URUZGAN- DAILY LIFEA man and woman ride past an old destroyed Russian tank at Sarkhom Manda, Tarin Kowt District, Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan. 26th January, 2013. Photo: Kate GeraghtyNATO aircraft are said to be flying once again out of the air base that was home to most of the Australian forces during the Afghanistan war, the longest this country has ever fought.
Even before US President Donald Trump’s speech heralding a tougher stance in the country, the perilous situation facing Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital in Oruzgan where the Australian Defence Force was based, and where most of the 41 Australian fallen died, has forced an intervention by coalition air power, according to local aid worker Turyallai Sahim.
The 26-year-old says there is fighting every night within three or four kilometres of the city – a description consistent with Afghan media reports. And in the past week, NATO aircraft have been providing close air support to the Afghan National Army as they battle encroaching Taliban fighters, he said.
A NATO spokesman, Captain Jan Dunmurray, said coalition forces were providing “advise and assist” help to Afghan troops in Oruzgan but added “we cannot discuss further details of current operations”. NATO carried out air strikes around Tarin Kowt last September when the Taliban came close to taking the city.
Sahim says Oruzgan people had been better off when international forces were there, when there were construction projects, support for schools, jobs and – most importantly – security.
“But now there are no projects implemented by the government. The schools are almost done. There is no pressure and support for schools from the government. The security is getting worse. Oruzgan people are even expecting that soon the whole province will come into the hands of the Taliban because the government is very weak.”
Trump this week announced that the US-led coalition will have yet another crack at finding some tolerable end state for Afghanistan after 16 years. It didn’t amount to a new strategy in the eyes of most informed watchers. The strategy remains to beat the Taliban down until the more moderate among them negotiate for peace, leaving a smaller hard core – alongside al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates – who can be dealt with as an ongoing but militarily manageable threat. The end state is an Afghanistan that does not present an unacceptable national security risk to the US and its allies.
Rather, the key to Trump’s speech was the message that the US-led coalition is there to stay – and it will keep killing Taliban and other insurgents as long as they keep fighting the government. The muscle that backed up the message was Trump’s vow to give his military commanders the freedom and resources to do what is required.
Trump deliberately did not give numbers though US media reports consistently say the president has authorised about another 4000 American troops. Trump said he expected comparable commitments from other coalition countries.
Australia will likely be asked to make a further contribution. But if a request comes, it is expected to be limited and not something that will overstretch the Australian Defence Force. Any return to combat is regarded as unlikely. What is Trump’s plan?
Trump’s approach has been broadly welcomed by analysts in the US and Australia, though most assessments say only that it is an improvement on the current state, in that it might yield a bearable outcome. The rationale for this modest optimism rests fairly heavily on the military component. Trump said that the US would use all of its power – diplomatic, economic and military – and his top diplomat Rex Tillerson followed that up with promises of “much more rigorous efforts” on combating corruption in Afghanistan.
But those sentiments were secondary. As Secretary of State Tillerson himself summed it up: “This entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban to have the Taliban understand: you will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you.”
The immediate question is how the coalition will deny the Taliban this victory with a force that, even after troop increases, will be a fraction of the 130,000-strong foreign forces there in 2010. The government of President Ashraf Ghani now controls barely half the country by area; it generally holds major population centres whereas the insurgents’ strength is in the rural areas. IS has set up in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda still has a presence.
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, is preparing a military plan. Experts and insiders say the coalition increase will likely be a combination of special operations to kill or capture insurgent leaders and advise the Afghans, various so-called “enablers” such as intelligence, logistics and air medical evacuation, and more close air support from fighters, drones and helicopter gunships.
Trump also indicated he would free up his commanders to make quick decisions with changed rules of engagement or ROEs. A former senior US official who has served as the chief of defence intelligence at the US Embassy in Canberra and worked closely with US National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster in Afghanistan says this will be welcomed by the Pentagon.
“Operations in the theatre have been ham-strung because the previous administration had stringent ROEs for different target sets,” he says. “Now, be it [IS] or al-Qaeda or the Taliban or the Haqqani [militant network] the ROE will be the same. It makes command and control much simpler and much easier for the soldiers on the point.” What will Australia’s role be?
There will also be more training of the Afghan forces, and that is where the ADF is most likely to see a boost in numbers. Any increase would be the result of a conversation with the US, rather than a straight request from Washington. There are other countries – namely those in NATO – Trump clearly had in mind when he called for more help, but Australia is also well regarded and therefore attractive to coalition planners.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis and new White House Chief of Staff John Kelly – both former Marine generals – have long and close relationships with the Australian military. They won’t ask for things they know the Turnbull government can’t agree to.
Chief of the Australian Defence Force Mark Binskin sent a strong signal that Australia is already pulling its weight in the broad fight against Islamist terrorism around the world.
He tells Fairfax Media that the previously announced increase of 30 extra trainers, taking the Australian total to 300, was “entirely consistent with President Trump’s call for the international community to deploy more troops to Afghanistan”.
He says it is important for Australia to remain in Afghanistan but added that “we do not consider Afghanistan in isolation” – suggesting Australia’s efforts needed to be balanced against what it was doing elsewhere in the world. “Terrorism is a global issue and our counter-terrorism strategies are always considered in this context.”
He says the ADF has 800 people fighting IS and was flying P-3 Orion spy planes in support of Philippines forces in Mindanao, where an IS-affiliated insurgency is poised to establish an enduring splinter “caliphate” that could become a base for South-east Asia. Can the Taliban be beaten?
The model of training local forces while also advising them from relatively close to the front line and providing air strikes has worked well in Iraq. There may be some useful lessons from the fight against Islamic State – a point Tillerson made this week – but experts cautioned that while Iraq had relatively well-defined military goals of retaking cities such as Mosul, the Taliban rarely fights like a conventional military that would allow the coalition and Afghans to concentrate their forces and achieve major victories.
“It’s not just a little different, it’s very different,” says Michael Crane, a retired major-general who commanded Australian forces in the Middle East including Afghanistan in 2007 and again in 2013. “Afghanistan is a very difficult problem. You have remote mountain areas, border problems, corruption, no real sense of nation. And the Taliban is a very determined enemy.”
Crane envisions the US forces directly pursuing IS and al-Qaeda while leaving the Taliban largely to the Afghans, though with support. It will take a long time and will depend on considerable US patience.
Rodger Shanahan, a former Army officer now with the Lowy Institute, says “nation building” wouldn’t exactly be abandoned as Trump had vowed, but it would not be based on values. That message – switching nation-building for “killing terrorists” – played well on Fox News. But it also was directed clearly at Taliban leaders, Shanahan says.
“The strategic message to the Taliban is that there is no end state. And some of you guys can come on board. If you can guarantee us that people who are going to harm America don’t have freedom of action in Afghanistan, you can implement your view of Afghan society to some degree.
“It’s the only way to get them to the negotiating table – raise the cost to them by military action and reduce the moral high ground on which you sat. Is it a morally good thing? Probably not. Does it mean you can perhaps set an achievable goal? It’s more likely under this direction than previously.”
How realistic it is to negotiate with the Taliban is a matter of debate. William Maley, a leading Afghanistan expert at the Australian National University, branded any peace deal with the Taliban as “a pipe dream” because the group’s extremism was fundamentally irreconcilable with any acceptable vision of Afghanistan.
They have to be defeated, he says. Most Afghans hate the Taliban. People in a country of seemingly endless war back the side they think will win, and therefore decisive military victories underscoring resolve on the part of the coalition and the Afghan government could drive the Taliban into irrelevance. Is it a ‘losing battle’?
Trump’s other major pitch was that he would finally stop Pakistan allowing the Taliban to cross into sanctuaries in its territory to regroup. In fact the US has been trying to do this since 2001 – it’s just that Trump issued his threats very publicly.
However cutting off military aid and removing Pakistan’s status as a favoured non-NATO partner – much less bringing arch-rival India further into the equation as Trump threatened to do – could sever that relationship and create another enemy. And while nobody wants Afghanistan with its population of 33 million people to become a haven for terrorists, Pakistan is a country of more than 200 million people with its own Islamist forces and a nuclear arsenal.
Pushing Pakistan away for the sake of Afghanistan doesn’t make much sense, some insiders point out. The Pakistan part, if Trump follows through, is a high-stakes gamble, but some think it could pay off.
“Washington is signalling to Pakistan there’s a new administration in town and the commander-in-chief is half-crazy so when we make these kinds of threats, don’t think it’s empty rhetoric,” Shanahan says.
Everyone Fairfax spoke to, both inside and outside the Australian government and officialdom, feel Trump’s approach is an improvement on the present state of affairs. No one in authority in this country has been prepared to say what Tillerson said bluntly this week: that this has been a “losing battle”.
Chris May, who served two tours of Afghanistan, fractured his neck and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder when the Bushmaster armoured vehicle he was commanding hit a roadside bomb about 40 kilometres north of Tarin Kowt in 2011.
Like many Australian veterans of Afghanistan, he feels the coalition drew down its forces too early. Trump’s new approach isn’t “so much a step forward as a step sideways”, he says.
He talks about the progress they made while they were there: building girls’ schools, trade centres, a water treatment plant, roads and bridges so that farmers could get their produce to Tarin Kowt – which had been a “thriving metropolis”.
It’s a reminder that Trump’s “principled realism” comes at a considerable price when measured against the ambitions we once had for the country.