Researching the history, the spilled blood, the costs and the mistakes made during the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan can be a grueling and gruesome journey. And then you talk to someone who gave a significant stretch of their lives, for all the right reasons, someone who can articulate the mission, the successes and the regrets. While in London, Brendan Harkin and Megan Elliott of X Media Lab hosted me at their favorite pub, after which Megan introduced me to Fred Smith. An Aussie foreign service officer who was hard to reach because, well, he was on tour performing his music
Fred schooled me on what it was like on the front lines, out in the provinces where the Taliban have a growing presence.
I worked for the Australian foreign affairs department, our state department equivalent. I was there for the 2009 civilian surge in Uruzgan province, east of Helmand, north of Kandahar. Not a big province but (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar came from there and Karzai started his charge from there. It wasn’t a main focus for ISAF or the Taliban, but for the Australian government, it was our main focus.
I was the first Australian diplomat to be stationed in Uruzgan..
How long did you stay?
18 months, from 2009-2011. Then I came back for six months in 2013 as our mission in Uruzgan was closing down.
How many people were there from coalition forces?
3,000 people total, with an American special forces contingent close by, 1,000 Australian, 2,000 Dutch. We did a lot of work with the US State Department counterparts, and Dutch diplomats engaging with the provincial government, talking to tribal leaders.
What was your mission and the broader mission for the western powers that were there?
We were doing what we could to support the Afghan government to be an enduring and credible entity, and on the military side, to diminish the Taliban. Getting the provincial government working, and development going in the valleys. The tribal leaders didn’t want the Taliban in the villages.
I’ve been told that the Taliban are resurgent in the provinces and there is real fear that they will take over once western forces leave.
It didn’t look that way when I left a year ago. The Taliban have a very good business model for a highly decentralised country. They work thru intimidation. 2 or 3 armed guys in each village can scare the shit out of people at night. My sense is they can’t take the cities. It’s one thing to be able to carry out a terrorist attack, but I doubt the Taliban can control the cities.
Why did Australia decide to go in?
There was a fifty-nation international coalition, acting on a UN mandate. Also, our prime minister in 2001, and Australian leaders since, have seen it as a necessary contribution to the international counter-terrorism effort.
After 13 years, is the mission accomplished?
We did interviews with the tribal leaders when we left, and their answer was that we had made a very positive difference, but there was still a way to go. When I left a year ago, the first thing I thought was that a lot of opportunities were missed, a lot of mistakes were made. Heavy emphasis on special forces in the early years. We waited too long for proper state-building stuff to make things work as we wanted to. On the other hand, we left Afghanistan a lot better than we found it.
Here’s a wonderful Australian Broadcasting Corporation piece on Fred, his music and Aussie achievements in Uruzgan province. I will do an extended blog post with excerpts of the exit interviews with tribal leaders after getting Fred’s approval. Watch these two videos for a sense of life in the provinces for Australian diplomats and soldiers. And buy Fred’s album on iTunes.
And this: a shaky but delightful hand held video of Fred performing to a group of soldiers and Afghans, backed by a band of musicians from Kandahar.