Inside Story

How good went bad in Afghanistan

Books | A new account of a long war lays bare a series of miscalculations and misunderstandings, writes Tom Hyland

Tom Hyland 4 March 2015 2235 words

Did we make a difference? The Australian military’s Lieutenant Colonel Mick Bye, commanding officer of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment Task Group, and Lieutenant Colonel Paul Duncan, senior adviser to the Operational Coordination Centre–Provincial, in a bare office on their last night before departing Uruzgan. CPL Chris Moore

The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan
By Jack Fairweather | Jonathan Cape | $55

It was, for a short time, the good war. The West’s involvement in Afghanistan had something for everyone – conservatives and liberals, soldiers and aid workers, reformers and reconstruction experts. It began as a justifiable intervention to destroy al Qaeda and its Afghan bases after 9/11. It morphed from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency to a full-blown war waged alongside nation-building. It offered prestige and purpose to Western armies hungry for both. It held the promise of liberating Afghanistan from backwardness and poverty. It would bring democracy and liberate women from oppression. For America’s allies – Australia among them – it was a chance to prove alliance credentials. Part of its appeal was that it wasn’t Iraq.

In The Good War, British journalist Jack Fairweather gives a powerful and well-informed account of how the West’s Afghan project turned bad. He tells how good intentions, mixed with ignorance and arrogance, led to folly and waste. He presents a sustained argument against the conceit that all societies aspire to Western-style democracy, and the idea that promoting such democracies makes the world more secure and just. If only it had worked out like that.

Australia should take note, even though our army’s part in our longest war barely rates a mention in Fairweather’s story. The Good War focuses on the big picture, in which we were just one of forty-odd nations playing a part. Despite the occasional big-noting on both sides of Australian politics, we played a small role in this unwieldy alliance. We were a trusty corporal in a cavalcade of generals. Even so, the scant attention to Australia doesn’t mean that Fairweather’s book has nothing to say to Australian readers. It puts our involvement in perspective, providing context for how we got involved in the good war, even if it says nothing about what our soldiers did once they got there.

The war started well. In late 2001, the Afghan Taliban government, which had sheltered al Qaeda, quickly fell to opposing Afghan militias backed by American forces. Yet, even then, the seeds of defeat were being sown. In declaring the “war on terror” after 9/11, Fairweather writes, US president George W. Bush had “cemented America’s distorted understanding of Afghanistan by conflating al Qaeda, a malevolent terrorist group, with the Taliban, a movement with a claim to represent significant swathes of southern Afghanistan.” This fundamental lack of understanding set the stage for an enduring war. Bush’s obsession with Iraq compounded the folly.

It didn’t have to be like this. From the start, a triumphant Washington ignored signs that elements of the Taliban might negotiate. When the capital, Kabul, collapsed, the Taliban were dismissed as a spent force and excluded from international talks on the future of the country. “Ultimately,” Fairweather writes, “the choice to spurn the Taliban had tragic consequences.” Just as opportunities to integrate former Taliban into the new Afghanistan continued to be missed, the United States and its allies remained confounded by the complex and confusing tribal and ethnic structure of the country. The evidence of Fairweather’s book is that the views and aspirations of Afghans were rarely considered.

International aid was handed down to the locals, whether they wanted it or not. They weren’t involved in key decisions relating to reconstruction and development, aspects of the good war that appealed to Western liberals. Early on, Ashraf Ghani, now Afghanistan’s president, wanted reconstruction to be in the hands of Afghans, fearing that otherwise the country would be swamped by big UN agencies and other donors with showcase projects that would, as Fairweather puts it, “confuse and overwhelm the fledgling country.”

Instead, Afghanistan was subjected to what a British general described as an “anarchic” reconstruction effort – piecemeal; often top-down; often unrelated to local needs; and bedevilled by corruption, duplication, and overspending on showcase projects that allowed major donors to carve out fiefdoms that made them look good in their home countries. Sometimes the results were farcical.

Aid money was spent because it was budgeted to be spent. Some went to projects that didn’t need to be done, and in a way that distorted the local economy. Fairweather describes a project funded by USAID to pay labourers for “odd jobs.” It spent US$30 million in one year in one town, including $18 million to give tractors and bags of wheat to Afghans who the aid workers “hoped” were farmers. Labourers earned $5 a day to unclog irrigation canals, more than doctors and teachers were earning, and so people of all professions turned up to dig ditches. Schools and clinics were closed and fields were left untended, except for the opium crop, where market forces ensured there was enough manpower to get in the harvest. As for the tractors and bags of wheat, many were driven across the border to Pakistan to be sold or exchanged, “in some cases for sacks of fertiliser to make roadside bombs.”

Aid projects linked to opium eradication ended up helping it flourish. One American project allocated eradication funds to again repair irrigation ditches. Trouble was, the company running the project had more money than it knew what to do with, so it claimed more hours than were actually worked. Sub-contractors claimed more workers than they had hired to do work that local people had traditionally done for free. Warlords were paid to destroy poppy fields. The more they destroyed, the more they earned. So they planted more poppies.

The battlefield had its own counterproductive momentum. In 2002 the Taliban leadership was scattered and forlorn, unable to muster support in its southern heartland. Solace came from an unlikely source – American special forces waging a campaign against low-level Taliban commanders. With little local knowledge, the Americans took advice from warlords about whom they should target, and those warlords used the opportunity to carry out vendettas against rivals. The Americans then launched air strikes and night raids that often caused more harm than good. Some of those captured were tortured at the hands of Americans. While this was not widespread, Fairweather says it was “persistent enough to create the impression among Afghans that maltreatment at the foreigners’ hands was common… By endorsing torture, American policy in Afghanistan appeared designed to goad the remnants of the Taliban into armed revolt.” And it did.

Signs of revolt were apparent by 2003, and by 2005 the Taliban were on the offensive, launching sustained attacks that forced the United States, distracted by Iraq, and its Western allies to respond. Not all the attacks were led by the Taliban; often they were sparked by local grievances and clan and tribal disputes.

This is the context in which Australian troops, who had withdrawn in early 2002, were sent back, as special forces in 2005 and as a “reconstruction task force” in 2006. The 400 troops in the 2006 deployment were sent to carry out “reconstruction and community-based projects” in Uruzgan province alongside Dutch troops. Adopting the blokey idiom favoured by many Australian politicians when talking about the military, John Howard’s defence minister, Brendan Nelson, described the troops as “tradies” – language that disguised the urgency of the military situation in southern Afghanistan and the nature of the task the troops would undertake.

Fairweather’s only reference to the Australian move into Uruzgan comes when he is discussing the Dutch, who feared their peacekeeping mission in the province was becoming a war-fighting one. In Fairweather’s telling, the United States and its NATO allies scrambled for a solution in which “the Australian army reluctantly agreed to effectively become the Dutch contingent’s bodyguards.” This assertion, attributed to an unnamed source, is curious, given that the 1400-strong Dutch contingent included combat troops as well as heavy artillery, attack helicopters and jet fighters – firepower Australia never sent to Afghanistan.

The Dutch–Australian operation in Uruzgan was part of a patchwork international effort by NATO, whose members had different and conflicting motives, as well as different systems of operating, which further complicated the Western effort.

For the British army, Afghanistan offered the prospect of swapping an unpopular war in Iraq for one that still enjoyed widespread support. It would cement Britain’s status as America’s most reliable ally. Tragically, it underestimated the task British troops would undertake in Helmand province. “We needed to prove that we remained a crucial strategic partner,” Lieutenant General Robert Fry told Fairweather. “We needed to find salvation.” This search for salvation thrust ill-equipped and over-stretched British soldiers into a cruel ordeal in Helmand, which became the bloody fulcrum of the war.

Others also sought redemption. For the Netherlands it was the “existential guilt” that had hung over their armed forces since 1995, when Dutch peacekeepers were unable to prevent the Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims. The Canadians, like the British, also wanted to secure their status in the eyes of Washington. Germany came along too, on a reconstruction mission that aimed “to avoid casualties at all costs, and thus the appearance that its soldiers were going to war.”

There was something for everyone in the deployment of foreign troops, Fairweather writes. Afghanistan’s president at the time, Hamid Karzai, “got western engagement that would flood the country with billions. Western armies got the mission they wanted to establish their credentials. And of course, there was another beneficiary: the Taliban, whose members were spoiling for a common enemy to unite the south.”

The foreign forces were far from united. NATO headquarters was “a medley of nations, competing national prerogatives, cavalier egos and political calculation, with only a cursory knowledge of one another’s military systems.” Some were unable to coordinate air support; others lacked basic equipment, or were unable to share intelligence or even talk to one another. Each nation came with its own stipulations, known as “caveats,” about what its troops could or could not do. By 2006 these rules ran to one hundred pages.

Australia was party to this alliance friction. Fairweather has a footnote about a US and British operation in Helmand, in which Britain’s Lieutenant General Nick Carter had taken Afghan forces from neighbouring Uruzgan to create the impression that the Afghans were active partners in the operation. This, says Fairweather, led to a “rather undignified scrap” in which the Australians and the Dutch tried to have Carter sacked for having the “temerity” to take forces from their province.

A consistent theme in The Good War is the West’s failure to understand the nature of the country they were fighting in, and the complex social, tribal and ethnic dynamics of the people they were fighting for. One intriguing character portrayed by Fairweather sought that understanding. He was Tom Gregg, an Australian diplomat who in 2005, aged just twenty-six, was working with the United Nations. His “certain devil-may-care attitude” and patient and perilous efforts were focused on negotiating a deal with the influential Haqqani clan by offering small-scale aid projects Afghans would control, and giving them responsibility for their own security. In the process, he hoped to build a model that would create a rough and ready sort of peace. His efforts collapsed, partly because of the influx of foreign troops. That failure is one of many tantalising missed opportunities.

Australia’s combat role ended when our troops pulled out of Uruzgan in December 2013 in line with a timetable set by president Barack Obama, whose heart was never in the war, to hand it over to the Afghans. A total of 33,000 Australians served in Afghanistan, forty-one were killed, 261 were wounded, and an uncounted number suffered psychological wounds in a commitment that cost Australian taxpayers close to $10 billion. Some 400 troops remain in Kabul in training and support roles about which we hear little.

The Good War does much to explain Australia’s commitment, even if it barely mentions it. Fairweather’s work is part of a wider review in the West of what the war was all about. There’s little sign of any corresponding candour in Canberra. This is a pity. So many questions are left unanswered. What were the factors at play in our on-again, off-again commitment to Afghanistan? Why did we pull out in 2002 and what calculations led us to go back in 2005–06? What were the arguments, for and against? Did we, like our allies, have something to prove? What did the Afghans think of us? Did we make a difference? Was it worth it?

Given bipartisan commitment to the war, our parliament scarcely asked these questions. There has been no public review, nor has the government commissioned an official history of our longest conflict. We shy away from any public airing of uncomfortable questions involving our soldiers. Instead, we console ourselves with Anzac commemoration in which Afghanistan becomes another thread in the shroud of remembrance. An open, independent and clear-eyed accounting of our role might teach us some lessons. It might also serve as an honest tribute to those we sent to the good war that turned so bad. •