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Afghanistan: case for a 'lessons learnt' study?


On 16 May 2013, the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee tabled its report on The administration, management and objective of Australia's overseas development programs in Afghanistan in the context of the ‘Transition Decade’. On 26 June 2014, more than a year after the report was released, the Government tabled its response.

The Committee report was significant because it was the result of the first inquiry into any aspect of Australian involvement in Afghanistan since troops were first deployed in the country in 2001. The primary focus of the inquiry was issues pertaining to Australian development assistance in Afghanistan, including the involvement of the ADF.

Recommendation 1  of the report suggested that the Australian Civil Military Centre (ACMC) undertake a ‘comprehensive review of Australia’s civil–military–police mission in Uruzgan Province’. It was recommended that such a review should cover issues such as whether the ADF’s involvement in delivering development assistance:

  • served counterinsurgency objectives
  • affected sustainable development by having short-term, tactical objectives
  • influenced the distribution of development assistance (the suggestion is that more funds were directed to insecure areas)
  • diverted development effort away from poverty alleviation
  • placed facilities built with military aid, and those using them, at increased risk from attack by anti-government forces and
  • undermined the perceptions of NGOs as neutral and impartial thereby placing the safety of their aid workers at greater risk.

The committee also believes that it is important for the review to consider whether Australian development assistance had any role in empowering local individuals in Uruzgan and, if so, the lessons to be learnt from it.

In its response, the Government agreed ‘in principle’ to the above recommendation, with qualifications. The response stated that the ACMC ‘was already scoping a “lessons learned” analysis for whole–of–government consideration’ and that the project was at the ‘concept development phase’. It added that the review would take several months, cost about $400,000 and be led by a former senior Australian official.

However, the Government turned down the request for a review of the specific issues identified in the report because they fall beyond the expertise, mandate, competence and authority of the ACMC.

While the ACMC might not be the appropriate body to conduct such an exercise, it can be argued that there is a substantive case for a broader ‘lessons learnt’ study to be commissioned by the Government.

While there were ad hoc media releases, press conferences and ministerial statements in Parliament, Australia’s longest war has been one of the least discussed in Parliament. It was only in August 2009 that the then Defence Minister, John Faulkner, outlined in a Ministerial Statement his intention to provide regular updates to the Parliament on Australia’s role in Afghanistan.

The last Ministerial Statement was delivered on 11 December 2013 in the Senate by the Defence Minister, David Johnston.

Even so, parliamentary debates have hardly made a significant contribution. As Kevin Foster, in his book Don’t mention the war: the Australian Defence Force, the media and the Afghan conflict, has observed (p.125), ‘parliament has functioned less as a forum for meaningful exchange than as an echo chamber where members of the legislature find comfort in the restatement and endorsement of their views’.

This lack of scrutiny by the Parliament does not mean that there has been popular support for the war in Afghanistan. A 2013 Lowy Institute poll found that 61 per cent of Australians considered the Afghanistan war ‘not worth fighting’, with only 35 per cent supporting it.

Also, as James Brown of the Lowy Institute, writing in The Age, has argued, the Australian focus, both in and out of parliament had been more on tactics rather than strategy, alliance management had become increasingly difficult and the challenge was to ‘help explain to Australians what the military achieved in Afghanistan. A strategic review would help them articulate the answers’.

Interestingly, the Defence Committee of the UK House of Commons reached similar, albeit more wide-ranging, conclusions. In a report on Afghanistan published in May 2014, it recommended an independent, whole-of-government ‘lessons learnt’ study and suggested (recommendations 17–19):

…the study should include a balanced review of the successes and setbacks of the campaign, identifying lessons from the tactical to the strategic, clearly distinguishing the pre-2006 section of the campaign from activities in Helmand from 2006 onward…

More specifically, the study should set out what the political ends were, how they changed during the course of the campaign, and judge whether the ways and means, diplomatic, economic and military, were sufficient during the course of the campaign…

Furthermore the study should analyse how public perceptions were captured, understood and considered by policy makers and what measures were taken to shape public understanding as the conflict moved through its various phases over a decade or more.

The report also made it clear that while the official history could wait ‘the narratives should not’.

Given the fact that Australia has committed some $9.3 billion to operations in Afghanistan, with 41 ADF personnel killed (as at 1 July 2014) and another 261 injured (as at 28 October 2013) there is a strong case to be made for a comprehensive and publicly available lessons learnt’ study.

Tags: Afghanistan