Resources: Australian counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.

On Monday, Lateline aired a story about AusAid cancelling a $US4.6 million contract with The Liaison Office, a Kabul-based NGO. This was allegedly because its report on the war effort in Uruzgan province lacked a positive spin. Whether or not that’s true, it highlights how rare it is to get reliable and nuanced information on Australia’s role in Afghanistan.

One problem has been restrictive media policies put in place by the Department of Defence, which have resulted in an unfortunate lack of in-depth discussion.  There is little easily-accessible information on what Australian forces are actually doing, or of what impact they may be having in Uruzgan province, the operational focus of the deployment. Relatively few Australian scholars specialise in Afghanistan.

This post presents a selection of reports released in the past two years that make clearer what the ADF is doing and the context they operate in.

The first six listings include descriptions and some personal thoughts. After that is a list of reports for which I haven’t provided summaries, because I haven’t read them yet.

All the reports focus on Uruzgan or on Australia’s role more broadly. None focus on the Afghan war in general; I chose them parochially for their relevance to Australian involvement.

Some of these are by government agencies and some are by independent organisations. All are open-access and in pdf format.


Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan: revised facts and figures
Nicole Brangwin, Marty Harris, Ravi Tomar and David Watt
Parliamentary Library
November 2011

This paper is what it sounds like. It contains key data on Australia’s contribution, not just in terms of Defence but also the other government departments such as DFAT and AusAID. The paper presents funding figures, key dates, government statements and other information, along with many links for further research. Originally produced to assist Members and Senators prepare for the October 2010 Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, it has been thoroughly updated since.

I recommend it as a useful starting point for anyone writing on this topic.


Two Afghan views of Australia from Uruzgan
Omaid Khpalwak and Governor Mohammed Shirzad
Lowy Institute for International Policy
November 2011

The first half of this paper consists of notes taken by Afghan journalist Omaid Khpalwak, who was sadly killed by US forces on July 2011, after being mistaken for an insurgent.

He interviewed many locals about what they thought of the Australian presence in Uruzgan, with reactions ranging from firm support to strong criticism. The criticisms are mostly for their support of Matiullah Khan (discussed more in reports below), but also for night-raids and civilian casualties.

The second half is an interview with Uruzgan Governor Mohammed Shirzad, conducted by Susan Schmeidl and Hekmatullah Aazamy. Shirzad is supportive of the ADF presence and confident of improvements in the security situation, though also critical about civilian casualties. He makes some suggestions regarding operations and development projects.

This paper differs from the others here by being brief, and light on details, but is important for showing the diversity of Afghan views on the ADF’s role.


Counterinsurgency in Uruzgan 2009
Colonel Peter Connolly
Land Warfare Studies Centre, Australian Army
August 2011

This paper examines Australian operations in Uruzgan in the second half of 2009, and is written by one of the commanders involved. It covers the role of the Second Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force in providing security for the elections and training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army, in the context of an active “fighting season.”

The detailed and acronym-laden text is aimed at a military audience, but is highly readable and includes personal accounts of Peter Connolly’s service. It is valuable for covering the task force’s many adaptations in a mere six-month period. It also shows the difficult decisions ADF commanders have to make in operations, which is not easily conveyed in media coverage.


In it for the long haul? Delivering Australian aid to Afghanistan
Phil Sparrow
Australian Council for International Development
March 2011

If there has been little in-depth media coverage of the ADF’s role, there has been almost none of the role played by AusAID and various NGOs. That makes this paper on Australia’s aid programs in Afghanistan – government and non-government –particularly valuable.

Like the Parliamentary Library report above, this paper has a strong focus on facts and figures, and runs through the role of various government departments and NGOs. However, it also makes a strong analytic contribution. It discusses successes and failures and is particularly critical of aid programs being incorporated into counter-insurgency, instead of being needs-driven. It argues that this militarisation of aid undermines its purpose, which harms the stabilisation effort as a whole.


The man who would be King: challenges to strengthening governance in Uruzgan
Susan Schmeidl
Netherlands Institute of International Relations
November 2010

This paper and the next give detailed accounts of Uruzgan politics post-2001. They are indispensable for understanding the context the ADF operates in, and the impact ISAF forces overall may be having on the local population. It is not a simple matter of being either occupiers or protectors. Rather, foreign forces are operating in an area with complex pre-existing power-structures, and their interaction with these power-structures will shape the war’s outcome.

This paper focuses on the failure to create effective governance in Uruzgan. It argues that this has allowed local strongmen to hold government positions while actually undermining the state, which the Taliban capitalise on for their own ends. One example discussed is Matiullah Khan, now police chief of Uruzgan, who was regarded as a valuable ally by Australia and a dangerous warlord by the Dutch. He has proven periodically controversial in the media, particularly after it was revealed that some of his fighters were taken to Australia for training.

The paper is a highly detailed account of the key actors in Uruzgan (not just Khan but many others), demonstrates how power functions in the province, and ends with recommendations for improving governance.


The battle for Afghanistan: Zabul and Uruzgan
Martine van Bijlert
New America Foundation
September 2010

This paper examines the Taliban’s resurgence in Uruzgan and the neighbouring province of Zabul. It attributes the insurgency’s strength to networks of fighters dating back to the Soviet occupation, neglect by the central government, and supporters based in Pakistan. Similar to Schmeidl’s report, it also argues that Karzai-era strongmen (who have become de facto ISAF allies) alienated particular communities who have then turned to the Taliban. In other words, it argues that much of the insurgency was avoidable.

While the previous paper was a lengthy, detailed analysis of power relations in Uruzgan, this more concise paper shows specifically how those dynamics affect the insurgency. It is based on solid research (including 300 interviews) and is possibly the best short-but-detailed account of insurgency in Uruzgan available.

I strongly recommend it.


Further sources:

Uruzgan: 18 months after the Dutch/Australian leadership handover
The Liaison Office
April 2012
(This is the above-mentioned report that featured on Lateline)

Death of an Uruzgan journalist: Command errors and ‘collateral damage’
Afghanistan Analysts’ Network
25 April 2012
(This report is on the death of Omaid Khpulwak, who was described as one of the most promising Afghan journalists of his generation and whose work featured in the above-mentioned Lowy report)

Backgrounder: Karzai appoints four provincial governors
Institute for the Study of War
23 April 2012
(This 3-page backgrounder provides some information on Matiullah Khan)

Exiting Afghanistan: Challenges to transition
Australian Strategic Policy Institute
March 2011

The Australian Army after Afghanistan
Security Challenges Journal
Winter 2011

Other reports and articles relevant to Australia’s role in Afghanistan can be found on the websites of the Afghanistan Analysts’ Network, the Australian Army Journal and The Liaison Office.

1 thought on “Resources: Australian counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.

  1. Great information. I’m currently writing a case study on Australian COIN in Afghanistan. Thanks for putting all this together.

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