Afghanistan: drawdown and future prospects

Dr Nathan Church, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section

Key issue 
Although their combat mission in Afghanistan will soon be concluded, Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel will probably have a presence there beyond 2014, predominantly in training and mentoring. However, the ADF will ultimately follow the United States’ (US) lead in Afghanistan—which is critically dependent on the political relationship between the US and the fledgling Afghan Government.

Australia’s changing role

The ADF’s incremental transition in Afghanistan has evolved through both political and military initiatives. Key summits in Lisbon, Bonn and Chicago have facilitated resolutions regarding the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan and have generated a strategic framework for transition to Afghan-led security arrangements.

A key requirement for all these plans has been the transformation of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) into a legitimate and credible security force. Although this has been slow, uneven, and at times significantly challenging—particularly with the instances of ‘insider threats’ against ADF personnel—there has been a demonstrable improvement in the quality of the ANSF.

Accordingly, the ANSF began taking the lead for security in Uruzgan province in July 2012 and by the end of that year the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) 4th Brigade took charge of operational bases and was conducting independent patrols. Australia’s main operational hub in Tarin Kowt will be closed at the end of 2013, which will signal the end of Australia’s combat role in Afghanistan. At this time more than 1,000 ADF personnel will return to Australia, with the remainder (including a Special Forces contingent) to continue training the ANSF and building their capabilities throughout 2014.

Future commitments

The ISAF mission has fundamentally sought to achieve the conditions where Afghanistan is never again a safe-haven for international terrorism. Although ISAF will no longer have an operational mandate to influence this post-2014, many of its contributing nations—including Australia—have pledged ongoing commitments to train and finance the ANSF to reinforce the gains made so far.

On 5 June 2013, Defence Ministers from ISAF-contributing nations endorsed a future framework for training, advising and assisting the ANSF post-2014. This training mission will be ‘significantly’ smaller than the existing ISAF force and its regional focus will prioritise enabling national institutions and up-skilling senior commanders. The United States, Germany and Italy are likely to be significant contributors to this training mission, while an Australian contingent will, at a minimum, probably include trainers at the Kabul-based ANA officer training academy.

Also in June 2013, Australia’s Defence Minister Stephen Smith indicated that Australia would provide $100 million annually for three years to support the ANSF, starting in 2015. This funding would complement other nations’ contributions, amounting to more than $13 billion over three years, most of which will come from the United States. However, there is a strong expectation that Afghanistan will increasingly fund its own security forces, and by 2024 will do so independently of external support.

Potential risks and challenges

Despite Australia’s best intentions, the correlation between its proposed commitments in Afghanistan and the reality that will play out on the ground remains a great unknown. The destabilising effects of the Taliban remain a very real concern in the short-to-medium term. However, the larger strategic challenge will surely be the crucial political relationship between the United States and Afghanistan.

The US will require a bilateral security deal with Afghanistan in order to maintain its presence there. However, this is a problematic challenge fraught with many potential obstacles, including the political uncertainty internally within Afghanistan and the contentious issue of negotiating with the Taliban. The US was unable to secure a similar deal following the conclusion of combat operations in Iraq, and while the two scenarios are far from identical, it does highlight the innate difficulty in such negotiations where Afghan and American expectations are not likely to always align.

As a US ally, Australia will necessarily wait on the eventual outcome of any Afghan–US deal in order to gauge the extent of any potential post-2014 involvement in Afghanistan. For example, in June 2013 the Australian Defence Minister signalled the possibility of a Special Forces role post-2014 if there were a required mandate, but this would again be contingent on the willingness and legal authority of other partners, especially the United States, to do similar.

Further reading

N Brangwin, M Harris and D Watt, Australia at war in Afghanistan: revised facts and figures, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 12 September 2012 (New edition due November 2013).

R Tomar, Australian aid to Afghanistan, Background note, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 18 July 2011.

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

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