Patrick Walters – The Australian December 17, 2007
New Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon says the war in Afghanistan will be lost unless NATO and its close allies change tactics, overhauling military and civil programs designed to bring stability to the country.
Mr Fitzgibbon's blunt warning was delivered to a closed-door meeting in Scotland of eight defence ministers, from the US, Australia and six other NATO nations with military forces in Afghanistan.
His comments reflect the classified intelligence assessments presented to the former Howard government in recent months, which have painted a bleak picture of the military situation facing NATO and its allies as they battle Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
"The previous government would have us believe that good progress is being made in Afghanistan. The reality is quite a different one," Mr Fitzgibbon told The Australian last night soon after returning from the meeting in Edinburgh.
"We are winning the battles and not the war, in my view. We have been very successful in clearing areas of the Taliban but it's having no real strategic effect."
Labor came to power with a promise to withdraw Australia's combat troops from Iraq but to continue the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
NATO and its allies have about 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. Australia's military contribution now totals about 1000 troops, including special forces and RAAF personnel, mostly stationed in Oruzgan province.
Mr Fitzgibbon has ruled out lifting Australia's military commitment in the absence of a greater contribution from NATO member countries to the International Security Force in Afghanistan.
But he also signalled that Australia would be prepared to consider a larger military commitment if NATO members bolstered their own forces.
At Friday's talks with defence ministers representing countries with military forces in southern Afghanistan, Mr Fitzgibbon also expressed frustration at the lack of a coherent strategy that could underpin the successful rehabilitation of Afghanistan as a nation state.
"You will struggle to get unanimity on what the objectives are in Afghanistan at the present time," he told The Australian.
At Mr Fitzgibbon's urging, NATO, led by the US with input from Australia, will now draw up a new military blueprint for the next 12 months of the campaign. It will have a sharp focus on southern Afghanistan, where the hardest fighting is taking place.
The US will also take the lead in devising a broader strategy for co-ordination of foreign military and civil aid agencies in Afghanistan over the next three to five years. This will include the appointment of a civilian special envoy to co-ordinate the work of the UN, the European Union and other civil agencies.
Defence ministers representing the eight nations with military forces stationed in the south will meet in Canada late next month to review progress on the new military strategy.
"We are lacking in Afghanistan a coherent plan for the country," a senior defence source told The Australian. "The command chain is confused. We (ISAF) don't have enough troops on the ground. We don't have proper co-ordination between our military and civilian goals and actions."
He said Australian and NATO troops had been doing good work in clearing out insurgents but did not have the overall capacity to hold ground in key areas of southern Afghanistan.
In Oruzgan, Australian special forces cleared much of the province of insurgents in 2005 only to find the Taliban returning after their withdrawal.
Mr Fitzgibbon told his colleagues that the Australian Defence Force had half of its infantry and cavalry committed to overseas deployments, including Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor. Australia's 1000 troops in Afghanistan makes it the biggest non-NATO contributor to the military campaign in the country, and the 10th-biggest contributor overall.
"We are just so frustrated that so many other NATO countries are not making a contribution," Mr Fitzgibbon told The Australian last night.
Mr Fitzgibbon also told his colleagues in Edinburgh, including US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, that while NATO and its allies had been successfully "stomping on lots of ants, we have not been dealing with the ants' nest".
"We need much more than a military response," he said. "This is largely about winning the hearts and minds of the more moderate of the Taliban and other sections of the Afghan community.
"We need more political advisers in the civil service. There is no administrative infrastructure.
"We need more training for the Afghan army and the Afghan police. We need someone there as a senior envoy co-ordinating this overall strategy."
Mr Fitzgibbon said until now, NATO and its allies had been providing a military and reconstruction response but had failed to successfully deal with the "big picture" in Afghanistan.
He said nations with military forces in southern Afghanistan had to deal with significant domestic political pressures.
"We have to hold the will of our constituencies. If we don't do that we will all be packing up and leaving," he said.
Mr Fitzgibbon stressed a new military plan for ISAF operations in southern Afghanistan would endeavour to measure just how much larger the ISAF force should be to hold the ground they were gaining in recent military operations.
Last updated 18/12/2007