Resources: Australia’s role in Afghanistan updated

The Australian government recently announced that it will withdraw the bulk of its military force in Afghanistan before the end of year.

For those interested in what the Australian Defence Force has been doing in Afghanistan and the context it operated in, here is an updated version of an older post of research resources on the topic.

The original post was motivated by our media’s unfortunate lack of in-depth discussion of this conflict, which partly result from the Department of Defence’s restrictive media policies.

Aside from tweaking the writing and fixing dead links, the main updates include:

  1. Replacing the older Parliamentary Library report with the more recent one.
  2. Adding a report from the Feinstein Centre.
  3. In the “further sources” section, adding a report from Save the Children report and several reports recommended by Tom Hyland.
  4. Removing the discussion of the TLO report controversy (still available at the older post).

This list is in two sections. For the sources in the “key sources” section, I have provided descriptions and some personal thoughts. The “further sources” section contains reports I have either not read or not thought worth including in the first section. I am not an Afghanistan specialist or a military specialist, so some of the “further sources” may be just as valuable as the “key sources”. All the key sources are open-access and in pdf format.

All the reports focus on Uruzgan province (the ADF’s main theatre of operations in the country) or on Australia’s role more broadly. None focus on the Afghan war in general (if you want that, see this mammoth bibliography), they have been chosen specifically for their relevance to Australian involvement.


Key sources:

Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan: revised facts and figures
Nicole Brangwin, Marty Harris, Ravi Tomar and David Watt
Parliamentary Library
September 2012

This paper is what it sounds like. It contains key data on Australia’s contribution, not just from 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 help politicians prepare for the October 2010 Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, it has been thoroughly updated since.

It is a useful starting point for anyone writing on this topic.


Winning hearts and minds in Uruzgan province
Paul Fishstein
Feinstein International Center
August 2012

This paper presents the results of a large-scale study on the effectiveness of aid projects in promoting security. This paper focuses on Uruzgan, which was one of five Afghan provinces covered in the larger study. The researchers interviewed over 120 people in Uruzgan, both Afghans and internationals.

The results are not comforting. The paper finds “widespread negative perceptions of aid projects” as a result of aid becoming entangled in local power politics. Local powerbrokers, such as Jan Mohammad Khan and Matiullah Khan (discussed more in reports below) not only manipulated aid to their advantage, but also manipulated Western military forces. The report argues that they “pursued personal agendas and vendettas which they ‘sold’ to the international forces as pursuit of high value targets and Taliban.”

The paper also examined the different approaches of the three international military forces in Uruzgan (Dutch, American and Australian) and found that “dissatisfaction was largely directed at the Australians.”


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, 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 otherwise readable and includes personal accounts of Peter Connolly’s service. It is valuable for covering the task force’s many adaptations in the 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 the ISAF forces overall may be having on the local population. It is not a simple matter of the foreign forces 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 again Matiullah Khan, who is now police chief of Uruzgan. Khan was regardedby Australia as a valuable ally, but by the Ducth as a dangerous warlord who should be kept at arm’s length. 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:

Access restricted: a review of remote monitoring practices in Uruzgan province
Save the Children Australia
November 2012

Uruzgan: 18 months after the Dutch/Australian leadership handover
The Liaison Office
April 2012

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)

3D ‘The next generation’. Lessons learned from Uruzgan for future operations
Netherlands Institute of International Relations
December 2011

Mission Uruzgan: collaborating in multiple coalitions for Afghanistan
Amsterdam University Press
June 2012

The Australian Army after Afghanistan
Security Challenges Journal
Winter 2011

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

The Dutch engagement in Uruzgan
The Liaison Office
May 2010

Australia in Afghanistan: quick guide
The Nautilus Institute
October 2010

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: Australia’s role in Afghanistan updated

  1. Thanks Andrew! You offer an extremely interesting view of the Australian civilian and military effort in Afghanistan … this post is “gold” for anyone who wants to start exploring the topic!

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