Not so friendly fire

31 August 2012


Green on blue attacks like yesterday's shooting of three Australian soldiers will continue until the International Security Assistance Force completely withdrawals from Afghanistan, writes JOHN BLAXLAND.

The green on blue attack yesterday which saw three Australian soldiers killed and two wounded is the latest in a growing number of incidents involving Afghan National Army soldiers working closely with Australian and coalition troops and turning on them.

Motives range from a desire for vengeance for a family grievance, a desire to burnish credentials with an emergent Taliban in the face of an imminent coalition withdrawal and perceived social infractions and resentments over unequal treatment. In essence these attacks can be expected to continue as the drawdown of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of which Australia is a part continues.

The problem is that the strategy has been deeply flawed from the outset. Following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2002, little thought was given to the long term efforts required to turn a battlefield victory into a strategic success. The war in Iraq was a grave distraction from that important task. Afterwards, in the face of a resurgent Taliban, the coalition finally realised the need to address the foundational issue which is a precursor for any society’s ability to endure and to flourish – basic human security. Efforts over the last few years have focused on building up the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) including the police and the army to meet this need. But, with failing international resolve and dwindling US and coalition resources available to fund the massive project, Australia and coalition partners have had to tailor the mission to achieve something feasible but not overly ambitious. The last few years have seen the Australian Defence Force focus on mentoring and assisting the ANSF in holding their ground against a resurgent, brutal and in many places unpopular Taliban. That strategy has borne some fruit in Oruzgan Province, but the job is not yet complete.

Yesterday’s attack also parallels Australia’s experience towards the back end of the Vietnam War. With the death of three soldiers in the latest attack and two more casualties in a helicopter crash, Australia has suffered its worst casualties on operations since Operation Ivanhoe in 1971; an operation which took place shortly after Australia announced that it would be withdrawing its combat forces from Vietnam. Indeed, Australian casualties spiked in the last months of the war as the enemy sought to exploit the opportunity. To be sure, Afghanistan is not Vietnam. There are no North Vietnamese Army divisions waiting on the border to roll over Afghanistan. Nor is the Taliban a monolith waiting in the wings. The future of Afghanistan is fraught with many dangers, but we should not assume all the good work done will instantly and inevitably unravel. Our troops are performing an important mission in less than optimal circumstances. But they have an end in sight. The ANSF is well on the way to achieving the minimum standards considered a precondition for the coalition’s departure. More can probably be done to improve cultural and language awareness to mitigate the risk of further ‘green on blue’ incidents. But, the soldiers of today are as well trained and equipped as any. Sure, some refinements can be made to procedures, but many of them have already been thought of and implemented. Now what is needed is some steely resolve to see the mission through.

One important distinction between Australia's experience in Vietnam and in Afghanistan concerns the cultures. In Vietnam, Australians operated intimately alongside South Vietnamese forces without experiencing this 'green on blue' phenomenon. In part this could be accredited to the cultural approximation of Catholics relocated to Phuoc Thuy province from North Vietnam after the 1954 partition and the different philosophical mindset of the predominantly Buddhist population of South Vietnam. In Afghanistan, Australians face a culture more starkly contrasting from the post-modern 'relaxed' culture of 21st century multicultural Australia. To mitigate this challenge, there is scope for pre-deployment and in-country training to focus more on cultural understanding and empathy and on improving language skills to help bridge the growing gulf between the Australians and the ANSF.

In the meantime, like many other coalition forces, Australians are likely to face further such casualties. Canada has had over 185 deaths, Britain 385 and New Zealand 10, with five of those in the last month. War is hell, many have said. This is proving to be much the same thing. But, there is no strategically viable and realistic alternative than for Australia to live up to its commitments and phase its draw down plans in line with those of Australia’s principal coalition partners.

Dr John Blaxland is a senior fellow in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. His research interests include defence studies, military history and strategy.

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