Killing the source: Uruzgan and The Liaison Office
27 Jul 2012|

The first step to victory is always working out the vital ground. Occupy that and you force the enemy to come to you. You’ve already achieved dominance and are halfway on the path to victory.

Unfortunately, when the battlefield is being fought for hearts and minds, the terrain becomes highly complex. It’s difficult to work out exactly which ‘ground’ is commanding, and what features are irrelevant. That’s why intelligence is so important. Without it, the commander can’t know how to direct their forces or where to fight.

This is particularly the case in situations such as in Uruzgan. Australian forces involved in reconstruction have been deployed here since 2006, but the social dynamics are shifting all the time. This is a prime instance of a battlefield where deciding where the human contours lie is a highly complex task.

Perhaps the best (although by no means the only) instance of this is the tribal nature of society. Like everyone, before I first travelled to the country I’d been aware of the difference between the Hazara and Pashtun people. What brought the distinction home to me, however, was a map pasted onto a wall at The Liaison Office in Kabul. A mass of coloured pins indicated the real diversity of inhabitants within the province.

I learnt, for example, that the rivalry between the Achakzai (most populous), Popalzai (most influential), Barakzai and Babozai (all Pashtu sub-tribes) was paralysing reconstruction efforts. Many locals increasingly came to see the ISAF deployment as a just another opportunity to lever themselves into positions of power and personal wealth.

When I returned to Uruzgan in late 2011 this conflict exploded. Barakzai leader Daoud Khan was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. Although his father, Rozi Khan, had been accidently killed late one night in a confused engagement with the SAS, Daoud had been working cooperatively with Australian forces. His relations grasped weapons and threatened to retaliate against the person they believed was behind his killing—Matiullah Khan. Everyone in the province knew of Matiullah’s supposedly insatiable ambition cloaked in a demeanour of modest service. There were persistent claims he was creaming massive sums of aid money into his pockets through graft and bribes, only to re-distribute this to the poor, thus enhancing his personal prestige and position.

Over the course of an afternoon the local Afghan National Army Brigade Commander managed, by sheer dint of his own personality, to prevent open fighting breaking out in the streets of the provincial capital, Tarin Kowt. But these tensions still seethe—they remain lying just beneath the surface.

The crucial element of any counterinsurgency strategy is intelligence. Fortunately, after six years in Uruzgan, Australian forces have developed a considerable capacity in this regard. Nevertheless, no matter how sophisticated military resources actually are, military intelligence can’t be on top of everything. There will be some things assets won’t be able to reveal, simply because someone along the chain will be suspicious of the end user. But there will also be a plethora of vital information that won’t be collected simply because it may not appear relevant.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan is largely an information vacuum. The most elementary and vital nuggets of knowledge aren’t available without relying on external, non-military specialists. The Liaison Office provided this information, first for the Dutch, then for AusAID, the lead Australian agency in the province. The contract was worth a piddly $7 million over three years. This provided hundreds of educated and informed Afghan staff who shared our objectives and considerable goodwill. The service was invaluable.

Incredibly, AusAID’s now made a unilateral decision to cancel the contract. It’s decided it can do without knowing what’s going on, even though it will spend $250 million in the country next year. It’s a surprising move. Sir Humphrey might even say it’s ‘courageous’.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. A longer version of this piece appeared in the print edition of the Canberra Times and is reproduced here