|Victoria Cross for Australia from http://www.defence.gov.au/|
Ben Roberts-Smith, recipient of the Victoria Cross for his work in Afghanistan, has been reported recently as saying that the troops in the Ghan are becoming irritated by their compatriots who are discouraged by the progress of the war and calling for withdrawal.
I'm reluctant to dispute any recipient of the VC but I can't share Ben's faith in the cause. Ben is very good at killing the Queen's enemies but he doesn't have a realistic historical appreciation of the situation. In particular, the reports of progress in the training of the Afghan National Army and the police are irritating me. Anyone who can remember Vietnam must find the booster stories about the great advances being made by our proteges utterly fatuous.
This is the same drivel that was cranked out by the Free World Forces command as the doomed process of "Vietnamisation" took place. That was the programme whereby the indigenous lovers of democracy were mentored into being able to hold their own against the communist enemy. The phrases are being borrowed by the wagon-load for the Afghan scenario: "The province is secured"; "The enemy are demoralised"; "The quality of the local forces is greatly improved"; etcetera.
In Vietnam, although the commies gave the foreign forces of the USA, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand a few severe canings they never triumphed on the battlefield. It's only predictable; where the opposing forces on the ground are not the main forces of a superpower such as the USSR or the People's Republic of China, they can't hope to win major land battles and are restricted to guerilla operations and probing attacks. Of course, once the forces propping up the South Vietnamese government were removed the house of cards fell within two years. Likewise, in Afghanistan, the Taliban and Al Qaeda are hardly up to beating what is essentially the main force of NATO and ANZUS combined. There is no reason to believe that the Taliban will lose heart between now and the projected US withdrawal in 2014. The question is whether the Afghan forces can hold or defeat them. Once the foreign cat goes away, the Taliban meeces will play.
I suspect that most of the Afghan forces under foreign tuition are signing up to receive regular meals, clothing, boots and shelter. The little that I've seen of them indicates a great degree of slovenliness and timidity that makes a mockery of the propaganda stories. This is very similar to the experience of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (aka The Men Who Persevered). They were on site from 1964 to 1973 and were still trying to inculcate the basics when they were withdrawn. The capacity of the majority of the trainees to absorb and apply was pitiful. A major reason for this is the unwillingness of foreign trainers to apply the sort of disciplinary pressure that is needed to make the training stick. In Afghanistan, where the recruits are making an increasing habit of shooting the trainers, there is good reason to be cautious.
The problem with the analysis by Ben Roberts-Smith is that he and his colleagues are looking at the quantitative progress under foreign guidance. The qualitative durability is another matter. It's not a question of how many schools are built or how many villages receive electricity; these are not military achievements. Even the killing of footsoldiers doesn't win the war if there is a relentless supply of fanatics to replace them.
To clarify with a metaphor. Consider a sandcastle built below the tide-line on a beach. It matters not whether it's a child's effort made with a few upturned buckets of sand,
or the product of a professional sand artist.
When the tide comes in, the sandcastle washes away.
Infrastructure in Afghanistan is like that. Improving it will simply provide more targets for the enemy when they resurge. We can't civilise Afghanistan and we can't guarantee that Al Qaeda will not return to the place, any more than we can guarantee to eliminate terrorist operations anywhere else on earth.
I now believe that the place isn't worth the wastage of any more life or limb. No amount of effort can make the impossible possible and there comes a time to walk away from a futile task.
In particular, I am repulsed by the injuries being suffered by our soldiers. Defence Department press releases don't contain words like maimed, blinded, deafened, brain-damaged, paralysed, amputated, horribly burned and so forth. If they did, people wouldn't react with relief at hearing that someone has "only" been wounded. I don't think that it's an accident that they don't specify detail. It wouldn't help recruiting; particularly when people come to know how shabbily the Australian Government treats wounded veterans.
Ben may not like to hear that he and his comrades are on a fool's errand, but that's the truth. Any decent citizen won't want to see it proven by repeating history.