Dr Mike Kelly, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence

As Australia begins the process of military transition from Afghanistan, one of the senior figures involved, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Dr Mike Kelly, spoke to APDR.

30th Aug 2012

1st Person

 Dr Mike Kelly, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence

Byline: Kym Bergmann / Canberra

As Australia begins the process of military transition from Afghanistan, one of the senior figures involved, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Dr Mike Kelly, spoke to APDR.

Q: What is your involvement in the wind down?

A: To give you the background, you have to go to 2007 when Kevin Rudd asked me to go into politics. This was because I had met him in 2003 in Baghdad when I was serving with the Army and back then we discussed the faults in Australia’s security policy – because at that time the Howard Government had a very unsophisticated view of counterinsurgency and stabilization operations. All that they knew were the kinetic aspects of what Defence did, whereas I felt that in both Iraq and Afghanistan a full spectrum of issues needed to be addressed – including social, political and economic matters. To do this means using a number of Government agencies taking a combined approach rather than working in parallel.

Fast-forward to 2007 and at that time I wasn’t inclined to leave the Army but the opportunity to become involved in developing a more coordinated approach to counterinsurgency – which is a passion of mine because of previous deployments and reflected in my studies – was too good to miss. One of the first steps after the election win was to set up the Asia Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence, now the Australian Civil-Military Centre, located in Queanbeyan – which puts it neatly between the HQ Joint Operations Command and various Canberra-based agencies. The Centre is having a real effect on how things are working on the ground in Afghanistan, so that the Mentoring Task Force is part of a larger effort.

The main direction of our strategy now is to build the capacity of the entire Afghan security sector – which means that from an Australian viewpoint we are trying to make ourselves redundant.

As well as our work in Uruzgun Province, we also have an eye on the bigger picture and it’s important that we don’t lose sight of what is happening at a national level. In assisting with the transition, I’m a separate set of eyes and ears and represent something of an independent viewpoint – and it is important to emphasise that Australia needs to be in Afghanistan for the long haul. This might be for decades – but at different levels.

The start of the formal part of the military transition in Uruzgan Province was marked on July 17 and that will be complete by end of 2014. Part of this process is a security plan that will see us continue with various activities to continue securing the province. At the same time there are some final steps that need to be taken with the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army to make sure they have all of the competencies they will require. After that, Australia’s reduced role will likely be in an over watch, ready reaction type of capacity. The process will start to accelerate during the course of next year.

As the capacity of the ANA grows, the military operations of the international community will become progressively more refined moving more into counter-terrorism roles, with an emphasis on the use of Special Forces.

Q: How do you see the deployment post-2014?

A: Effectively we are going to evolve into a normal defence cooperation methodology. That will involve things like providing assistance to the Afghan Officer Training Academy – which we are helping with, along with the UK – and possibly having some Afghan personnel on exchange in Australia. It is likely that we will also continue to have an involvement in the Afghan artillery training school.

Another dimension that might be different after 2014 is with regard to Special Forces operations. This might be more in a training and mentoring capacity with the occasional kinetic activity – but that has yet to be finalized. One of the factors involved in that is whether there will be an appropriate Status of Forces agreement in place to make sure our people have sufficient legal protection when carrying out their tasks. There is a lot of good will on both sides, so let’s see how that pans out.

Looking at Afghanistan as a whole, we have a country that is effectively evolving new institutions in a range of areas. Nobody should be expecting that Afghanistan will instantly be able to move to a Jeffersonian or Westminster democracy. These things take time and one of the things I learned in my various military deployments was that democracy is not just a matter of institutions and laws – as important as those things are – or even individual electoral events. It’s a matter of building a culture of democracy and all of the things that go with that – which is a long-term process.

Vital components of that include building education, governance and rule-of-law mechanisms.

Another factor that gives us some optimism about the future of Afghanistan is that the country has considerable economic potential in the form of largely untapped mineral wealth. Early estimates are that there is between one and three trillion dollars worth of natural resources in the ground – including copper, gold, lithium, oil, gas and so on. Some development has already started through the involvement of Chinese companies. However, for significant revenue to start flowing more time is needed – perhaps another ten years.

Q: A lot of the country still seems to be mired in poverty. How is it possible to be optimistic?

A: We know that at some point Afghanistan will be able to start supporting its own security sector – but we have to get them through the next ten years in particular. Australia has committed $300 million over three years, commencing from 2015, to assist the security sector and other countries have done likewise. In addition to that we have $260 million per year for four years going into social, political and economic development. A key step will be to ensure that the 2014 elections go as well as possible.

If I were to single out one area that has the biggest impact on development – after education – is the construction of roads. Roads are critical because effectively Afghanistan at present is more like 200 countries – because of the topography of the country you have pockets of people who are extremely isolated. In some very remote areas the lack of development means that things look as if they haven’t changed since Biblical times.

To build national cohesion a good road network is essential. They help build economic cohesion by making it easier for people to travel to markets and move goods and services. Even building the road itself creates jobs. Sealed roads also make a big difference to the security situation because local people are inclined to protect them because of the benefits they bring. It is more difficult to place an improvised explosive device under a sealed road – and if there is one there it is easier to detect. Sealed roads also greatly reduce security response times because without them the only way of getting somewhere quickly in such inhospitable terrain is by using aviation.

Roads also make it much easier for local people to access things such as medical facilities. So when you put all of these factors together, they are a very important component in nation-building.

On top of that, Australia is also working to reduce the level of corruption and taking measures to strengthen the rule of law. The Civil-Military Centre has undertaken a study into this area and in terms of the international assistance effort it is clear that it had been a mess, with different countries pulling in different directions. However, some of the basics were there in the form of traditional mechanisms for dispute resolution – the Shuras and so forth. So more recently we have started to make good progress in developing structures that work.

Q: One of things that has given the Taliban some appeal is their ability to deliver justice. How do you respond to that?

A: That’s true. One of the things that the Taliban have been able to deliver is a quick and predictable result, but not necessarily a decent or fair one. So it hasn’t been a case of people being attracted to that, it has sometimes been the only thing available. Now there has been real progress in using the Shuras and Jirgas as mechanisms for resolving local disputes, combined with strengthening formal justice institutions for dealing with more serious matters of criminality.

Things are improving greatly in this area, but having said that there is still a long way to go.

Q: How do you measure progress? Is it anecdotal or are their more reliable ways of testing what is taking place?

A: While people still have their personal impressions of what is going on, there is now a lot of hard data being accumulated about what is going on. A body called the Asia Foundation has undertaken a very detailed study based on face-to-face polling right across Afghanistan and involving a large sample size – so that gives the results a lot of credibility. The data makes very interesting reading. For example, people are overwhelmingly in favour of reconciliation with the Taliban. At the same time they are overwhelmingly opposed to the Taliban continuing with their armed resistance. Only 29% of Afghans show any sympathy for that armed resistance continuing, which is a dramatic drop during the last few years.

From discussions I have had – including with the head of the Afghan Human Rights Organisation – it’s clear that the vast majority of people really want to hang on to the gains that have been made and do not want to go back to days of Taliban rule. There are a lot of supportive educational programs in schools and it is impressive to see what is going on. As you would expect, there are some pockets of conservatism where progressive attitudes are not as strong, but as a nation Afghanistan is solidly behind what has been achieved.

This flows down even to areas such as education for women – where 82% are in favour. This also applies to other areas of gender equality, such as the involvement of women in the political process. The level of satisfaction with service delivery also continues to increase. An area of concern continues to be over the amount of corruption, especially at municipal level. Another worry is the lack of employment opportunities. But overall trends show increasing confidence in the direction in which the country is moving.

Q: There is still a view that the Government of President Karzai will inevitably fall once the West has scaled back its military commitment.

A: My personal view – based on a lot of material and spending a fair bit of time on the ground – is that I don’t believe the Taliban any longer pose an existential threat to Afghanistan. There is still going to be a need to deal with incursions and terrorist incidents and there may well be pockets of the country were you see Taliban influence continue or reappear. I think a far bigger threat to the cohesion of Afghanistan is the internal dynamics of the country. These include the issue of corruption and the existence of parallel authority figures sitting outside formal structures.

With this in mind, it is really important that the international community remains involved and has a good long-term vision for what is trying to be achieved.

Q: Do you have a view – ethical or economic – about the continuation of the Afghan drug trade?

A: There is no doubt that the drug trade is a critical feature in the overall mix of issues that need to be confronted. The corrosive effect of various narcotics-related issues is undeniable. The problem is that there are subsistence farmers depending on the production of opium for their livelihoods and while there has been some progress it is still something that should be of concern to the entire international community. That is another reason why continuing engagement with Afghanistan is so important because I have seen some estimates that around 90% of the world’s heroin comes from there – including what is turning up on the streets of Australia.

It is a problem that cannot be fixed overnight and you don’t want to force people into the arms of insurgents by being heavy-handed. It is important to focus on a hierarchy of priorities and in the short term top of the list is to develop a secure environment. But after that it is necessary to address other issues as you seek to transition to a workable structure – which will include encouraging farmers to move into other crops. It is a big challenge and more work needs to be done.

Q: How do you think the Afghan security forces will manage without access to the enormous firepower presently available to ISAF?

A: The Afghan forces would like as much capacity as they can get, but we also have to make sure that what they receive is sustainable and is appropriate for their needs. It is important to remember that we are dealing with a counter-insurgency situation, not fighting a conventional war. During the transition phase, the Afghan National Security Force, including police, s is ramping up in numbers to about 350,000 personnel, but beyond that the expectation is that they will reduce the size of their security structure. That ramping down process also has its challenges – especially absorbing those people who have been demobilized.

Another critical element is making sure that as the security situation evolves, the Afghan police can take over many of the duties being performed by the military. Basically, the idea is to transition to a situation where the military work within a democratic framework of Government. That is going to take some time to evolve and the next decade is crucial.

The Afghan National Army has progressed very well and the Afghan 4th Brigade in Uruzgun is in good shape. That is being mirrored across the country. Even more pleasing is the development of Afghan Special Forces units – which by all accounts are now performing exceptionally well.


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