After 14-and-a-half years of involvement in the war-torn country, Australia’s role is now chiefly one of advising and assisting the Afghan security forces.
And while the Australian forces will remain in Afghanistan for at least three more years, the Commander of the Kabul Garrison Command, Major-General Salim Ibrahimi, says he would prefer that commitment extended, warning too that terrorism “doesn’t have a border”.
“They bring a lot of changes here,” Maj Gen Ibrahimi said, speaking at the grounds of the Kabul Garrison Command compound.
“We work on every single thing shoulder-to-shoulder and try to find a solution for whatever problem we have.”
“We want them here permanently, we want them to be working with us shoulder-to-shoulder.”
THE TALIBAN AND AFGHANISTAN
The comments come after a blast last week signalled the deadly beginning of the Taliban’s annual spring offensive, and amid further signs of a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.
The attack last Tuesday in central Kabul during the morning rush hour – which killed at least 64 people and wounded scores more – came two days after the United Nations said that civilian casualties in Afghanistan for the first three months of 2016 were two per cent higher than in the same period of 2015.
There were more than 11,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan last year – the highest number since 2001. And the Taliban holds more territory than it has at any time since 2001.
Since February, the Kabul Central Command has been under the wing of a team of 11 Australian advisers, led by Colonel Andrew McBaron.
They are already proving effective. But “forever is a long time,” Colonel McBaron said.
“I don’t think that we’ll be here forever. I am very pleased with the way the Afghan security forces are progressing in their development. There’s always going to be setbacks, that’s just life.
“But every day we see improvements here.
The comments from both men come after Air Vice Marshal Tim Innes, Australia’s commander of operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, said last week that Australian forces would remain in Afghanistan for at least three more years.
“At the moment I think we’ve committed for another three years – when we get to the end of that period we’ll reconsider it,” he told reporters at Camp Baird.
Still, Maj Gen Ibrahimi warns that terrorist groups like the Taliban are not just a threat to Afghanistan.
“They are threat for all the countries and I think we kind of lucky that we have all the security forces from all over the world (and) we try to keep them busy here and try to get rid of them before they get into other countries to do these type of bad activity,” he said.
“Terrorism doesn’t have border. They go anywhere they can and they try to commit their coward acts.”
Islamic State has also gained a foothold in Afghanistan, while al-Qaeda has regrouped.
Earlier this month, Brigadier General Charles Cleveland, the top spokesman for the NATO mission in Afghanistan, told the Washington Post that al-Qaeda had also forged close ties with the Taliban.
Colonel McBaron said he largely agreed with the sentiments expressed by Maj Gen Ibrahimi.
“I think the general’s comments are very true. If we can fight the terrorists here, then we don’t have to fight them elsewhere,” he said.
“In many ways I think that’s why Australia is here; helping the Afghans to prevent Afghanistan ever becoming that safe haven for terrorism and its global reach again.”
Australian soldiers mark Anzac Day in Afghanistan
Anzac Day will hold special significance for the 270 Australian ADF personnel far from home in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the oft-spoken Dari phrase “shona b shona” is ringing true for hundreds of Australian soldiers deployed to the war-torn country.
On the eve of Anzac Day, at Camp Qargah to the southwest of Kabul, Captain Robert Best says the words, which in English mean “shoulder to shoulder”, resonate beyond Afghanistan.
The 28-year-old, from Ipswich in Queensland, is one of a handful of Australian Defence Force mentors advising the Afghan National Army.
Capt Best is mentor to three Afghan platoon commanders. In turn, they will eventually train officer cadets.
“Shona b shona,” he says.
“It’s very important. And I think no matter what nationality you are, wherever you come from … when you choose to become a member of the profession of army, you feel a sense of camaraderie and brotherhood with your fellow members of that profession.”
On Anzac Day, the 270 ADF personnel in Afghanistan will mark what is always a special and solemn occasion, but which can take on extra meaning for the troops when far from home.
Capt Best maintains that his experience pales when compared to what the original Anzacs went through at Gallipoli, but nonetheless gives a sense of what it means.
“Although what we’re doing here on operations cannot even compare to what the original Anzacs went through at Gallipoli and on the western front and in the Middle East, that sense of being away from your family and that sense of serving your country … I think it is really as close as you can get in the modern army … in appreciating what those soldiers went through.”
It will be with “incredible pride” that he and others at Camp Qargah will on Monday mark Anzac Day with a traditional dawn service.
At Camp Qargah, the Australians will be joined by Turks and British soldiers as well as the members of the same Gurkha unit that landed at Gallipoli 101 years ago.
“I think that when we’re on Charandaz Mountain on Anzac Day and we’re having that minute’s silence, I think we’ll continue to reflect on how we can use this deployment to make the place better,” Capt Best said.
Sitting in front of a picture of fallen soldier Jacob Moerland, who was killed in a bomb blast on his first tour of Afghanistan in June 2010, Capt Best added: “I think no matter where you are on Anzac Day, you always reflect on those who didn’t come home.”