Australia had 270 soldiers in Afghanistan and now we have increased our commitment to 300.
The Americans are apparently not that impressed. You would need to believe that one digger is worth almost 30 Taliban to muscle up alongside the 8400-strong American force. With the highest regard for our troops I doubt anyone believes they are supermen.
Our army, like our Nato allies, operates on the basis of calculated risk. They try to minimize death and injury in their ranks during any engagement with the enemy.
Sensibly I think, having always been heavily on the risk averse side myself. “No point the reporter getting killed before he has written the script and recorded the voice-over,” I reason in the security of my hotel room.
Though I can tell you from experience there is no secure hotel in Kabul or anywhere else in Afghanistan. Nor is there a secure army base, as we know from the losses the allies have incurred in the so-called ‘green on blue attacks’, when enemies wearing the uniform of friendly Afghan security forces open fire on allied troops.
The Taliban frontline fighters are carelessly fearless. How do you limit your own casualties while fighting a crazy-brave enemy who welcomes death?
It’s a distant echo of the 12th Century and the fanaticism of the Christian Crusaders who had been promised by the Pope that if they fought Saracens they would go straight to Heaven, by-passing the horrors of Purgatory. Perhaps it wasn’t a hard choice: a direct ticket to heaven, or demons poking red-hot pokers up your bum for a thousand years.
In the modern era Afghanistan’s Taliban warriors are promised 72 virgins in Paradise if they die in battle. Age and experience makes me wonder if that’s as good a deal as it might sound. Eternity is such a long time. About as long as foreign invaders have been losing wars in Afghanistan.
In 300 BC Alexander the Great occupied the place and encountered ferocious opposition. Reputedly he said, “Afghanistan is easy to march into, hard to get out of.” Alexander never spoke a truer word as the British, the Russians and now the Americans and their allies know only too well.
Afghanistan has a grim and stark beauty but in the modern world has limited strategic importance. It has no oil and few resources apart from the indefatigable spirit of its people, whom I quite like but I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of them.
I fear the independent federal member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie, a former military intelligence analyst, was right last week when he said, “The fact is the war in Afghanistan was lost long ago and Australia really should get out of the place.”
I was booked into the best pub in town, the Kabul Serena Hotel. It had clean rooms, landscaped gardens and reassuring fortifications. The manager explained to me the unhappy news that security was illusory in the Afghan capital. The Taliban had twice blown the gates and the hotel’s security men had fled.
Insurgent gunmen had come out of the kitchen with AK47s and killed guests who were the usual mix of western carpetbaggers, UN staffers, international medical and charity workers and journalists.
Then came the safety brief. I was shown a labyrinthine path down many stairs and corridors to a safe room. I complained I would never be able to locate it on my own in the dark. “In that case,” they told me, “if you stay in your room and they come for you, before they shoot they might ask if you know the name of the Prophet’s mother. It could help buy you some time if you know the correct answer.”
The Serena hotel is owned by the Aga Khan, one of the richest men in the world who is said to be a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad. He has 25 million adherents but that does not always guarantee the safety of his guests.
A couple of weeks after my happy departure from the Serena, it was attacked again. My security people had always insisted the Serena was not especially dangerous by local standards. “Nowhere is safe. Not even the zone where the embassies are. The whole city is porous.”
As we have seen in the past week, there is nowhere in Kabul the Taliban cannot penetrate. ‘Porous’ is a military euphemism that avoids saying what Wilkie has more bluntly told us, that we have lost this war because just like in Vietnam we never won the hearts and minds of the people.
Wilkie believes that our involvement now only increases the threat of terrorism at home. “Sending more troops there just throws more fuel on the fire,” he said.
He might be right. What really needs to be asked now and answered clearly is this: if Afghanistan is as crucial to world order and to Australian security as both our government and the opposition assert then why are we there only in token numbers?
If Wilkie is right, 300 Australian soldiers might be enough to put us in more danger at home but not enough to make much difference on the battlefield.