Progress towards transition in Afghanistan

The Parliamentary Library has released a new publication—Australia's involvement in Afghanistan: revised facts and figures—which updates previously published material concerning Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan, (see FlagPost entries Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan—update, 10 June 2011; Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan – frequently asked questions, 15 October 2010; Background Note Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan since 2001: a chronology, 16 July 2010; and the Afghanistan section of the Anzac Day Kit).

The publication’s release coincided with Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Statement to Parliament on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. The statement reasserted both Australia’s reasons for being in Afghanistan (denying a safe haven to terrorists and supporting the United States alliance) and the mission Australia is undertaking (‘protecting the Afghan people, training’ Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and ‘building the government’s capacity’).

The Prime Minister also reported that progress in transitioning to Afghan-led security responsibility by 2014 is on track, however:
…the timing to complete transition in Uruzgan is not yet decided. But given the progress we now see, it may well be complete before the end of 2014. And once our mission to train and mentor the 4th Brigade is complete, we will draw down the number of ADF personnel in the country.
The potential for an earlier than expected draw down of Australian military forces is likely to be well received by the general public given waning public opinion for the war in Afghanistan.

It is often difficult to measure just how successful the mission is in Afghanistan. The Government asserts that, despite obvious difficulties, Australia is on track to complete its military objectives. Nonetheless, the Afghan population is reportedly divided about the broader International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, and specifically Australia’s efforts in Uruzgan Province.

The Lowy Institute publishes an occasional series entitled Afghan Voices, which offers an Afghan viewpoint about foreign efforts in their country. The most recent paper, Two Afghan views of Australia from Uruzgan, featured interviews conducted by Afghan journalist Omaid Khpalwak, prior to his tragic death in July 2011, and Mohammed Shirzad, the Governor of Uruzgan Province. It should be noted that Omaid Khpalwak’s contribution to this paper was still in draft format and had not submitted for publication prior to his death.

The Governor was generally positive about Australian efforts in Uruzgan (although he would like more support for development activities) and expressed his support for Australia to remain engaged in the region after 2014. Omaid Khpalwak reported the views of ordinary Afghans and these were more ambivalent about Australia’s presence in the region. There was general agreement that the security situation has improved due to the presence of Australian military forces, and some expressed concern that Afghanistan would not be ready to take control of its own security by 2014.

However, Omaid reported some people as being critical of Australia’s perceived favouritism towards one tribe, particularly in the case of Uruzgan’s Chief of Police, Matiullah Khan, who originates from the Popalzai tribe and is viewed in a less than positive light. The paper highlights the tribal sensitivities that are acute in Afghanistan and emphasises the need for Australians to work more with the central government rather than local strong men. However, the weakness of the central government impedes this process and this problem remains a constant in Afghanistan. The vexed issue of civilian deaths during military operations also causes a great deal of anger towards foreign forces and Australians are no exception to this.

Australian’s will also be turning their minds to the immediate concern of why some Afghan National Army soldiers have turned their weapons on their Australian mentors. While motives are unclear at this time and the incidences are still under investigation, the US military commissioned report—A crisis of trust and cultural compatibility: a Red Team study of mutual perceptions of Afghan National Security Force personnel and U.S. soldiers in understanding and mitigating the phenomena of ANSF-committed fratricide-murders (May 2011) considered some of the possible triggers as to why Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) members have killed ISAF personnel. The report suggested that ‘personal clashes’ over cultural and social perceptions, rather than ‘insurgent infiltration’, have been among some of the key factors prompting such behaviour. What's more, this phenomenon is becoming a ‘growing systemic threat’ which is ‘provoking a crisis of confidence and trust among Westerners training and working with ANSFs.’ It should be noted that the number of ANSF caused deaths amongst ISAF personnel is relatively low when compared to the constant toll exacted by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

Another source of knowledge about the views of the Afghan people has been compiled in the Asia Foundation’s report, Afghanistan in 2011: A survey of the Afghan people. In its seventh nationwide survey, and most broadest and comprehensive poll, the Asia Foundation found that:
…despite the economic, political, and security challenges facing Afghanistan, close to half of respondents remain optimistic, and say the country is moving in the right direction. The survey suggests that Afghans view the country’s economic situation more favorably than in previous years, although unemployment remains one of the country’s biggest problems. The majority agree that women should have equal opportunities. The 2011 survey also records the highest levels of access to education and health services, and growing understanding of the role of public institutions. While there is growing public confidence in the Afghan security forces and police, there is at the same time an increased reluctance by the public to fully participate in their own governance – particularly for women – a rising concern of corruption at all levels, and acknowledgement of an increasingly challenging security environment.
Assuming that this reflects reality, then Australia can be pleased to the extent that it has contributed to these outcomes. However, it is also obvious that there is a great distance still to travel and success is by no means assured.
Tags: Afghanistan


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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