With news overnight of five more Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, the government will be pressed to convince the Australian public that the objectives are indeed worth the sacrifice. But as the operational environment itself changes rapidly, the means and ends of this mission could not be further apart.
Yesterday, acting defence chief Air Marshal Mark Binskin told reporters that five more Australian soldiers had died, two in a helicopter crash and three more by a rogue Afghan soldier in a so-called "green on blue" attack.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard reaffirmed that "…our strategy is well defined, our strategy is constant". But the objective for Australian soldiers in Afghanistan has undeniably shifted. Operational planning must now focus on improving trust with Afghan soldiers and creating a safe environment for our own troops within what previously were regarded as secure zones.
In effect, the Australian Defence Force must devise a strategy for the objective of protecting its soldiers first, before the implementation of a strategy aimed at achieving the official objective: the training of the Afghan National Army (ANA).
This new focus of operations includes having Afghan soldiers perform their training under constant watch by "guardian angels", Australian soldiers positioned to shoot first should an ANA soldier attempt to attack. These circumstances, while necessary, can only complicate efforts towards building the necessary trust and cooperation between the two sides.
Furthermore, the official objective itself has become more complicated. What exactly will an Afghan army ready to assume control of the nation’s security look like? On what grounds will Australian military officials make that decision?
For an indication of the immense complexities and especially the time frames involved in developing robust political infrastructure in a foreign country, Australians should look closer to home.
More than 35 years after independence, our nearest neighbour Papua New Guinea continues to struggle with weak government infrastructure despite receiving millions of dollars in Australian aid money every year. While Afghanistan absorbs the focus of our nation’s military, Papua New Guinea is the second largest recipient of Australian aid money, with almost AU$500 million donated this year alone.
And while there are clearly inconsistencies in comparing a mostly diplomatic intervention in the Pacific with a predominantly military intervention in the Middle East, there are also some worthy comparisons to be drawn.
Both are described in terms of nation building, aimed at developing government infrastructure in areas of service delivery and security, and both involve a "whole of government approach" that has at various times drawn on the ADF, AusAID and the Department of Foreign Affairs, among others.
Yet in Papua New Guinea, millions of Australian tax payer dollars are spent in donor aid every year to hold together a political system that does not work effectively. Many Papua New Guineans live in abject poverty without access to basic services and in some areas of the country living standards have been described as actually worse than Afghanistan and only slightly better than Zimbabwe.
And despite Australian soldiers being deployed to PNG to ensure the proper handling of the recent elections, political violence continues to destabilise parts of the country, with local newspapers reporting 30 killed in one province of the Highlands alone.
Why then, is the Australian public so regularly told by politicians that it’s possible to strengthen social cohesion and build political and economic infrastructure in Afghanistan — despite fewer resources committed over a shorter time period — even as clear evidence in the form of yesterday’s fatalities suggests otherwise?
Certainly the International Security Assistance Force’s ability to meet individual targets is something defence force personnel in Australia, the US and other countries will defend adamantly, and hold as evidence to deny allegations of mission creep when casualties occur.
Sadly in Australia and other ISAF nations, it seems our current strategy only receives media and public scrutiny following the death of a soldier in uniform. Meanwhile, the death toll among local populations rises daily.
The public is right to be sceptical about Afghanistan’s path to stability and prosperity. Without being able to demonstrate an ability to shape a positive political objective through the use of armed force, how are the lives lost justified? Is the true cost of intervention being addressed and have the gains been worth the years of bloodshed?
Over the coming days, these questions will be put to politicians. But perhaps due to an unwillingness to question the nation’s military traditions and after little pause for thought, the answer invariably comes back that the political gains have indeed been worth the price paid in blood.
With every shooting, the evidence increasingly suggests the sum total of this experience has been to show a serious disconnect between the certainty of governments and their capacity to achieve political aims by the use of force.
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