Six years ago I was a soldier in the volatile province of Uruzgan, where Australia sent the bulk of its forces during its commitment to the Afghanistan War. Australia has since withdrawn from Uruzgan, closing another ostensibly successful chapter in its military history and begun celebrating its actions.
Yet despite the deaths of 41 soldiers, hundreds badly wounded and $7.5 billion spent on the war, remarkably little was achieved. Uruzgan is now the single most Taliban-controlled province in Afghanistan.
My home was a remote outpost in a farming valley where a handful of Australian and Afghan soldiers lived, worked and fought the Taliban together. Despite the hardships and numerous casualties, we achieved some modest successes.
Taliban insurgents remained, but the loss of fighters, commanders and equipment weakened them. Security was gradually improving and there was hope that one day government services could be introduced to the area.
But any sense of accomplishment was tempered by the knowledge that Australia would soon be withdrawing from the base, leaving the Afghans to provide security on their own. I was not optimistic about their chances.
These concerns are now justified.
Taliban fighters overran the outpost last October and dozens of Afghan soldiers defending it reportedly defected. A video published on the Taliban’s news website, Al Emarah, shows soldiers surrendering the base and handing over weapons and armoured vehicles.
Nearby bases fell in a similar manner and the Taliban now control the valley. Despite years of commitment and the loss of at least eight soldiers, Australian forces left little lasting impact.
What happened there is just one example of a broad collapse of security across Uruzgan. After Australian troops withdrew in 2013, the Taliban made sweeping gains and now claim to control the entire province except for district centres. Uruzgan Governor Mohammed Nazir Kharoti has called for Australia to return to the province and says the Taliban are threatening the capital, Tarin Kot, and are “coming very close to the city…a kilometre, to two kilometres in some sites.”
Reinforcements have prevented the city from falling, but the countryside remains out of the government’s reach.
So, what of Australia’s legacy in Afghanistan? Attempts to bring Uruzgan under enduring government control certainly failed. Yet Australia’s Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Campbell, defends Australia’s achievements as part of a bigger picture, citing “education, communication and thousands of kilometres of road infrastructure” that have improved quality of life for Afghans and liberated them from the desperate conditions they once endured.
Australia’s commitment may have indirectly supported social and economic development elsewhere in Afghanistan, in the larger cities and safer provinces. But in Uruzgan, quality of life remains dire.
Even before the Taliban seized much of the province, government services and infrastructure began to crumble. According to tribal elder Haji Mohammad Qasim, two years after Australia’s departure only 20 per cent of Uruzgan’s schools remained functional. Those that were open were run by elderly teachers with no understanding of modern education.
Health care was non-existent in most places while the central hospital relied on unqualified staff with inadequate supplies. Some infrastructure projects were successful, but many were never completed and much of Uruzgan received no development. The province remains a leading producer of opium.
Despite this grim picture, can Australians take comfort in the idea that they did their best against insurmountable obstacles? It is debatable.
A controversial strategy facilitated the spectacular collapse of governance and security in Uruzgan. Leaders neglected the requirement to build government institutions that follow the rule of law. Instead, they used a tribal warlord named Matiullah Khan to assert control through his personal power. His assassination in 2015 left behind a province with no successor and no viable institutions. Uruzgan descended deeper into lawlessness and the Taliban capitilised on the chaos.
Uruzgan’s only hope now is that the government in Kabul will survive and become strong enough to impose order. This is a tenuous prospect. The government’s authority is dwindling, now controlling just 57 per cent of Afghanistan and propped up only by foreign support.
As I look back, I wonder if we ever had a chance of success. Without enough manpower to defeat the insurgency and without serious efforts to build a functional administration, it is difficult to imagine how Australia’s mission could have ended differently.
Despite this, Australia poured soldiers and resources into the province for nine years. Australians and Afghans alike paid a heavy price, with many killed and countless more bearing physical and psychological wounds that will never completely heal.
The question is unavoidable: was it worth it?