“Defence chief hails progress in Afghan campaign”, declared the ABC News yesterday, as it reported that Australian Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, head of the nation’s defence forces, believes progress is being made as the campaign in Afghanistan reaches a crucial point. “Over recent months we have also blunted the insurgency, taking back areas long held by the Taliban and putting sustained pressure on their leadership through high-tempo special forces operations,” he said. “Now we have the right strategy and associated resources for the first time since 2001.”
Given that since June 1, 10 Australian soldiers have died while serving in Afghanistan — nearly half the number of Australians killed there since military operations began in 2001 — it was quite an optimistic assessment even if his comments implied a serious criticism of what had been going on for the previous nine years. “The momentum is shifting our way. We remain committed and our efforts are respected and appreciated by the people of Uruzgan and our coalition partners,” he said.
Independent assessments of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan are hard to find and this is certainly not a war being covered in any detail by the Australian media. Full-time war correspondents are absent and so the reporting of statements by the likes of Air Chief Marshal Houston go largely unchallenged. So in the interests of balance, I thought the views of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent project to inform and advise humanitarian organisations on safety conditions across Afghanistan.
In its latest report at the end of August, the safety office recorded that in Uruzgan province where Australian troops are stationed, the overall level of incidents remained about the same as in previous reporting periods. One new trend was a marked increase in the use of rockets by armed opposition groups (AOG). Yet, as graphs from recent reports show, there has certainly been no decline in activity this year compared with last.
(ACG are armed criminal groups)
There is an interesting comparison between Air Vice Marshall Houston’s comment that Australian special forces were involved in the push to secure districts around Kandahar and Helmand, where operations had seen the Taliban lose its senior leadership, and the ANSO report comment on Helmand province that “putting to shame those who have over the last weeks claimed ‘progress was being made’, Helmand province witnessed an enormous, and increasing, amount of AOG activity mostly in the form of direct attacks.”