December 2007 - January 2008


Mission drift

By Chris Masters
Mission drift
A report from Afghanistan

To arrive in Oruzgan province is to step into both the future and the past. Through the swirling dust and retreating din of the plane’s engines appear soldiers in body armour, looking like Galactic troopers from Star Wars. Beyond the patch of green that is the Teri River valley there is only flat desert country and a perimeter of tall, bleak cliffs. Soldiers talk of remote mountain settlements that roads and electricity have never reached, of dusty orchards, hand-drawn wells and locals astride donkeys.

Kamp Holland, the main base for Task Force Oruzgan, adjoins the airstrip. The Dutch are in charge, with as many as a thousand Australians their junior partners; inside can be found British and American soldiers, along with newly trained units of the Afghan National Army. Further behind the serried concrete barriers are compounds of Special Forces soldiers with longer hair, cooler sunglasses and looser, non-regulation clothing: the Jedi Knights.

The quarters are largely prefabricated bomb-proof containers, though the crash of incoming missiles is heard only rarely. There is no sound of carousing coming from the local bar; indeed, there is no local bar. Australia and The Netherlands have decided on an alcohol-free campaign. They go to bed early here, and Oruzgan becomes the world’s quietest war zone. The only noise is the occasional crunch of gravel as someone heads to a shower cubicle, seeking relief from the heat. Thin shafts of coloured light from soldiers’ torches strike through the blackness like benign tracers.

My visit began in late May 2007. It was not yet summer, but at midnight the air-conditioning was still welcome. Over here even the tents are climate-controlled. Sleep does not come in large rations. At 2 am on my first morning we were mustered and stumbled towards a convoy of Bendigo-built Bushmasters. I met my driver, a 19-year-old Queenslander, Trooper Brendan Davis. When later I reached my wife by mobile phone, she told me her hairdresser’s friend has a son in Afghanistan named Brendan. They are one and the same. Among all the world’s nations, Australia is a small country town.

Brendan likes the Bushmaster. They all do: the Americans and British want them, and the Dutch have already bought them. The thinly armoured Humvees and Land Rovers do not offer as much protection from the Taliban’s weapon of choice, the home-made mine (or improvised explosive device, as the military calls them). Later, in October, one of Brendan’s colleagues, Trooper David Pearce, was killed by a mine while at the wheel of a Light Armoured Vehicle, becoming the second Australian fatality in Afghanistan.

Our pre-dawn convoy set off at an unpredictable time partly for this reason, avoiding roads where explosives may have been secreted through the night. We struck out across country and, after an hour of steady jolting, slowed and regrouped. Dawn broke on an earlier century. I watched as a nomad steered his flock, weaving between the military vehicles with not a glance at this latest invader. Nearby were low-slung Bedouin-style tents, with fierce hounds tethered beside them.

This has long been territory resistant to internal rule, let alone external conquest. But conquest was never the objective, as the various International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) briefings remind us. First, the mantra goes, provide security; second, help with reconstruction; and third, develop governance to a point where Afghanistan can look after itself. And in the early years great strides were made. Operation Enduring Freedom began less than a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. By the end of 2001 the Taliban government, which had provided sanctuary for Al Qaeda, had fallen; in 2002 Hamid Karzai won the Afghan presidency in a democratic election; in the following year NATO assumed command of the international forces of the ISAF.

The swift collapse of the old regime was testament to its weak support. While not as corrupt as their predecessors, the village mullahs had proved at least as cruel and violent, reducing Afghanistan to a medieval state. But six years on, neither the Taliban nor Al Qaeda has been vanquished, and the ISAF talks of a long task ahead. Colonel Hans van Griensven, the Dutch commander of Task Force Oruzgan, estimates it will take at least 20 years. One of the British commanders says it may be 30. Although low in numbers, and by Western standards primitively equipped, the Taliban has managed to force a stalemate with the 100,000-strong partnership of the international forces and the new Afghan army. The Taliban fighters have a saying: the foreigners have watches, but the Taliban has time.

Professor William Maley, of the Australian National University, has counted as many as 70 conditions that must be met for individual nations to leave their compounds. “In a fast-moving war,” he says, “ISAF becomes choked by the array of caveats.” The rules of engagement are never revealed, but to those who spend time in Afghanistan it becomes obvious which nations work on strictly humanitarian endeavours, which avoid fighting at night and which stay away from the more volatile eastern and southern regions. German commanders based in the more stable north, at Mazar-e Sharif, have expressed embarrassment about their inability to venture south. According to the Lowy Institute’s Anthony Bubalo, there is a loss of continuity - and not a little shame - when Afghan units trained by them are sent off to battle while ISAF’s most professional soldiers and police officers stay behind. Not that you can ever really hide in Afghanistan: at last count Germany had almost ten times Australia’s casualties.

Another divide between the coalition partners is in the emphasis they give (in military speak) to kinetic and non-kinetic activity. For non-kinetic, read hearts and minds; for kinetic, fists and boots. The Australian Reconstruction Task Force travels with a bit of both. On the first morning I ventured with the convoy, a long wait followed the spectacular dawn. We paused before a narrow gully. As there was no way around, it was an ideal location for a Taliban attack. After an hour of close inspection by soldiers with mine-detection equipment and a sniffer dog, Flo Jo, the vehicles were signalled forward. This is a war of inches: the exercise was repeated on our return. The soldiers are not alone in taking risks. One Australian dog, Razz, was killed when detecting a mine, which then exploded. Another, Merlin, was run over by a military vehicle.

All this trouble is for the sake of inspecting a range of construction projects being undertaken by the local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Throughout Afghanistan there are 34 of these PRTs, involving many of the participating ISAF nations. As in this case, a small group of engineers travels with a larger group of heavily armed infantry. The idea is to do good work, to improve facilities for the Afghans, rather than shoot up the place.

The ultra-cautious approach of the Australians can frustrate their American comrades. But the Australians make no apologies: they see a clear connection between low casualties and disciplined drills. And besides, what is the point of being blown to bits for lack of a little patience?

As we travelled there was occasional discussion amid the troops, who were on the lookout for potential spotters among the locals. Vehicles are commonly seen shadowing convoys, and mobile-phone traffic indicates that reports on the forces’ movements are regularly conveyed to the Taliban. A 23-year-old infantry platoon commander from Perth, Lieutenant Wil Langdon, said he has little doubt some locals seen smiling and waving at the soldiers have taken note of the heavy weapons and chosen to leave their AK-47s in the hut. The lot of the locals in dealing with the Taliban and the foreign troops is like that of the prison informant who juggles the competing demands of fellow inmates and prison guards. In order to get on, they peddle information and switch loyalty, trusting their wits to stay alive.

Afghanistan is a nation of tribes. The Pashtun are a majority 45%, and the south is very much Pashtun country. Within the Pashtun there are further divides, principally between the Ghilzai and Durrani communities. The convoy took the long route to the town of Tarin Kowt, which has a population of around 10,000. If the Taliban has a heartland, it is there. The movement’s founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, a Ghilzai, was born in Oruzgan and, it is said, lived in Tarin Kowt during the Soviet occupation.

The Bushmasters threaded through bazaars and narrow roads, laughing children running alongside. The vehicles took up defensive positions again in the compound of the local governor, where the walls are bullet-scarred from a recent battle. The children caught up and gathered round in the way children do. The soldiers counselled me to be careful about giving out prized pens and paper to all those pleading hands. Better to keep a distance, they said. A fortnight later, on 15 June, a suicide bomber struck a Dutch armoured car travelling along the same street. Five of the local children died in the bombing, along with Timo Smeehuijzen, a 20-year-old soldier.

We left the compound on foot, hurrying through back alleys, following an unpredictable route to the local hospital. On the way, women in full burqas shrunk into doorways; soldiers told me they deploy for months without once speaking to an Afghan woman. At the hospital entrance a burly Australian corporal took charge, organising searches of people entering the grounds. Igor Moravcik, or ‘Czech’, as he is known, is on his third tour of Afghanistan, the first two having been with the Russian Army. His is an awkward job, for a full-body search is hardly the best way to win the trust of a local.

Over the years I have been in many third-world hospitals and interviewed many harried doctors. I recognised the look on one face: it was the physician’s version of the soldier’s thousand-yard stare. Dr Ajab Noor told me of his own no-man’s land, where he risks censure by his government for treating friends of the Taliban and execution by the Taliban for treating friends of the government. Another member of staff said that a dozen medical workers had been killed there in the past year.

An army truck carrying the engineers’ equipment was brought up to the back door. A defensive guard of Australian infantry formed as the plumbers and electricians in uniform went about their business. Someone had scribbled “the tethered goat” on a door: the engineers have to put down weapons to pick up mattocks and hammers, drills and tape measures, and they are easy targets. It is hard not to be impressed by these soldiers. When I asked them why they do it, many spoke of simply wanting to do their duty. It sounded neither cloyingly patriotic nor insincere. Captain Liam Hansen, who grew up on the NSW south coast, put it this way: “Helping people who have nothing is a satisfying and humbling experience.”

Captain Hansen and his team oversee a $5-million list of projects. Beyond the new wing and kitchen block for the hospital is an all-weather causeway across the Teri River. In the past, during the snow melt, the river became impassable, depriving those on the north of access to medical facilities. People would die waiting, stranded beyond the rushing water. Hansen was gratified to see locals pitching in when a rising river threatened the work that had already been completed.

In addition, the soldiers are overseeing the construction of a training centre, a clinic and schools. Teachers and other government workers habitually receive ‘night letters’, Taliban warnings of the dire consequences of co-operating with foreigners. A teacher at the Talani School told me that he does his best to resist such intimidation for the sake of the children. He spoke approvingly of the Australians, explaining that in the past, promises from the Canadians and Americans came to little. The Australians have adopted a rapid reconstruction - or what the troops call a Backyard Blitz - approach to these projects, recognising the importance of providing results swiftly.

The United States, by far Afghanistan’s largest aid donor, had previously operated in Tarin Kowt. A provincial administration building opened in 2006 began to crumble soon after, so extensive were the defects. The construction, undertaken by local contractors, had been improperly supervised. The Australians have had similar difficulties: inspecting work at the Tarin Kowt hospital, Captain Dan Keep, a project engineer from Orange, did a double-take when he saw a washbasin placed where a kitchen sink should be. Over time a more pragmatic approach has developed, reconciling the gap between the way the foreigners would do it and the way the locals want it. At Kamp Holland there is a regular sura, a meeting between local leaders and Australian and Dutch representatives, who negotiate the list of wants.

The individual reconstruction teams are seen as inkblots, the message soaking across the map, beyond the clinics and schools and into the distant hills. Winning trust also has a military advantage. Intelligence on where bombs are made and planted has been more forthcoming over time. Warrant Officer Tony Quirk, from Brisbane, has been to Afghanistan five times. On the wall of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal workshop is a photograph of a younger Quirk, dressed like a mujaheddin. Fifteen years ago he was part of a UN team teaching Afghans to clear some of the 12 million landmines planted by the Russians, a job still unfinished. Crouched over a collection of the latest homemade variations, Quirk explained that many were found because locals pointed them out to soldiers.

The soldiers’ days are long: some 16 hours off base. The heat and the weight of the body armour so exhausted me that at one point I slumped in the shadow of a mud wall. I was soon roused by cold soft drinks summoned from somewhere, and barbecued-lamb sandwiches the eager crew called “camel burgers”. (With equal grace they dubbed me, with my helmet perpetually askew, “Dad’s Army”.)

When the Dutch first established a presence at Tarin Kowt, they undertook a ‘conflict analysis’ so as to know their enemy. They found that in many instances, fighting in Afghanistan was inter-tribal: Durrani and Ghilzai Pushtuns have been warring there forever. Australian SAS soldiers on missions probing deeper into the hills have found that Taliban fighters are not the only ones involved in battles. In 2005, Time magazine reported on an extensive gunfight involving an SAS patrol in 2002; according to the report, the SAS soldiers had been fighting neither the Taliban nor Al Qaeda, but Balkhel villagers guarding their patch.

Defining the Taliban is not easy. In the past years the military nomenclature has included ACM (Anti-Coalition Militia), OMF (Opposing Militia Forces) and simply ‘extremists’. The description that most unnerves is the generic ‘insurgent’, for those drawn from the seemingly infinite ranks of extreme Islam. Replacements come across the porous border with the west of Pakistan, another Taliban heartland. Although technically foreigners, they are not seen so much as outsiders. Pakistan supported the Taliban in its rise to power and was one of the few countries to recognise it as a legitimate government; in the past years, Pervez Musharraf has not denied that the Taliban is sustained from Pakistan’s side of the border.

ISAF identifies three tiers of Taliban membership. The first are the centrally directed global jihadists. The second are often criminals, allied to the Taliban more opportunistically through tribal rivalry or the need to protect illegal interests. The third are locally recruited part-time mercenaries who operate depending on the amount of coercion exerted and the range of available employment.

The hearts-and-minds mission of the international forces is designed to erect a barrier between the top-tier Taliban and the rest of the Afghan people. Within the Provincial Reconstruction Teams there is competition to see which nation can develop the most effective model to do this. One program that has become something of a showpiece is Australia’s Trade Training School, at Kamp Holland. Here Australian engineers teach teenage Afghan males trade skills, such as carpentry and small-engine maintenance. The basic course runs for a few weeks, and participants are paid $3.50 a day (two-thirds of the population live on less than a dollar a day, so the payment is not unattractive). When they graduate, each is given a toolkit. Soon after, Australian soldiers sometimes see the kits on sale at the local bazaars, but they accept that some failure is inevitable. The ones who keep the toolkits and begin their own small businesses are less likely to be embraced by the Taliban. And the skills developed help create a local workforce, which can in turn help with the reconstruction projects.

Meanwhile, the Taliban, in pursuit of foreign exchange, has turned the country into the world’s biggest drug supplier. Afghanistan now accounts for 93% of the global heroin supply. The base opium paste comes from vast fields of poppies, mostly in the southern provinces; Oruzgan is the third-largest producer. While there has been success in reducing production in the centre and north, in the troubled south-west the reverse has occurred. There, young men can earn as much as $15 a day working the fields. The criminal networks controlling the trade have forged an alliance with Taliban leaders through a mutual need to keep government at a distance. (Government members, though, are known to have their own links to the trade: in 2005, nine tonnes of opium was uncovered in the office of Helmand provincial governor, Sher Muhammad Akhundzada.)

When South African contractors turn up to bulldoze fields as part of a British-sponsored poppy-eradication program, they are directed away from the protected crops to the ones operated by poorer and less-influential farmers. Destroying the fields without compensating the local farmers and providing replacement industry plays into the hands of the enemy. Attempts to get farmers to grow less profitable oranges and potatoes have, unsurprisingly, proved futile.

Australia provides $4.5 million to support counter-narcotic efforts, but under ISAF rules the military can’t directly engage in eradication. This is seen as a police task, and so far there are few police on the ground. The heroin trade proceeds under the watch of unmanned Predator aircraft and satellites further above. Images show an increase of 17% in the cultivation of poppies in the past year, with production even stronger, growing by 34%.  It is difficult not to regard the expansion of these pink fields, which now cover an area of almost 200,000 hectares across the country, as emblematic of the difficulties faced by the Afghan government and the international forces.

Kandahar is the main allied base in the south. It was also the site of the Taliban’s last stand in 2001, and the hangers at the air base are still pockmarked from the battle - which, in a sense, persists at the perimeter. In November 2007, Canadian and Afghan soldiers fought off a concerted attack on its north-western districts. Within the confines of the base, though, there is a disconnection from the troubles outside, and ISAF leaders worry about a fortress mentality. A Tim Horton’s outlet provides comfort food to the Canadians, and a baseball pitch draws a small and jovial crowd. Joggers pass wearing camouflaged gym outfits, spoiled somewhat by the luminous vests that have become a safety requirement. Road accidents, training mishaps and even Kovco-like unexplained shootings have contributed to the casualty count.

The Taliban’s much-touted spring offensive never transpired. British, Canadian and American soldiers did see intense action, but none of it had a decisive effect on the war. Operations north of Kandahar were thought to be pushing the enemy closer to the Australians in Oruzgan. When the Australian Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) returned there in 2007, there was an expectation that they would be kept busy. The SAS, the sharp end of the SOTG, has been back and forth from Afghanistan since 2002. Some of the fighting involving the Australians has been described as the heaviest since Vietnam. Action can erupt suddenly, with enemy fighters massing in swarms. One unnamed commando sergeant won a Star of Gallantry after enduring constant attack by an estimated 200 Taliban fighters. He attributed his survival - after being rushed by the enemy and ducking rocket-propelled grenades for more than six hours - to “being a better shot”.

Much of this fighting occurred in the Chora Valley, 15 kilometres from Kamp Holland. A home to Ghilzai Pushtuns, the valley has long been a refuge for the Taliban, and the Ghilzai have resented the greater support being extended the town-based Durranis. In 2006 some 500 soldiers from six nations spent ten days attempting to clear the area. SAS Sergeant Matthew Locke was another to receive a commendation for his role in the fighting. When Locke became the first Australian killed in armed combat, in late October 2007, it was in the Chora Valley. Clearing out the Taliban was beginning to look like holding the tide.

Fighting has continued sporadically since June 2007, when the biggest mass attack occurred, with hundreds of Taliban fighters swarming police posts. A conventional response to these attacks is to call in air and artillery support. When the F-16s streak in and the 60-tonne Dutch Panzer tank begins hurling artillery rounds some 18 kilometres, precision tends to take a back seat, no matter what the military says about ‘smart’ weapons. At the time it was estimated that about 60 civilians died, along with 70 suspected Taliban fighters and 16 Afghan police. One local said he was forced to bury 18 members of his family, including women and children. President Karzai protested; later, on America’s 60 Minutes program, he called for the banning of all air strikes. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the US is seen to be by far the most trigger-happy of international forces.

When I took this up with the ISAF commander, General Dan McNeill, an American, he told me his forces are far more discriminating in the use of air power than is commonly credited. He cited what he said was one of many examples of avoiding striking a compound, which according to intelligence harboured an insurgent leader, because civilians were about 50 metres away.

Sorting out the blame for casualties is a classic fog-of-war problem. The Afghan defence spokesman, General Zahir Azimi, shares his president’s anger but acknowledges that the Taliban sometimes uses civilians as shields. Sometimes civilians die due to unavoidable circumstances, in the way they do in all wars. Sometimes the air strikes are the result of false intelligence provided by the enemy. And reports of civilian deaths, particularly estimates of numbers, can prove to be plain wrong when later investigated - even if to say so seems like heresy to a media conditioned to a cynical view of military briefings. A villager is as capable as a uniformed PR officer of twisting truth.

But nothing more damages the Afghanistan mission than yet another incident of civilian bloodshed. The Australian Defence Force, with its strong volunteer tradition and ethos of citizen soldiery, has not managed to avoid error and condemnation. On 24 July, on one of the patrols through Tarin Kowt, a civilian truck driver was shot dead when he drove too close to the Australians. The Bushmasters display signs warning other vehicles to keep their distance, but problems of literacy, not to mention the fact that the signs can’t be understood unless the driver is close to them, limit their effectiveness. They seemed not to work the following day, too. It’s believed a patrol returned to Tarin Kowt, using loudspeakers to request that people maintain a safe distance. But again a vehicle moved too close; again graduated warnings were given. This time two young children were wounded; one, a little girl, was believed to have lost a hand.

When I talked to soldiers back at the base about that split-second decision when they need to distinguish between a potential suicide bomber and an ordinary citizen, they spoke respectfully of the need for caution and explained that when they return from patrol they are exhausted as much by the mental concentration - the effort of avoiding violent confrontation - as by the physical demands of their work. On 3 May, at a checkpoint outside Tarin Kowt, one of these soldiers noticed something odd in the approach of a young Afghan male. The Australian moved to train his weapon on the man. The action seemed to trigger a premature explosion, killing the bomber and slightly wounding the soldier. Others who were there recounted how pleased they were that no one panicked, that casualties were minimised.

Across Afghanistan, every day, such instant decisions are required. Yet the Australians are one of the nations criticised least for unnecessary violence: indeed, if there is a criticism of the Dutch and Australian forces in Oruzgan, it is that they go in for too much of the touchy-feely stuff.

The Afghan capital, Kabul, houses the headquarters for the international mission and for its sometimes-awkward partner, the Karzai-led government. The drive from the airport concentrates the mind. We were instructed to stop under no circumstances, and our bullet-proof LandCruiser, its roof cluttered with counter-measure antennae, bulldozed through the busy streets, glancing off a commuter bus before heading into a chicane that slows entry to the restricted zone. The mood is different there. The Milano Bar and Kabul Club offer alcohol to those who are allowed. (The Australians are not, and don’t seem to mind.) In the recent past, Friday nights got a little boisterous, but after a British commander reminded his men that some of their comrades were killed while they partied, the beer ration was reduced and a more temperate mindset adopted.

The Australian ambassador, Brett Hackett, says Kabul is “sprawling, messy, dangerous and exciting”, a city home to more than 4 million people with infrastructure for about 400,000. Saad Mohseni is over that excitement. He is a member of an Afghan-Australian family that has, among other things, imported to Kabul a kind of Australian sensibility. Having grown up on Triple M and the 7.30 Report, and encouraged by the prospect of a new Afghanistan, the Mohsenis started their own media mini-empire. Their radio network does well, playing in the main popular music, and their television station, with its 6.30 Report, is garnering a following. But when coverage displeases the Karzai government, Tolo TV staff have been detained by the attorney-general’s office and intimidated by the intelligence agency. Three years after he set up business, Mohseni is weary of the increasing crime, and of police officers shaking down citizens and those in government lining their pockets. President Karzai has referred to the “esteemed” Mullah Omar, signalling a willingness to embrace the Taliban; the way Mohseni sees it, Karzai is bent on “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”.

In Afghanistan, any measure of progress depends on where you happen to be. Some of the provinces, particularly in the north, see little trouble. Visiting the border city of Herat, the Lowy Institute’s Anthony Bubalo was struck by the absence of body armour on the Italian soldiers, and the bustle of commerce. There was hope that the Provincial Reconstruction Teams would extend the mandate of the Karzai government beyond Kabul and into the provinces. According to William Maley, “there is no single PRT experience”: “some international operators are enthusiastic and productive, while others can’t wait to get out of the place.” In the comparatively stable Bamiyan province the New Zealanders make progress, while in Kandahar the Canadians have battled to hold the outer districts of the city.

 A former American naval officer, Chris Mason, believes these projects are having no strategic effect on the war: “The bottom line is, the PRTs are window-dressing. There is an average of one PRT in the southern insurgency zone for every 1.2 million Pashtuns.” Mason believes they would work better if there were more of them and they operated at a district rather than provincial level. In Kabul, Saad Mohseni sees it much the same way. He wants his government to show sufficient capacity to take over the programs, so that locals can feel they are working for themselves and not for foreigners.

For these foreigners, it is a balancing act. They need simultaneously to be tough and gentle: a well-trained soldier with a rifle conducts the most precise form of warfare; but that, of course, means taking risks - not least because some military figures believe killing ten civilians creates a hundred new Taliban fighters. The United States’ exploitation of firepower and its aversion to casualties is often counterproductive. (It must be acknowledged that the US, the biggest contributor to the international coalition, has also sustained the highest casualties.) General McNeill knows that establishing a successful society that is not dependent on foreigners will take years. “After decades of war, Taliban rule and another five years of insurgency,” he told me, “you may arguably have missed educating two generations, so it is tough to find people right out of the box who have the right qualifications.”

The reason for ISAF to stay on in Afghanistan has not changed since 2001. The NATO countries’ rationale for intervention was that if they did not go to Afghanistan, Afghanistan would come to them. Since then, the conflict has dragged on longer than World War II. But while William Maley believes that Iraq has become another Vietnam, he does not think the same judgement applies to Afghanistan.

The country is not just a battleground but a training ground for the new ways in which future wars will be fought. Soldiers have always been trained to kill; what Afghanistan has shown is they also need to be diplomats, sewerage engineers and social workers. And many of the Australian soldiers seem to have a talent for this. When they patrol the ancient corners of Oruzgan and see a farmer clearing an irrigation channel, they have been known to get into the mud and help. The Afghan defence spokesman, General Azimi, believes Australia has the right approach: not only hunting out the Taliban leaders and bomb-makers, but also making them less appealing by providing locals with assistance and work. Through curiosity, sign language and a Pashtun phrasebook, these young soldiers - some of whom have come from farms back home - are taking an interest. Although it is difficult to define, there is something in their manner that may be as important to the success of their mission as any space-age weaponry.

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