One time Defence Minister and now Chief Government Whip, Joel Fitzgibbon today uttered the awkward but necessary reality that some Australian troops, probably special forces, may and should remain in Afghanistan well after the already stated withdrawl date of 2014. These comments come less than a day after Taliban militants struck urban areas across Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, attacking government buildings and diplomatic missions as well as a NATO facility.
The government have already stated that the majority of Australian troops will be coming home within the next two years, but that there is a real possibility that elite soldiers may remain well after the planned withdrawal date.
Mr Fitzgibbon, on his return from visiting the NATO headquarters in Brussels, stated that the attacks which were quelled today after more than half a day of fighting proved that “the peace in Afghanistan is at best a fragile one”. This is very true, whilst the attacks in the major urban cities of Afghanistan have been rare in recent years, aside from a similar one last year, the fact that they are still occurring and not being smothered, or even discovered beforehand is a cause for major concern regarding the real level of readiness of Afghan security services post combat troop withdrawal.
At the outset it is important to note that the ongoing effort in Afghanistan will be one more of harm minimisation as opposed to the ideal outcome of crushing Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The events over the last 24 hours or so provide some evidence that a greater level return of troops to the major cities is a necessity both to train and supplement Afghan police and army stationed in these cities.
The attacks also point to the need for greater border security, particularly around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas where, in the worst kept secret of the conflict, many Taliban fighters are known to have fled and to have even been welcomed by elements of the military and intelligence community in the neighbouring country.
Greater intelligence efforts of both the Afghan and international community need to be deployed into these border regions to help identify, prosecute or eliminate border crossings by known Taliban fighters and this kind of intelligence building and effort cannot occur overnight as many members of the Taliban may just wait out international forces before returning to the country when it is safer for them to do so. In the case of intelligence cooperation, an ongoing cooperation between Afghanistan and particularly US intelligence services is a necessity.
Where Fitzgibbon starts going wrong is suggesting that, in his view the mentoring task force would have returned home by the end of 2014, like the artificial timetable created suggests. If any part of the Australian commitment had to remain in Afghanistan post 2014, it predominantly should be those tasked with mentoring the Afghan National Army and police. It is the security forces that we as a nation have been partially responsible for mentoring that weren’t ready yesterday wasn’t it?
It is certain that the security situation in Afghanistan is tense and that the threat of combatants returning from Pakistan through the porous borders is a certainty, regardless of the timing of an exit and needs to be responded to with continued security and intelligence cooperation between nations. The question is, will a war weary and debt-ridden international community be able to stomach continued commitment to peace and security in Afghanistan? Equally so, will the Afghan Government, increasingly weary of the international presence and occasional misadventure be happy for this to continue to occur? That is far from definite.
Should we pull all our troops out of combat, training and reconstruction roles in Afghanistan in the wake of an incident like this? I tend to agree with the position of the Gillard Government, the ADF and the Tony Abbott led Coalition when they say, no we should not contemplate a precipitate withdrawal from our responsibilities to train, reconstruct and make the war-torn nation safer.
An immediate withdrawal of all troops in an instantaneous and collective manner would result in Afghanistan becoming far more de-stabilised and result in a likely mass return of the Taliban to areas of the nation where they have largely been eradicated from.
Indeed, there is a valid argument that a longer combat, training and reconstruction role is essential for the long-term, at leas relative stability of Afghanistan. This ongoing role is essential for the future stability of Afghanistan politically and economically.
If there is one major thing that this incident tells us, it is that Afghanistan is not necessarily more or less dangerous than it has been previously. What this dreadful event, the second similar incident involving Australian forces, may tell us is that better vetting of ANA and other security force’s candidates is required.
This approach calls for more intelligence resources and time to conduct background checks, not less time with talk of deadlines of a specific withdrawal timetable. Furthermore it calls for more time and effort put into the training, combat and reconstruction roles.
The Government and other governments contemplating such circumstances will find it incredibly difficult to justify in a political environment where there have been casualties and voters are becoming war weary. The current global economic doldrums will also put immense pressure on political will. However, the point remains, that what is required is not necessarily an escalation in troop numbers or operations, but chiefly, in relation to this attack, a simple revision of vetting processes for Afghan security forces which can be worked on, in unison with the Afghan Government.