The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) began a new chapter in its mission in Afghanistan following the 19 20 November 2010 Lisbon Summit, with the adoption of a phased plan known as the ‘transition’ (Inteqal in the Dari and Pushtu languages of Afghanistan) process that will see Afghans assume responsibility for their own security by the end of 2014.
Transition does not signify the 48 member ISAF coalition’s precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan. Instead it is a conditions-based move to a supporting role as the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) becomes increasingly more capable—a prerequisite for Afghan ownership and leadership across all functions of government. Gradually, as circumstances dictate, the coalition will shift to supporting, then mentoring, then enabling, and finally, sustaining roles across the three pillars of security, governance and development that constitute the Afghan National Development Strategy.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard more-or-less outlined the transition framework for Australia during the October 2010 parliamentary debate on Afghanistan. The Australian Government is now committed to seeing through transition in Uruzgan Province—Australia’s area of national responsibility. Although Australia’s key role in the mission, training and mentoring the Afghan National Army’s Uruzgan-based 4th Brigade 205th Corps, is expected to be completed in 1 to 3 years, the ongoing nature of transition may require Australian soldiers and civilian officials to be deployed in Afghanistan for at least another decade.
The government’s main aim in Afghanistan, besides supporting our US ally, is that the new coalition strategy results in a stable and functioning Afghan state that is able to prevent its territory from being used as a haven for transnational terrorist networks. And there are signs to indicate that the coalition has for the first time the right strategy and adequate resources in place to achieve this goal.
President Barack Obama’s December 2010 Afghanistan–Pakistan Annual Review found that the previous year’s force uplift (or surge) is demonstrating success in clearing the Taliban from historic strongholds in southern Afghanistan. But recent gains are described as fragile and reversible, and do not presage an insurgent defeat—especially when enemy fighters are being sustained from safe havens across the border in neighbouring Pakistan.
Transition is expected to commence early this year and will demand much of the Afghans themselves. But will their much maligned government ever have the ability to take the lead in conducting security operations across all 34 of its provinces? The hope among coalition states is for the febrile Afghan body politic to undergo a decisive transformation so that the bulk of the 150,000 strong international force that is now in place can be drawn-down over the next four years. Despite this, a significant number of foreign troops must remain in a training support role and to provide strategic overwatch for some time to come.
Furthermore, the declaration of a long-term partnership between NATO and Afghanistan demonstrates the alliance’s involvement in that country goes well beyond the current combat mission. This continuing commitment is shared by NATO contact country, Australia. Practical support will focus on training and capacity building.
Afghanistan’s immediate challenges, however, call for a comprehensive or integrated approach that involves a wide spectrum of civil and military instruments, which recognises the provision of security is linked to the pursuit of effective governance and development. But, paradoxically, in the absence of robust security measures development and governance lines of operation are difficult to sustain amidst a resilient and adaptive insurgency.
Consequently the main thrust of Australia’s effort in Afghanistan is directed toward Uruzgan Province through the US-led Combined Team Uruzgan that also comprises several other ISAF partner states. The focus is on military operations to neutralise insurgent networks, whilst simultaneously conducting security sector reform, and helping to improve the Afghan Government’s capacity to deliver core services to local people and to facilitate long-term socio-economic development.
The type of political engagement that Australian civilian officials are now conducting has not been previously undertaken by the government and remains a work in progress. Moreover, the practical difficulties of working in an environment as hostile and demanding as southern Afghanistan—an area that has so far claimed the lives of 23 Australian soldiers—should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, the so-called ‘3-D' strategy of diplomacy, development and defence, that sees civilian advisors working alongside troops, is about the best Australia as one coalition contributor with limited resources in-theatre can attempt.
Ultimately Australia won’t have much influence over the big strategic issues the coalition is grappling with in Afghanistan—in particular the convoluted regional dimensions of the conflict. The Australian Government must therefore focus on what outcomes it can reasonably attain with acceptable risk in our area of responsibility. Most significantly: the ANSF, under effective Afghan Government control, must be capable of dealing with security challenges throughout Uruzgan and its approaches (albeit with continuing logistical support from ISAF); the Afghan Government must provide the rule of law, manage public administration and deliver basic services at the provincial, district and community level—all funded through its national programs; and socio-economic development centred on a strong licit agricultural economy in Uruzgan must be sustained. Finally, transition across all three lines of operation must be irreversible.
* These are the author’s personal views.