photo credit: ADF

By Sasha Uzunov
copyright 2008

The political and military fallout of the Taliban ambush attack on Australian soldiers in Afghanistan can be traced back to the failure of 2006 Nelson-Howard doctrine on the Afghanistan war.

Nine Australian Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan were recently wounded in some of the heaviest fighting seen so far. If I was the current Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, I would be raising questions in the Federal Parliament over the previous government’s handling of the war.


As the then Defence Minister, Dr Brendan Nelson, together with the Prime Minister John Howard made the decision to withdraw our Special Forces troops from Afghanistan in November 2006, giving the Taliban the breathing space it needed to re-organise.

Then Dr Nelson denied that there was a rift with our coalition partners the Dutch which was causing a delay in restoring stability to our Area of Operations in the Oruzgan province. But later read the Dutch the riot act if they pulled out of the mission.

“The consequences of a Dutch withdrawal, if we can’t find another partner, is that we would be far too exposed to continue,” Dr Nelson said in August 2007.

German expert finds the “smoking gun” –Dutch-Aussie rift over mission

When I was in Afghanistan in May 2007, I bumped into a well respected Ulrich Ladurner, who is the foreign editor of the German weekly Die Zeit and co-author with Gerow von Randow of The Iranian Bomb. He said he had been to the Dutch-Australian base at Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan.

“The Dutch and Australians are making a big effort but it is too slow in bringing stability to the province,” Mr Ladurner said.”‘The local people are not happy with the progress made. It is still not safe. The region is still wild.” In the vacuum left by the Special Forces departure, the Taliban were roaming into other provinces such as Helmand, run by the British, and Kandahar, run by the Canadians.

KEVIN 07–Rudd was right on Afghanistan

Later, the Special Forces were sent back to Afghanistan in mid 2007, an admission that a mistake had been made. In the irony of ironies, the then Opposition Leader and now Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the previous reduction of Australian troops in Afghanistan was an absolute mistake that let Osama bin Laden, leader of the terror group Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, off the hook. In response to the criticism of withdrawing the SAS, the then Prime Minister John Howard said:

“But we will not win it without renewed and increased effort and that is why we are playing our part. It’s important, in dealing with the Taliban, not to be too passive.”


To top that off, a legacy of the Nelson-Howard military doctrine has the Special Forces doing most of the fighting, because of the fear of casualties to our regular infantry units. The long term effect could be burn out of our Special Forces. But the irony is if we withdraw our SF units and do not replace them with infantry units, then the pressure on Taliban is eased. It is one contradictory military doctrine, to say the least.


“Twice now we have had to deploy special forces in Afghanistan and twice now we have had to withdraw them because they are too tired,” said Neil James, of think tank the Australian Defence Association in October 2006.

The highly respected Brigadier Jeff Sengelman DSC CSC, deputy commander of Special Operations, revealed the SAS had faced problems with recruiting and retaining soldiers but put a positive spin by also saying that it did not affect its operational capability.

The Australian Defence Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, was on the money when he said days ago that the increase in Taliban activity against Australian troops in Afghanistan was a last attempt to inflict casualties before the northern winter set in, bringing a close to the traditional war season for another year. But let us take a closer look and read between the lines, if we can.

“It was an ambush. My understanding is it was gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades,” Brigadier Robert Dawson, Defence PR, said.

Brigadier Dawson said the Taliban were fighting hard to repel Coalition incursions into their heartland areas. “Some of the operations which ISAF are conducting are in areas where Coalition soldiers have not been before,” he said. “I think we can expect more heavy fighting.” (Herald Sun, 4 Sept 2008).

Our diggers were operating against the Taliban in the strategic Chora valley north east of Tarin Kowt.

Okay, an ambush means that the enemy knows you are coming and are waiting for you. Obviously the Taliban’s intelligence gathering is working excellently and it must be getting some form of support from the local population. However, what is distressing is the statement that our troops are operating in areas they have not been before.


We have been in Afghanistan since 2001 that is 7 years so far and have not been able to still secure our AO. Is this because of the Nelson-Howard “breathing space” given to the Taliban in late 2006? In the military when a senior commander makes a mistake he accepts full responsibility and falls on his sword. Under our Westminster system of Parliamentary democracy, the buck stops with the politicians.


Victory in Afghanistan can be achieved through political means backed up by the surgical use of force. When you give the local people, security, clean water, education and hope, they will turn against the Taliban.

More force does not translate into winning.



Let the infantry do its job
Greg Sheridan, Foreign editor September 06, 2008

THE wounding of nine Australian soldiers in a Taliban ambush on Tuesday night is not only the biggest single combat casualty incident since Vietnam. It also tells us important things about the Rudd Government, about the nature of the Australian Army, about the dreadful
Sasha Uzunov story – 10 July 2008,21985,23995986-5000117,00.html
New options to blunt Taliban Sasha Uzunov
July 10, 2008 12:00am

The SASR and 4RAR (Commando) are our two Specials Forces units and are a precision tool to be used sparingly, not as a blunt instrument. Australian infantry soldiers have recently expressed their dissatisfaction at being kept away from the sharp end in Afghanistan. And the question must be asked: how long can the new Rudd Government use the SAS Regiment and 4RAR (Commando) in an infantry role before they become worn out? When will the Government allow our infantry to do the job they have trained for?

In 1999 the Howard government used the army’s elite Special Forces unit, the SAS, to do most of the fighting in East Timor, which should have been performed by the infantry. The political logic was that the public and media would accept SAS casualties rather than a young infantryman, fresh out of home or from a small country town. That political priority seems to remain. But political logic does not necessarily make good military sense, and vice-versa.

In East Timor, the pro-Indonesian militia tried to inflict as many casualties as possible on our infantry units, including battalions made up of many reserve soldiers, in the hope that Australia would withdraw. The moral of the story is, no matter how hard the Australian Government tries to insulate our infantry from combat by using the SAS, the unexpected happens.
– August 31, 2007.
The Australian
Nelson warns Dutch on Afghan pullout
Dennis Shanahan August 31, 2007

BRENDAN Nelson has warned Dutch MPs that a decision to remove their troops from southern Afghanistan could lead to the withdrawal of Australia’s military personnel based alongside the Dutch in Oruzgan province.

The Defence Minister met 12 Dutch parliamentarians in the Afghanistan capital of Kabul this week after meeting President Hamid Karzai and Australian commanders.The Dutch parliament is considering withdrawing the country’s troops from Oruzgan province following a series of combat deaths and rising public concern in The Netherlands about the wisdom of the fight against theTaliban.

The Australian engineers and special forces – part of a 970-strong Australian contingent in Afghanistan – have had increased contact with Taliban fighters in recent weeks, with small arms fire being directed at police checkpoints being built by Australian soldiers to protect local Afghani police.The checkpoints are being used to control traffic around the Oruzgan town of Tarin Kowt and to monitor movements by Taliban insurgents.

Apart from the small arms fire near the Camp Holland base at Tarin Kowt, Australian soldiers on patrol have made contact more frequently with Taliban fighters in the nearby mountains and hills.Two weeks ago, Australian forces had a decisive victory against local Taliban forces with a US air strike killing 18 Taliban leaders, including one of their most senior commanders in Afghanistan.

The Dutch forces provide vital helicopter air cover for the Australian troops working and patrolling around Tarin Kowt, and Australian commanders fear they would not be able to operate without it.The Dutch parliamentary committee members met Dr Nelson and the Chief of Defence Forces, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, at Kabul Airport.

Dr Nelson told The Australian that the Dutch MPs were informed that Australia was against any decision to reduce the Dutch presence in the region.”We are not in a position to increase our numbers in Afghanistan and we won’t and can’t take the lead position in Tarin Kowt,” the minister told the MPs.

“There are Australian soldiers who owe their lives to the Dutch Apache helicopters and they play a critical role.”The consequences of a Dutch withdrawal, if we can’t find another partner, is that we would be far too exposed to continue.”The Dutch have 2200 troops at the Camp Holland base at Tarin Kowt and have suffered the deaths of six soldiers, including one on the day the parliamentary delegation was visiting Kabul to assess the situation in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan 6 Jun 2007
News from the Front By Sasha Uzunov

Australian journalist Sasha Uzunov reports from the Afghan front

The Forgotten War Sometimes it takes an outsider to tell us the most uncomfortable truths.
Last week, Defence Minister Dr Brendan Nelson took a swipe at critics who question the pace at which Australian troops are securing their designated province in Afghanistan, saying:

Any suggestion Australian troops are not pulling their weight in southern Afghanistan is beneath contempt. Australia is steadfastly committed to Uruzgan as shown by the recent decision to deploy a Special Operations Task Group of approximately 300 people to the region. However, the recent decision to send Special Forces back to Uruzgan could also be read as a tacit admission that not all is well with the mission. (Who was the genius who decided to remove our Special Forces soldiers from Afghanistan late last year?)

When I asked the Defence Minister if a rift had developed between Australian troops and the Dutch Army engineers they are serving alongside, over who was doing the most to secure Uruzgan, Nelson would not comment.

The controversy was sparked by prominent German journalist, Ulrich Ladurner, who claimed, in an interview he gave to me at Kabul airport on 14 May, that both the Australians and Dutch were being slow in establishing security in the province. Ladurner, who is the foreign editor of the German weekly Die Zeit and co-author with Gero von Randow of The Iranian Bomb, spent weeks as an embedded journalist with Dutch Army engineers in Uruzgan Province at the Tarin Kowt base they share with Australian troops.

‘The Dutch and Australians are making a big effort but it is too slow in bringing stability to the province,’ Ladurner said. ‘The local people are not happy with the progress made. It is still not safe. The region is still wild.’

One of the reasons it takes a non-Australian to provide this insider’s view of the situation around Tarin Kowt is the Defence Department’s obsession with controlling media access to our troops.
Ulrich Ladurner interview at Kabul Airport, 14 May 2007

Ulrich Ladurner on Afghanistan Australian and Dutch troops were making slow progress despite their best …

Interview can be seen on: