruzgan was a 32-year-old commando from Burnie, Cameron Baird. On June 22, 2013, he was a member of a platoon that attacked a village under Taliban control.
Three times, Baird charged a building housing enemy fighters. He died in the final assault, and was awarded the Victoria Cross for valour for the fight.
To convince regular Afghans that it was worth supporting their government, they needed to believe Western soldiers would be there a long time, according to Callender.
“The exit strategy and time to do it properly … you would almost need to be there for a generation,” he says.
“Trying to keep a Western country’s appetite for 25 years, it’s not going to happen.”