Who's Still In Afghanistan?

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An important story regarding Australia’s preparations to withdraw from the war in Afghanistan appeared in the Fairfax press earlier this month. And then Mark Riley ambushed Tony Abbott about his "Sh*t happens" comments and the Opposition leader’s angry stare in response then dominated discussion of Afghanistan in the Australian media.

To recap, the SMH reported: "Multiple Defence sources have told the Herald the drawdown will almost certainly begin this year and will be achieved at least partly by sending a smaller force to replace the mentoring taskforce in Oruzgan province."

The story prompted strong government denials that our troops are already planning to leave Afghanistan — but many of our allies are now doing just that.

So are we really planning to stay behind? And who is staying in a conflict that has grown since 2001 and, despite progressively higher levels of foreign troops, only seems to be getting worse?

There are 132,000 foreign troops now in Afghanistan. The third largest contingent, Germany, voted in January to begin withdrawing 4900 troops by the end of 2011 — with all the troops to be gone by 2014. Despite criticism by their NATO counterparts for caveats on their troops that saw them serve in the formerly more peaceful north of Afghanistan, not to mention their refusal to patrol after dark and their generous beer allowance, the Germans have lost 48 soldiers — most recently three dead last Friday.

The Canadians have already started to withdraw their 2800 personnel based in Kandahar where they have lost 154 trying to secure the province. They are due to be gone by July of this year in what their military is predicting will be the largest logistical operation since the Korean War.

The slightly smaller Dutch contingent left neighbouring Oruzgan in August last year believing no more progress could be made in the province they shared with the Australians. They lost 23 soldiers.

In the UK Prime Minister David Cameron pledged in February that the 9500 British forces in Afghanistan would not be in combat or present in large numbers by 2015. They form the second largest contingent after the US. They’ve lost 357 including five in one week who arrived home last Sunday.

Poland’s President Bronislow Komorowski declared last week that his country’s 2600 troops would be withdrawn in 2012 after polls two weeks ago indicated less than 17 per cent of Poles supported their involvement in Afghanistan. Even tiny Lithuania has declared it will hand its province of Ghor over to the Afghans and pull its 150 troops out by 2012 after losing one soldier.

So of the 46 nations with troops in Afghanistan, who is planning to stay?

Well the one nation to announce a doubling of its troop presence in Afghanistan is Georgia. President Saakashvili announced on February 6 that his country would increase his commitment from 1000 soldiers to 2200 in the coming months. That was roughly the same number who served in Iraq until three years ago when they were hastily withdrawn when the Russians invaded their country.

In Iraq the Georgians were unmistakable with their first Gulf War era US surplus uniforms and Soviet Bloc weaponry. It was said that they were happy to commit troops on the condition they were completely re-equipped and supplied by the Americans. An arrangement which, judging by the reactions I saw of newly arrived Georgian troops to a Halliburton dining facility in Kuwait in 2007 and the amount of food piled on their trays, suited everybody well.

Another nation that has increased its commitment to Afghanistan and shows no sign of withdrawing is Europe’s second poorest country, Romania. They announced in January an increase of 600 troops bringing their commitment to 1600 troops based in the volatile Zabul province, higher than the Australians in neighbouring Oruzgan. Romania has only been a member of NATO since 2004 and presumably is eager to prove its worth to the organisation.

I shared a helicopter with Romanians to Zabul as they deployed in 2007 and it was clear that the troops would have to be equipped and supplied by the US in a similar way to the Georgians. Although they had their own uniforms their weapons were of an age and quality inferior to those of the Taliban and their thin skinned Soviet jeeps had to be left at Kandahar airfield as they were deemed to dangerous too take off the base.

For the record, the poorest country in the EU, Bulgaria, just sent another 200 troops — dressed in US surplus uniforms.

The reality is, however, that the timeframe and scale of the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan is entirely dependent on the timetable dictated by the United States. President Obama has already said that American forces, which now number 97,000, would begin withdrawing by July of this year however the Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced in January that a further 1400 marines are to be deployed around Kandahar in time for this year’s expected Taliban spring offensive.

As one decorated retired Australian General put it to me regarding the length and size of our force in Oruzgan: in Vietnam we kept the communists out of the one province we were in charge of for 10 years but when we left they came straight back in — our presence made no difference to the outcome.

The same can be said for our presence in Oruzgan.

His comments reveal the thinking of a generation of military men who began their careers as junior officers fighting the Vietnam War. They saw with their own eyes how Australia’s involvement in that war damaged the reputation and the morale of their own army. They also acknowledge the central reality of our commitment to Afghanistan.

Whatever Australia does in Oruzgan will remain largely ineffectual to the overall result of the conflict in Afghanistan. The province is only marginally more under government control now than it was when I visited there in 2006. You still cannot drive to Oruzgan without serious threat of Taliban attack and it is still impossible for an unarmed civilian to travel anywhere in the province.

After five years of deployment and 23 Australian soldiers’ lives, Afghan government control of that province would evaporate without the foreign troop presence. The argument put forward frequently and loudly by hawks such as retired Australian General Jim Molan for an increase in Australia’s commitment to Oruzgan is countered by the other view of a majority of the Vietnam generation that whatever we do in Oruzgan the ultimate outcome of the war in Afghanistan will be dictated by the US and that we should withdraw our troops at the first opportunity.

The US strategy seems to be developing along similar lines to the withdrawal from Iraq. Simply put, that strategy is to build up the local forces, to declare victory and to leave. This process will begin this year. The reality is, many more lives will be lost before they withdraw, and those lives are really being lost to fix and finish a preventable conflict.

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