Saturday, April 14, 2007

400 Special Forces Troops Now Head To Afghanistan

Howard Claims Australians Will Go After Taliban "Leadership"

Australia Digs In Years To Come In Afghanistan As Troop Numbers Expected To Climb To 2000 In 2008

Prime Minister John Howard, foreign minister Alexander Downer and defence minister Brendan Nelson went on a media blitz last week for the announcement that Australia will double its troop commitment to Afghanistan.

They didn't mention, however, that Australia's commitment could double again, to more than 2000, in 2008, as troops dig in for another four or more years of war fighting in the region.

Howard, Downer and Nelson boasted that Australia's special forces won't be targeting "goat herders" on their return to Afghanistan, but will be taking on the upper ranks of the Taliban, and its leadership. At the same time, they repeatedly stated that Australians "must prepare " for casualties.

If Australia's special forces are truly going in hard against the Taliban, and are aiming to decapitate the Taliban leadership, casualties are all but guaranteed.

What hasn't been addressed yet is whether the special forces will be entering the border regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan where most of the Taliban leadership is believed to be holed up, or whether they will enter Pakistan itself.

Pakistan's president Musharraf insists that Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are not coming from his country, but are border-region Afghan refugees. The United States, meanwhile, claims that Pakistan is sheltering Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders.

With the announcement today that John Howard has told Pakistan president Musharraf that he "has to do more" to deal with the Al Qaeda and Taliban groups and support bases inside his country, it certainly sounds like the prime minister is laying the ground for Austrailan forces to work close to, or inside, Pakistan's border.

An exceptionally good summary of what Australia's special forces will be facing in Afghanistan from Patrick Walters writing in 'The Australian' :

Australia is being slowly yet inexorably being drawn into a novel 21st-century version of the "great game" in Afghanistan as our military prepares for its most sustained fighting since Vietnam.

The upgraded Afghanistan mission promises to be long and hazardous, and Australia's defence chiefs know there is no guarantee of victory. Our overall troop commitment is much likelier to rise than fall in the next two years as the battle intensifies to stabilise Afghanistan.

But, unlike Australia's two most recent wars, in Vietnam and Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is a full bipartisan commitment from the Government and the ALP. When Australian special forces return to the mountain-locked Oruzgan province next month they will face a far more confident Taliban insurgency. A dysfunctional NATO command in Kabul is manifestly failing to subdue the insurgency now gripping south-eastern Afghanistan.

"It is a fundamental test for NATO and NATO will fail it. It (NATO's counter-insurgency strategy) isn't working and it isn't going to work. But there will be some local successes," says one senior Australian government source. "The only people actually doing anything hard are the US, Brits, Canadians and Aussies."

Australia's military is preparing for the possibility of a four-year assignment task in Oruzgan. But planners know successfully stabilising the south in partnership with Afghan security forces will take a decade of sustained effort.

Since the SAS and commandos returned home from Afghanistan in September 2006 things have gone backwards in Oruzgan. Less than 30 per cent of the province, one of Afghanistan's poorest with a population of about 400,000 people, is under the control of the central government.

Areas subdued by the Australians in 2005-06 such as the Chora Valley, just 15km north of their base at Tarin Kowt, have now effectively fallen back under the control of the Taliban.

Nearly six years after the overthrow of the Taliban government in Kabul, Oruzgan remains a Taliban heartland. Its inaccessible mountain valleys are a safe haven for an estimated 300-400 hardened fighters who roam freely across the mountains from neighbouring Helmand and Kandahar.

There are few roads, even fewer government services, and the opium crops are flourishing. Taliban fighters are steadily encroaching on the provincial capital, Tarin Kowt, which lies in a broad valley. They continue to threaten the main road and main supply line south to Kandahar, 120km away.

The Australians know the terrain and know the enemy but, as one senior military source acknowledges, "we will have to start from scratch again and recover lost ground".

Taking responsibility for the province would involve more than doubling the planned 1000-strong commitment, and would include the provision of combat air power and more ground forces.

NATO estimate the number of Taliban fighters in the southern provinces at about 10,000. Many of these are mercenaries and opportunists who will switch sides if they sense the momentum is slipping away from them.

With the Taliban leadership holed up in Quetta, Pakistan, and newly trained fighters crossing freely into Afghanistan, NATO is facing a far more resilient enemy fully prepared to test the resolve of the US and its allies.

In Oruzgan, Australia's SAS, ably supported by commandos, will aim to quickly regain the tactical initiative, limiting the insurgents and freedom of movement and cutting off their support bases and disrupting supply lines.

The aim will be to create fear and uncertainty in the minds of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters, mounting clandestine patrols, all the while trying to gain the confidence of local Afghan elders and villagers.

This time the special forces will stay for at least two years and have the opportunity to really make a difference. But the Australians will need more help to do the job effectively, particularly helicopter support in combat operations. The army's refurbished Chinooks won't return to Oruzgan until early next year, leaving Australian forces totally reliant on NATO aircraft during the next nine months.

Australia's well-meaning efforts in Oruzgan may prove to be only a transitory success in a long painful march out of Afghanistan.

More details and background on the announcement of more troops to Afghanistan here :
Australia's defence deployment to Afghanistan will be doubled, with special forces charged to aggressively hunt down Taliban leadership and disrupt its resurgent terrorist network.

The existing 400 personal working with the Dutch in a Reconstruction Task Force in the Oruzgan province in the troublesome south, will be joined by a Special Operations taskforce made up of Special Air Service soldiers, Commandoes and a "solid intelligence capability", as well as an additional RAAF air surveillance radar group at Kandahar airport.

The present deployment of 120 special protection soldiers, rotated every six months, will be extended for another 18 months.

Two Chinouks helicopters will be returned and joined by an Hercules C-130J aircraft operating broadly across the Middle East.

The announcement means that Australia will have more than 900 personnel deployed by the middle of the year, peaking at over 1000 by the middle of 2008.

Mr Howard indicated he was conscious of the political difficulties Pakistan had in containing the Taliban but was keen for it to do more.

"We would like the Pakistanis to be as active, intense, as committed as zealous as possible in containing it," he said.

"I understand some of the political realities under which (Pakistani President) General (Pervez) Musharraf operates."

Mr Howard said he had made personnel representations to General Musharraf about the matter, as had British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US Vice President Dick Cheney.

"We do all understand some of the history and there is a balancing act," he said.

"There's no doubt that overall the Pakistanis have been good allies in the fight against terrorism," he said.

"I guess in relation to Afghanistan we would like them to be even better allies."

This is exactly the kind of talk which is now infuriating Musharraf, who claims :
"We have suffered the maximum and we have contributed the maximum. Therefore, we will not accept that Pakistan is not doing enough in the war against terror...It pains me when people say that Pakistan is not doing enough."

Why Howard continues to pour on the pressure when Musharraf is threatening to "quit" fighting the 'War on Terror' may be more about laying the media ground work for later revelations that Australian forces are operating on, or in, Pakistan's borders.

Though, according to Musharraf, they might end up doing such operations with his permission.

Howard Claims If Terrorists Gain A Foothold, Again, In Afghanistan, There Will Be "Direct Consequences To This Country"

Howard Asks Pakistan To Curb Taliban

Stop The Criticism Or I Will Quit Fight Against Terror, Warns Musharraf