Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan

David Watt, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section

Australia in Afghanistan

Currently, Australia’s largest international military commitment comprises approximately 1550 ADF personnel deployed to Afghanistan as part of Operation Slipper. This is Australia’s contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The main focus of ADF activities in Afghanistan is the mentoring and training of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the provision of protection for military and civilian personnel involved in reconstruction activities.

During April 2010 Australia announced that it would increase its civilian personnel numbers in Afghanistan from 25 to approximately 50. An Australian civilian is the head of the Uruzgan Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and there are personnel from AusAID, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Uruzgan.


Australia first committed military personnel to Afghanistan in October 2001 after the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre. Prime Minister John Howard invoked Article VI of the ANZUS Treaty in support of Australia’s involvement—the only time the Treaty has been invoked. The Australian Parliament supported the commitment on 17 September 2001.

Between 2006 and August 2010 Australia worked in partnership with the Netherlands in Uruzgan. Mutual agreement about the emphasis placed on mentoring and reconstruction activities and the high regard for the Dutch military made this a positive relationship. Therefore, the withdrawal by the Netherlands of its military forces during August 2010 (acting on an earlier decision) was not particularly welcomed by Australia, which stressed, on more than one occasion, its desire for the Dutch to continue in their role of senior partner in the province.

The Dutch withdrawal also led to concerns about who would take the lead role in Uruzgan, something Australia was unwilling to do. The announcement by the Minister for Defence in June 2010 that Australia would become part of a US-led multi-national command structure (Combined Team Uruzgan, CTU) provided some certainty about the future of our role in the province.

The CTU continues to operate as part of the ISAF. While the number of Australian military personnel remains steady at approximately 1550 personnel and Australia continues to mentor and train the ANA 4th Brigade under these arrangements, Australia’s troops now have an increased role in the protection of civilian personnel. In addition to this, the April 2010 dispatch of a further six AFP officers to Uruzgan to assist with the training of the Afghan National Police brought the total number of Australian police officers to 28.

Why we are in Afghanistan

Australia has always justified involvement in Afghanistan by stressing that our own national security is greatly enhanced by denying al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups a haven, and that this is best done by helping to build a more secure and democratic Afghanistan. As the Minister for Defence said in his June 2010 statement to Parliament:

Our fundamental objective in Afghanistan is to combat a clear threat from international terrorism to both international security and our own national security. Australia cannot afford, and Australians cannot afford, to let Afghanistan again become a safe haven and training ground for terrorist organisations ....

Where to from here?

The Minister for Defence has stated that Australia hopes to transfer control of the security situation in Uruzgan to the ANA in two to four years. During the July 2010 International Conference on Afghanistan in Kabul, countries contributing to the ISAF endorsed the Afghan Government’s plan to take control of its own security by 2014. However, this timetable is dependent on the ANA and Afghan National Police being sufficiently trained and capable of accepting responsibility for the security of Uruzgan.

United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) figures indicate that 7324 civilians have been killed as a result of fighting between the beginning of 2007 and the end of June 2010 (accurate figures are impossible to provide for the early years of the conflict). Approximately three quarters of these deaths were caused by anti-government forces.

As at mid-September 2010, Australia has suffered 21 combat deaths since the war began in 2001 and spent $6.1 billion on its military presence in Afghanistan. The ongoing support from both the ALP and the Coalition for Australia’s continued deployment has meant that, with the exception of the Defence Minister’s regular statements to the Parliament, there has been relatively little parliamentary debate on the war. However, the mid-2010 spike in casualties has led to an increase in calls for deeper parliamentary consideration of the issue. As a result of the post-election agreement between the government and the Australian Greens, this seems likely to occur early during the first sitting of the new parliament.

Questions continue to be raised about Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. Are our stated reasons for being there sufficient to justify the ongoing casualties and the substantial financial cost? This has become an increasingly significant question in light of the long-standing criticism by some commentators that denying jihadist terrorists a base in Afghanistan will not significantly affect their capacity to operate. This is coupled with growing skepticism about the international community’s ability to deliver a stable security infrastructure for Afghanistan by 2014 and ongoing concerns about corruption at many levels throughout the Afghan governance structure. Equally, if we accept that Australian troops should continue their involvement in Afghanistan, there is the question of whether Australia’s commitment is sufficient to complete the task.

Perhaps most importantly, when Australia does withdraw, there will need to be agreed criteria by which to judge the success or failure of the mission.

Library publications and key documents

N Brangwin, Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan since 2001: a chronology, Background Note, 2010–11, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 16 July 2010.

J Faulkner, Ministerial Statement: Afghanistan, Senate, Debates, p. 4183, 23 June 2010, 2010,;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansards%2F2010-06-23%2F0207%22

P Katel, ‘America at war: can withdrawal from Afghanistan begin next July?’, CQ Researcher, vol. 20, no. 6,
23 July 2010, pp. 605–628,;query=Id%3A%22library%2Fjrnart%2F5UEX6%22

R Khosa, ‘Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan: moving to a more comprehensive approach’, Policy Analysis, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 31 August 2010.