The world was shocked by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York on 11 September 2001. On 14 September the Australian Government invoked the mutual defence clauses of the ANZUS Treaty in support of the United States for the first time since it was enacted in 1952. The Australian Parliament supported the decision.
On 7 October 2001, the United States launched Operation Enduring Freedom against Taliban forces and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Australian troops were an important part of this operation and continue to be part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
Australia’s military commitment to ISAF–Afghanistan continued to rise after the focus moved from combat operations to reconstruction. 1550 personnel are now involved in Afghanistan with a further 800 providing command, communications and logistics support to the Middle East Area of Operation—in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf of Aden. Two Army officers also serve as advisors within the Military Adviser Group for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan under Operation PALATE II.
32 Australian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan—the first Australian combat deaths since the Vietnam War. A further 218 soldiers have been wounded. These numbers escalated dramatically after 2007.
The focus of the Australian Army in Afghanistan centres on counterinsurgency and advising the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan, South Afghanistan. Forces are currently deployed as part of Joint Task Force 633 based in the Arab Emirates. Headquarters Joint Task Force 633–Afghanistan is based in Kabul and works closely with ISAF headquarters and other agencies in Afghanistan.
In 2006 the Australian Government announced that the Australian 1st Reconstruction Task Force would deploy as part of the Netherlands-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Uruzgan. Between 2006 and 2010 Dutch and Australian forces worked together with the local populations to rebuild schools, hospitals and other essential infrastructure. In July 2010, Combined Team–Uruzgan took over these efforts.
Mentoring of the Afghan National Army takes place at Tarin Kot at the Multi National Base–Tarin Kot. The Australian Task Force includes the Mentoring Task Force, a Provincial Reconstruction Team support element, a Force Engineer Construction Team, a Force Communications Unit, and several specialist elements.
The current Mentoring Task Force (MTF-3) comprises about 730 Australian defence personnel with the bulk of forces from 3rd Brigade (Townsville). Australian soldiers operating in both the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams and the Combat Teams live with, train and provide support to their Afghan National Army colleagues throughout Uruzgan, centred on Tarin Kot, Chorah, Deh Rawud and Deh Rufshan.
The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) is tasked with the counterinsurgency mission—shape, clear, hold, build.
Over the last ten years, the Australian Army has had to relearn skills from previous campaigns—the most important of these is counterinsurgency. Winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Uruzgan people requires a balance of threat mitigation and cultural sensitivity, something that has been complicated by the active presence of Taliban insurgents. A safe environment is only one part of the puzzle.
Although reconstruction is an essential component, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams can only do so much to win over the locals. Knowledge of language, customs and tribal affiliations are frequently too complex for soldiers deployed for a short eight months to master. Mentoring the Afghan National Army, developing their confidence and their capacity has done a great deal in building trust among the local communities.
But influencing and gaining the trust of local communities has its risks. Moving among the people requires soldiers to leave the protection of their vehicles. Small dismounted patrols, often moving long distances on foot can be very vulnerable, and vehicles that support them run the risk of being the target of improvised explosive devices.
Australian forces are preparing to transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan National Army in 2014.