Tom Hyland / The Age – 2010-10-29 01:00:30
Troops ‘Overwhelmed and Cannot Defeat Taliban’
SYDNEY (October 17, 2010) — The Taliban have “overwhelmed” foreign troops and cannot be defeated by military means, one of Australia’s top combat soldiers has warned.
Brigadier Mark Smethurst says securing Afghanistan could take decades, but success is uncertain without a fundamental change in strategy.
His critical assessment comes in a report that contrasts sharply with federal government claims of progress in Afghanistan.
While the key role of Australian troops is mentoring local forces, he says the Afghan army cannot operate independently, despite seven years of training, and the police are even worse.
The Afghan government is ineffective and has failed to deal with corruption, human rights abuses and a non-existent justice system. Aid distribution, he says, has been “wasteful, ineffective and insufficient.”
Brigadier Mark Smethurst implicitly criticizes the Howard government’s approach, and poses questions about the present government’s agenda.
While successive governments have stated we are in Afghanistan to deny al-Qaeda terrorists a base, the brigadier says the key reason is to maintain the US alliance.
In a paper that makes uneasy reading for MPs before this week’s parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, he implies that if we haven’t achieved our primary aim by 2012 — training Afghan troops — we should pull out.
“Compared with other counterinsurgency campaigns, the chance of a solution in the short term appears remote,” he says. “Even with the strongest possible action and co-operation at the national level, it is difficult to see solutions emerging in less than 10 years unless proactive action is taken now.”
Brigadier Smethurst is a highly regarded special forces officer, with service in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan in a 28-year career. At present deputy commander of Special Operations Command, he is tipped for a key coalition post in Afghanistan.
While his paper was written last year, he told The Sunday Age the basic tenets held true.
Called Creating Conditions for the Defeat of the Afghan Taliban: A Strategic Assessment, it was recently published online by the Australian Defence College.
He describes the Taliban as a “very capable adversary” who are winning the propaganda war and whose tactics had “overwhelmed the coalition.”
The insurgents “cannot be crushed by a conventional military campaign,” he says. As public support for the nine-year-old war in the West wanes, foreign efforts have made limited progress.
He calls for a co-ordinated military and political strategy aimed at providing security, building Afghan forces and creating a functioning Afghan government. Yet all three aims face massive obstacles, he writes.
The number of troops in Oruzgan, where Australians are based, is less than half the number recommended.
If Australia fails to reach its 2012 target, “any further commitment should be questioned, as Australia could be drawn into a greater security dilemma as the Taliban and al-Qaeda networks expand their control further into Pakistan and the region.”
While Australian and Dutch troops in Oruzgan had made substantial achievements, creating “ink spots” of security, “there is little real security beyond the areas of operations.” The lack of security means Australian aid workers and police trainers have had limited impact and “struggle to maintain a presence.”
Greater progress could have been made if Australia had adopted a “whole of government” approach when the Howard government sent reconstruction troops to Oruzgan in 2006.
The nature of Australia’s commitment also raises “many questions” about the agenda of Labor governments, with the defence white paper issued by the Rudd government last year declaring conflict in the Middle East was not the ADF’s principal task.
He warns the coalition must not be seen to fail in Afghanistan, because of the boost it would give to the Taliban in nuclear-armed Pakistan. A solution lies between the extremes of defeating the Taliban and reconciling with them.
He says walking away from Afghanistan risks allowing the country to flourish as a breeding ground and haven for Islamic extremism.