Middle East

Australia's commitment in Afghanistan to last 'decades'

Kabul
Australian soldiers with Afghan Army officer cadets in Kabul. Source: Australian Defence Force

Top-ranking Australian commanders in the Middle East tell SBS News reporter Myles Morgan the commitment in Afghanistan is flexible but enduring.

If you looked at the Australian military presence in Afghanistan on a map, it would be a blip - especially when compared to other nations.

More than 300 Australian Defence Force members work in the country, about half in a combat-orientated force protection roles.

They fall under the umbrella of the 13,000 strong NATO-led Operation Resolute Support.

Australian soldiers rarely travel to the distant patrol bases in the war-torn nation’s provinces.

Their mission, which now is to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces, sees them operate in the capital of Kabul.

The enemy is still out there, especially in the country’s south. The Taliban, Al-Qaeda and a young IS Khorasan Province are all fighting the government and each other to control the country.

“The mission in Afghanistan remains to deny Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorism again,” Major General John Frewen told SBS News.

Flags
Australian and Afghan flags fly at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Australian Defence Force

Training a new generation

Operating out of an undisclosed location in the Middle East, Major General Frewen commands Joint Task Force 633.

He is in charge of every ADF member and asset in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East.

“This isn't us turning up and telling them how we think they should do business,” he said of the Afghan mission.

“We're very much focused on specific skill sets and capabilities that they see as priorities.”

Those priorities are to train a new generation of officers, improve coordination between the security forces, reduce corruption and improve the capability of the Afghan Air Force and special forces.

The ADF and international observers estimate about 60 per cent of the country is under the control of the Afghan security forces.

“We're in a stalemate where neither side is either gaining or losing but it's in favour of the government,” Brigadier Michael Prictor said.

“The aim over the next four years is to shift that calculus.”

The mentoring mission sees Australian soldiers, airmen and women and sailors teaching their counterparts everything from basic soldiering to high level military skills.

Australian soldiers like Brigadier Craig Shortt are embedded in the headquarters for Operation Resolute Support.

He's one of the highest ranking officers there.

“It’s conditions based and it's based on being able to achieve those respective end states,” Brigadier Shortt said of achieving victory in Afghanistan.

“That sends a clear message to the Taliban that you either need to reconcile or you will be defeated in detail.”

The ADF likes to talk about Afghans who can be reconciled, and those who cannot, in the wartorn country.

“Those who are not reconcilable in the political process and are hellbent on the use of force... we need to have military forces that can take them on and, if necessary, fight them to take control of those areas they're trying to dominate,” Major General Frewen said.

But that war-fighting role won't be done by Australians. 

“This is not our fight in the first instance, we are there supporting the Afghan people in their fight so there is absolutely no requirement for us to be involved in combat roles directly in Afghanistan.”

But the military is trying to change the perception of its mission to the Australian public.

“Military only solutions are no answer to any problems,” Major General Frewen said.

“All complex problems are political at heart and they need very integrated and sophisticated approaches.”

Kabul
An Australian soldier monitors the mountains surrounding Kabul.
Australian Defence Force

'An  enduring partnership'

The three senior commanders in the region have all done multiple tours of Afghanistan and say the security situation, particularly regarding the capability of the security forces, is vastly better than it was.

“If you looked at this time last year, there were four provincial capitals under attack: Kunduz, Tarin Kot, Lashkar Gah and Farah,” Brigadier Shortt said.

“This year, under Operation Mansouri, the Taliban have been unable to sustain an attack against any of those capitals.”

But that is seen as an indicator of progress, not a sign of victory.

There is no talk of an impending withdrawal from Afghanistan in the Australian military.

“There will be an enduring partnership here that will go on for decades,” Brigadier Prictor said.

“We're currently growing an Air Force of about 390 aircraft for the Afghan security forces. You can't walk away from that in a couple of years so that will be an enduring commitment.”

Major General Frewen said the ADF’s commitment to Afghanistan is decided by the Australian government at the invitation of the Afghan government.

“Next year, Afghanistan will undertake regional elections for the time first time and the year after that, they will have national elections again,” he said.

“There are some clear milestones along that path and we will be able to take some pretty good measures along the way of where Afghanistan is going to be over the next couple of years.”