Amid advances by Taliban insurgents in Uruzgan, a senior US general with the NATO mission in Afghanistan has rejected suggestions blood spilled by Australian forces during a 12-year campaign in the province may have been in vain.
Australian troops paid a heavy price in efforts to maintain peace and stability in Uruzgan, with 41 soldiers killed and more than 250 seriously wounded before their withdrawal in late 2013.
Brigadier-General Charles Cleveland – the top spokesman for Resolute Support, the NATO mission in Afghanistan – concedes security in Uruzgan has deteriorated since the Australians left.
“The situation in Uruzgan right now, it is serious. And we think that probably over the last year, like in many locations within Afghanistan, it has deteriorated,” Brig Gen Cleveland said.
“Obviously (the Taliban) are present in Helmand. They certainly are still present in Uruzgan.”
Brig Gen Cleveland said the Taliban did not appear “right now” to be threatening Tarin Kowt, where the Australian troops were based.
“But we do see them in the districts that surround Tarin Kowt,” he said.
“It is a concern and it is something that we follow very, very closely.”
The withdrawal in December 2013 brought to an end Australia’s longest overseas combat deployment.
About 270 Australian Defence Force members remain in Afghanistan advising and assisting Afghan forces.
But Brig Gen Cleveland insists the efforts in Uruzgan weren’t wasted.
“I think it’s a question that comes up all the time and it speaks to really the larger mission … as well as to the national aspect of it because of course the Australian defence forces were heavily engaged in Uruzgan, the British in Helmand, the US in Kandahar,” he said.
“So I think the real message to those who served is that their service really did matter in those places because what it did is it gave the government of Afghanistan a chance.
“It really allowed the international community to help build up the ANDSF (Afghan National Defence Security Forces) to get them into a position where they could defend across the entire nation.”
The commander of Australian forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier Cheryl Pearce, said on Monday that Australia remained committed to achieving long-term security for the nation “to ensure that it doesn’t once again become a safe haven for terrorists”.
Still, the comments from both Brig Pearce and Brig Gen Cleveland come amid advances by the Taliban, and renewed co-operation between the insurgents and al-Qaeda.
Brig Gen Cleveland said the two groups were now “operationally working closer together”.
Late last year, a large al-Qaeda and Taliban camp was found and destroyed in south eastern Kandahar.
“What we found at that location as a part of this very large and kind of advance camp was again al-Qaeda people as well as Taliban people training together, working together,” Brig Gen Cleveland said.
While the al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is relatively small, with between 100 and 300 militants active, Brig Gen Cleveland said it was essential they were aggressively pursued and destroyed whenever and wherever they pop up.
“Of course the whole reason why we’re here is to make sure that al-Qaeda is not able to operate in ungoverned spaces they have in the past and that they are not able to plan and conduct plans against the West.”
“We believe that is still their main focus.”
“If you believe the idea that there’s two components: core al-Qaeda No.1, controlling their global efforts to hit the West, and again be it New York, (Washington) DC, Bali, wherever the case may be, and then No.2, this AQIS (al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent) focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.”
Brig Pearce said on Monday that Australia was committed financially to the mission in Afghanistan for 2016 and 2017 and the government would make a decision this year on what the military footprint would after that time.