Afghanistan – Have Australians forgotten?

Australia committed to Afghanistan in 2001 following the September 11 attacks.

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Our mission was to remove the governing Taliban, locate Osama bin Laden and destroy the group the wealthy Saudi had founded, Al-Qaeda.

Since 2001 more than 25,000 Australians have served in Afghanistan; 41 were killed and more than 260 injured.

Over the 15 years, Australia’s role changed. Following combat withdrawal, Operation Slipper became Operation Highroad, and our remaining forces are today tasked with training and mentoring the Afghan National Army.

No longer based in Uruzgan, about 270 personnel are in the Afghan capital, Kabul, with some specialist roles still in Kandahar.

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Defence analyst Raspal Khosa told SBS News that the focus was now on military training, with Australian and other international forces “training the trainers” at the Afghan National Officers Academy in Kabul. 

“That’s part of the NATO Resolute Support follow-on mission,” he said. “But Australia is also a major funder of Afghan forces, which rely almost entirely on international assistance.”

Mr Khosa said until 2017 Australia would provide some $300 million to train the Afghan national security force and day-to-day operations.

“We’ve developed a particular expertise over that lengthy presence in Afghanistan, and certainly we’ve got a role in the near-term of getting that institution – the Afghan National Officer Academy – up and running and sustainable,” he said.

Professor Peter Leahy was Australia’s Chief of Army from 2002 to 2008. He’s described our approach to Afghanistan as a “set and forget” strategy, and fears there’s a real risk of it fading from the public eye.

“Australia is also a major funder of Afghan forces, which rely almost entirely on international assistance.”

“It’s been a long mission and there have been considerable achievements but I think we should acknowledge very early in the piece that there’s still more work to be done,” he said.

Since moving on from our combat role, there have been a range of missions, including assistance in reconstruction, mentoring and training. And some of those are certainly measurable.

“It’s the classic statement: we saw little girls go to school, we saw improvements in health.”

Afghanistan’s 2014 leadership transition

As a national unity government was formed, Ashraf Ghani became president and his main rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, was appointed the country’s CEO.

Mr Ghani is well regarded internationally. He’s a former World Bank and UN official who has been trying to advance Afghanistan. But it’s a tough task, according to Mr Khosa.

“He faces a number of challenges, both internally and externally,” he said. “Internally, he needs to maintain that ‘house of cards,’ as it were, with regards to keeping Afghanistan’s many ethnic, tribal and political factions satisfied.”

“At a political level, obviously the major challenge is fighting a very resilient insurgency that has shown it has the capacity to overrun cities, even if it doesn’t have the ability to hold its ground.”

Almost immediately after his inauguration, Mr Ghani reached out to neighbour states, among them Pakistan, India and China. Because of its rich natural resources, it’s no surprise the country is attractive to others, especially China and India. But it’s a question of whether the risk is worth it.

“It’s the classic statement: we saw little girls go to school, we saw improvements in health.”

“Afghanistan is a very unstable place, and not somewhere that’ll necessarily attract investors in the near-term,” Mr Khosa said.

“So it has got a future, it can potentially stand on its own two feet, but at the moment it relies on major ongoing donor support from the international community.”

Professor of Human Security and International Diplomacy, Joseph Siracusa, said Afghanistan’s geo-strategic location was also lucrative.

“I think it will go down the path as a highly developed country.  I mean, that part of the world has, beneath its surface, riches that we haven’t even begun to figure out.”

Professor Siracusa said it was a highly contested area, with both India and Pakistan looking at their boundaries, working out how they can get an economic slice of Afghanistan. 

But he has one big concern.

“Will it trickle down or will it just wind up in the hands of the people at the top?” That’s the problem in that part of the world,” he said.

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Mr Khosa said the Taliban was still present and having an impact, surging back against the government.

“Throughout 2015, insurgent attacks have been up. But they’ve been able to overrun isolated district centres and there continues to be high profile attacks in many of Afghanistan’s cities,” he said.

Though the national and international focus in the past few years has been on the terror imposed by IS and the destruction it’s caused in Iraq and Syria, but there is a risk in forgetting Afghanistan.

Increasing presence of so-called Islamic State

Mr Khosa said the looming threat of the so-called Islamic State in Afghanistan was significant.

“They’ve managed to wrest areas away from the Taliban in Nangarhar Province and NATO regards this group as ‘operationally emergent,’ and may turn its focus against US interests in Afghanistan,” he said.

Professor Siracusa shared the same concerns.

“ISIS tends to hive off of Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban mob has come back and there was some talk of [government] negotiating with the Taliban for some kind of power-sharing arrangement,” he said.

“They have not eventuated, particularly when we find out that the head of the Taliban had passed away but no one found out, no one had notified anybody else, so there was kind of a fracturing of the group, and a splinter power –ISIS sort of broke away from that.”

Though our combat mission may be over in Afghanistan, Australians should be prepared for a long presence in the country we’ve already spent $8.2 billion on. Professor Leahy calls it a “100-year war”.

“We can’t abandon Afghanistan,” he said.

“This battle is against radical ideology – how do you break down an ideology?

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