JUST as the hand-wringing over the use of dog pens to house Taliban prisoners reached new highs, came news of the single bloodiest encounter between Australian troops and enemy fighters since the Vietnam War. Nine special forces soldiers were wounded in the ambush by Taliban forces in Oruzgan province, one of them critically. This vicious attack on our troops underscores how reporting on a single incident distracts from understanding the true nature of this dangerous and complex war. An editorial in The Age yesterday complained that using dog pens violated the religious beliefs and denigrated the dignity of the Taliban prisoners, before blithely arguing that “other alternatives should have been explored” as if in the middle of the Afghan desert it was possible to dial 000 and request a paddy wagon and a cultural-sensitivity adviser. Would the Taliban have respected our sensibilities if they had captured any Diggers in Tuesday’s ambush? Hardly.
Aside from ignoring the bravery of the 1000 Australian personnel deployed in Afghanistan and Taliban tactics such as the use of orphans and the mentally ill to carry out suicide attacks, The Age remained silent this week on a story of fundamental significance. On Monday, US forces formally handed control of the first Sunni-dominated province in Iraq to the Shia-led military, an event that seemed impossible just two years ago. Anbar was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles in Iraq, with a US soldier being killed almost daily. The handover was achieved by a two-pronged strategy. The US military forged an alliance with tribal chiefs making up the so-called Sunni Awakening or Sahwa movement who turned against al-Qa’ida militia, and then backed up its new allies by demonstrating it was staying in Iraq for the long haul. Dismissed as mere window dressing when it was launched in January 2007, the surge has delivered tangible dividends, dramatically reducing incidents of violence, US and coalition troop casualties and, most importantly, giving the Iraqi Government much-needed breathing space. As The Australian’s Patrick Walters reported from Baghdad yesterday, the Iraqi capital has been transformed in the past two years. Peace has restored public confidence, with new office blocks and hotels being constructed and local markets booming. Much remains to be done. But it is hard to deny that a pattern of positive change has set in. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Afghanistan where the number of NATO and US soldiers killed in action has risen by more than a third over the past three months compared with the same period last year. The Taliban has exploited NATO’s wavering commitment to its mission, the hiatus in Washington ahead of the presidential election and the political meltdown in neighbouring Pakistan. They have become more skilful at blaming coalition forces for civilian casualties and at using suicide bombers to create an environment of insecurity. In many ways, the situation in Afghanistan resembles the darkest days of the war in Iraq. Reconstruction funds are mainly spent in insurgent-prone areas, leaving much of the country to fend for itself. Meanwhile, only a third of the 53,000 troops in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force are available for combat, with many European countries showing no stomach for a fight. The promotion of General David Petreaus from commander of coalition forces in Iraq to the chief of the US Central Command with responsibility for Afghanistan and Pakistan, gives reason for hope. As well as being the chief architect of the surge, General Petreaus oversaw a dramatic increase in the training of Iraqi soldiers and police as well as the creation of citizen militias. By contrast, a June report on Afghan security by the US Government Accountability Office found that despite $US10 billion in US aid, only two of 105 Afghan National Army units were judged to be “fully capable” and none of the 433 units of Afghanistan’s National Police were able to conduct independent patrols. That puts a lot of the burden of turning back the Taliban on countries such as Australia.
Progress in Afghanistan also depends on preventing the Taliban from slipping over the border into Pakistan, where they can find safe havens, training facilities and a steady supply of recruits. The Pakistan factor complicates the outlook for Afghanistan, but it should not diminish our commitment to winning this war. An Iraq-style troop surge, backed up by a redoubling of the reconstruction effort and the training of local security forces, may give the Afghan Government some breathing space. It will also demonstrate to the Afghan people that this time the West will not cut and run.