The war and occupation of Afghanistan have been the most expensive and longest running military operation in Australian history.

More than $9 billion has been spent on the 13-year operation, nearly three times that spent in Iraq and more than all other Department of Defence operations since 1998 combined. It has claimed the lives of 41 Australian soldiers, injured hundreds more and caused the deaths of at least 50,000 Afghans.

Yet since the last of the combat troops withdrew in December 2013, it is as though Afghanistan does not exist. Reports on the security and humanitarian situation, such as that released by Human Rights Watch in March, are met with deafening silence from the government and media.

The triumphalist bombast that accompanied the mission and the troops’ departure has likewise evaporated into the political ether. The pronouncements from Tony Abbott that Australia could “look back on with pride” a mission that had “helped to pacify, stabilise and improve Afghanistan” have been quietly buried, so out of kilter are they with the reality of Afghanistan today.

This has allowed the record of Australian intervention there largely to escape scrutiny. It has enabled the fiction of Australian troops as more decent, less motivated by oil and empire than their US allies, to stand.

But the record tells a very different story. It is a story not of bringing stability or improvement, but of gross indifference to civilian safety, arbitrary killings and generous patronage of the very warlords and strongmen the Australian forces claimed to be “liberating” Afghanistan from.

It is a story that deserves to be much more widely told.

Strategy in Uruzgan

During much of the war and occupation, Australian troops were assigned to Uruzgan province, under the leadership of the Dutch.

Uruzgan is a small, sparsely populated part of southern Afghanistan. A predominantly dry and mountainous area, it is made up of numerous rural villages and several larger towns, the most important of which is the provincial capital, Tirin Kot.

Poverty levels are high. Subsistence farming and poppy growing are the backbone of the region’s economy, only one in 10 men is able to read or write, and even fewer women.

The dominant tribe in the area is the Popalzai, to which the first US-backed president after the occupation, Hamid Kazai, belonged. It was from Uruzgan that he, with the help of US special forces, launched his uprising shortly after the invasion in 2001. The province has been a traditional stronghold of the Taliban, as well as an area in which extensive fighting took place during the Soviet invasion and occupation in the 1980s. 

The province’s first governor after the fall of the Taliban, Jan Mohammed, encapsulates much of the area’s history. Profiled in Anand Gopal’s Pulitzer-nominated book No good men among the living, Jan Mohammed distinguished himself as a commander fighting the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

He was jailed for three years under the Taliban and was almost executed before being released shortly after the US-led invasion. His anti-Taliban credentials partly masked a different set of questionable principles, however, and as governor in 2002-04 he was widely seen as corrupt, divisive and inclined towards using the support of the international forces for his own ends. This was what “liberation” from the Taliban meant for many Afghans.

Alliances with strongmen

Up until the Netherlands troops’ departure in 2010, significant divisions existed between the Australian, Dutch and US forces over how to manage tribal tensions and the perilous security situation in Uruzgan. A cause of considerable consternation to its allies was the Australian military’s inclination to forge unscrupulous alliances with local strongmen, regardless of their reputation for human rights abuses.

The most high profile of these was Matiullah Khan, a feared and powerful figure in Afghan politics known widely as the “king of Uruzgan”. The nephew of Jan Mohammed, Matiullah was from the Popalzai tribe and managed to work his way into a position of wealth and influence in post-Taliban occupied Afghanistan before his assassination in March 2015.

His empire was built initially through his control of roads, in particular the important 180km highway between Tirin Kot and Kandahar. Occupying forces paid as much as $2,000 in order that a single vehicle could safely travel the highway, and in the process helped Matiullah to amass a fortune – around $45 million, according to a 2011 article by Rafael Epstein and Jeremy Kelly in the Sydney Morning Herald.

A 2010 New York Times profile quoted aides estimating his income to be $2.5 million a month, “an astronomical sum” in a country where the average annual wage is only a few hundred dollars.

At the height of his power, Matiullah reportedly commanded a private militia of 2,000 men, known as the “Kandak Amniante Uruzgan” warriors. Generous salaries, especially compared to what was on offer for official government positions, meant that defections to his forces were common and guaranteed Matiullah access to a ready supply of fighters.

Matiullah’s empire extended deep into the Uruzgan economy, including, according to leaked US embassy cables, into the lucrative drug trade. As one Afghan wholesaler told Anand Gopal, “You can’t make a single dollar [in Tirin Kot] without giving him a cut”.

The Australian forces were the champions of Matiullah, helping to cultivate his power and influence. This was in contrast to both the Dutch – who refused to associate with him, citing human rights concerns – and even at times the US, which, according to Epstein and Kelly, strongly resisted Australia’s efforts to have him appointed police chief in early 2011.

A 2010 US Congressional committee profiled Matiullah Khan as an example of the “warlords, strongmen, commanders, and militia leaders who compete with the Afghan central government for power and authority” and who represented a threat to US military objectives.

There was a sound basis for this circumspection. In 2010, the Dutch press ran a story in which Matiullah was accused of murdering 80 people in the Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar province. Five of the victims were reported to have been killed in a gunfight, while the remaining 75 were brutally murdered with knives and their corpses mutilated. Although the Western media reported this as a strike against the Taliban, locals maintain the slain men were simply farmers.

A local government official, Mohammad Daoud, who spoke out about the massacre was also later killed in suspicious circumstances. Many suspected the involvement of Matiullah, according to Gopal. No good men among the living documents a number of other incidents of brutality, including one in which Matiullah tied a man to the back of his truck and dragged him around town until the man’s body was so disfigured it could not be identified.

Matiullah “planned the assassination of rivals and [was] involved in acts of extortion, killings, arrest, harassment and even torture against others who tr[ied] to muscle in on his business” according to Epstein and Kelly.

But none of this, including even the suspected killing of members of the government that the Australian presence was ostensibly intended to bolster, proved any obstacle to patronage of Matiullah by the Australian forces. He was described as “our guy” in 2010 by the Australian commander in the Middle East, major general John Cantwell.

Air chief marshal Angus Houston characterised the relationship as “a proud one” during a meeting with then president Karzai. The Australian reported that Australian officials attended his wedding in Kabul, and at least one Australian ambassador reportedly dined at his Tirin Kot compound.

Perhaps most brazenly, in 2010 the Australian government flew six of Matiullah’s militia men to Australia for training with the special operations forces, contrary to the policy of the occupying forces. Compounding the scandal further, this coincided with the one and only parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, in which then prime minister Julia Gillard described Australia’s strategy as “protecting the Afghan people, training the Afghan security forces, building the Afghan government’s capacity”.

How exactly this strategy squared with the simultaneous training and patronage of paramilitary fighters outside of the control of the government, and with a reputation for brutality towards civilians, was not explained.

‘Capture kill’ and civilian deaths

The other way in which Australian forces destroyed rather than helped Afghanistan – and in the process fuelled the insurgency – is through their notorious “capture kill” strategy. 

A 2011 episode of the ABC’s Four Corners  exposed this highly secretive aspect of Australian operations. It led to the deaths of dozens of Afghan civilians, mostly through armed night raids on homes. The program revealed that the Australian military keeps a secret “target list” of people to be assassinated in this manner. 

One such operation in the village of Chalabi in the Chenartu district in 2010 resulted in the deaths of three innocent civilians. Witnesses said that two of the men were shot during the raid and a third was stripped and beaten by the Australians before being left to be mauled by dogs.

A further eight men were taken away. A subsequent military report confirmed that none of those killed or captured in the incident were insurgents, but also claimed that the soldiers acted in self-defence. According to locals, no person involved in preparing the report visited the site or spoke to Afghan civilian witnesses.

Dutch journalist Bette Dam reported on a similar incident in 2009, in which a man and five children in the town of Sork Morghab were killed by Australian soldiers in the dead of night. She described how 18 Australian special forces went from house to house terrorising people and claiming to be looking for a Taliban leader named Mullah Noorullah, who in fact lived in an entirely different town 30 minutes’ drive away.

They eventually arrived at a house in which numerous members of an extended family lay sleeping after an engagement party. Alarmed by the sound of soldiers in and around his home, a male resident confronted the Australian troops armed only with an AK-47.

The Australians killed him in a hail of gunfire and threw a further two grenades into the house, resulting in the deaths of five children and injuries to several more. Lieutenant general Mark Evans, then chief of joint operations, told the media at the time that a “suspected insurgent” had been killed in the incident. This claim was later proved false.

So egregious was the conduct of the Australians that charges were eventually brought against three of the soldiers involved, although none resulted in convictions.

Night raids like this were, according to Four Corners, the “signature tactic of the kill capture strategy” and a major contributor to the unpopularity of Australian troops in Uruzgan. Research from the Afghan Analysts Network in 2011 found that capture kill operations constituted more than half of all operations carried out by the international forces in Uruzgan, and resulted in the killing or capture of 128 Afghans.

In 2008, the Financial Review reported that Australian forces were publicly criticised for such tactics by the Karzai government, including for their failure to comply with a government directive that local troops also be present during armed raids, and for defying a NATO stipulation to “retreat if there is a risk of civilian casualties”.

Between 2001 and 2009, the Australian government paid out $120,000 in compensation to killed and injured Afghan civilians, according to an Amsterdam International Law Clinic report.

Yet the Australian military continued using such tactics, particularly after the departure of the Dutch in 2010. Four Corners reported that there was a doubling of capture kill incidents in 2011, making it the most violent year since the beginning of the war.

Footage released to the Australian media around the same time by the 2nd Commando Unit, part of the Special Operations Task Force, provided an insight into the arrogant disregard for Afghan lives on the part of Australian soldiers. It showed operations in which Australian soldiers called in deadly US airstrikes. Four Corners revealed that Australian soldiers referred to these as “kill TV”.

These vicious tactics have had far-reaching consequences. They have contributed not only to the deaths of many innocent people, but also widespread displacement. Brown University research found that one in five Afghans have been forced from their homes since the beginning of the war, in what is an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Four Corners visited the “neighbourhood of the helpless” on the outskirts of Tirin Kot in 2011, an area populated almost entirely by civilians driven from their farms and villages as a result of the fear induced by capture kill raids. Separated from their means of subsistence, they find survival a daily struggle.

The Australian forces’ tactics have fuelled hostility to the West and driven people towards the insurgency and the Taliban. This was the conclusion of former Uruzgan governor Abdul Hakim Monib. In July 2006, his brother-in-law was killed and two other family members were seriously injured when their car was fired on by an Australian SAS patrol.

He told the Age: “I can say that their actions make people anti-government. All the people of Uruzgan believe that Australians are doing this because they want the people of Uruzgan to join the Taliban”.

A 2009 report prepared for the Dutch government by the Liaison Office also found that night raids were widely resented by civilians in Uruzgan and a source of recruitment for the insurgency.

Rozi Khan

One incident stands out from all others as an example of the disastrous consequences of the Australian troops’ heavy-handed actions, in terms of both their own strategic objectives and the wider political impact of such actions. 

It involved the killing in 2008 of former police chief, district governor and tribal leader Rozi Khan. Khan was shot, along with two others, by Australian troops while he was reportedly aiding a friend who believed his house was being attacked by Taliban.

Khan was not only a well-respected leader of the Barakzai tribe but also a local government official with legitimacy and someone who had been key to rallying public support against the Taliban in 2001. For this reason, he was central to the Dutch and Australian strategy for managing the complicated tribal dynamics in the region.

This strategy was laid out in a “Context Analysis” document published by the Dutch military in 2006. Tom Hyland, in the Sunday Age, wrote that this involved developing an “understand[ing of] the complex network of turbulent tribal rivalries that fuel the insurgency in Uruzgan” with the “immediate aim [being] to win the support of local leaders and the wider population”.

Rozi Khan was the key local leader with whom they hoped to work to achieve this end, and his killing proved a “major, major blow to any chance of creating stability” according to Gopal. Hyland likewise described it as “the biggest setback yet” for Australia’s war in Afghanistan.

Not only did Western forces lose a key ally in this incident, but Kahn’s death also fuelled bitter hostility towards the Australians. Amin Saikal, an expert on Middle Eastern studies from the Australian National University, wrote at the time:

“Khan was a very popular and influential anti-Taliban ethnic Pashtun figure in a province that has been a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency. His loss has the potential for a popular backlash and tribal revenge against the Australian forces … They are now seen as targets, not only by the Taliban but by those who may seek to avenge the death of their leader.” This was especially the case because two of Australia’s other key allies, Matiullah and Jan Mohammed, were rivals of Khan and therefore beneficiaries of his death.

The Australian Defence Force described the incident as a “misunderstanding between international forces and local troops”. The seriousness of this blunder was evident in the Australian officials’ response. After initially trying to deny responsibility for the killing, the government went into diplomatic overdrive.

Then prime minister Kevin Rudd phoned Afghan president Karzai to apologise, and the defence minister likewise offered an apology to his counterpart in Afghanistan. A statement was made to Parliament about the death, and an Australian general immediately flew to Tarin Kot to negotiate a compensation deal.

Legacy of Western intervention

The Rozi Khan killing highlighted many of the problems with ill-informed Western forces becoming embroiled in the complex politics of a place like Afghanistan.

Most obviously, the much greater firepower the Western forces brought to the country only acted to make an already tense and highly militarised situation more violent and deadly. The liberal use of airstrikes, combined with heavily armed troops on the ground, forced all the political actors in Afghanistan to upgrade their level of militarisation if they were to resist effectively or compete with the occupiers. This added to the perils for Afghan civilians as a result of this Western-led “liberation”.

In addition, the inevitable lack of familiarity on the part of the Western forces with the cultural and political landscape of Afghanistan predisposed them towards actions that alienated Afghans. This fuelled greater hostility and active resistance to their presence. This in turn helped create a situation in which forming dubious alliances with local strongmen and powerbrokers (such as Matiullah Khan) became the only way in which Western troops could hope to operate effectively or achieve any of their objectives.

The abject hypocrisy of this practice aside, such alliances created their own problems. Under the guise of cooperation with the West, such figures frequently and opportunistically used this patronage for their own purposes, usually to eliminate economic and political rivals. Worse still, Western troops frequently offered incentives for such “intelligence”.

Reporting a rival as Taliban to the Western forces could make them a target of “anti-insurgent” strikes or “kill capture” assassinations. UN rapporteur Philip Alston wrote in 2009 that “false tips” had “often” led to the killing of civilians and others not involved in the insurgency. From the point of view of the Australians, so long as they were seen to be wiping out “insurgents” and knocking names off their “target list”, such killings amounted to mission accomplished, or unfortunate “misunderstandings” when exposed.

Shapiro Khan, the wife of the man killed in Sork Morghab, told Bette Dam that she suspected the Australian troops were tipped off to attack her house by a personal enemy. Four Corners also uncovered a suspected case of an Uruzgan businessman eliminating a rival in a similar way: through fingering him as Taliban to the Australian commanders.

In this way, the presence of Western forces exacerbated or distorted pre-existing tensions and helped sow division through the preferential treatment of particular groups or individuals. As a 2009 report from the Liaison Office explained:

“Some of the pro-government militia (‘campaign’) commanders are associated with the US forces. They have check posts and provide security, but have a bad reputation among the population because they exploit their links with the international military and manipulate local conflicts to their advantage. This in turn sheds a bad light on the international military efforts.”

Nor does aid represent a better alternative to military intervention. The considerable aid, reconstruction and other money at the disposal of Western forces and NGOs more often than not just increased the bounties over which various groups and individuals competed.

As ANU professor and Afghanistan specialist William Maley outlined: “Money that is injected recklessly into these kind of climates can become a stake over which groups begin to struggle. And unless you have a very acute understanding of the local political complexities, the danger you run in this kind of situation is that you create a conflict formation by your aid efforts”.

Indeed, it was aid money that largely went into building the fortune of Matiullah and countless other dubious figures.

Uruzgan today

When troops left, Abbott proclaimed Uruzgan to be “a very significantly different and better place than it was a decade ago. The infrastructure is better. The government functions much better. Girls go to school. Medical facilities are in place … We have seen the replacement of the Taliban and the driving out from their safe havens and bases of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda sympathisers”.

Eighteen months later, around half of Uruzgan has reportedly returned to Taliban control, a contention that Australian officials do not deny. A June 2015 report by Paul McGeough, based on interviews with 20 Uruzgan officials and community leaders, quoted one as saying that the Taliban were on the verge of taking full control of three key areas, and have majority control in others.

McGeough paints a picture of lawlessness, dysfunction and corruption in the province. One tribal elder claimed that only 20 percent of schools are operational, and very few report that girls attend. The deputy head of the Uruzgan provincial education department, Mohammad Noor Amini, told the Dutch press in May 2015 that 69 of the 290 schools in the province had closed this year because of security concerns. The health system is in a similar state of disarray, with corruption, inadequate staff and materials, and lack of security rendering it barely functional.

This year is shaping up to be the worst year for civilian deaths, according to the UN secretary general’s deputy special representative to Afghanistan, Mark Bowden. He has reported that casualties are already up 50 percent on last year, an alarming statistic considering that 2014 was the deadliest year since the war began.

And even where progress is purportedly being achieved, further investigation is required to separate truth from self-serving Western spin. As Gopal points out in relation to one province:

“[I]ndependent investigators discovered that of the 740 schools listed by the education ministry, 80 percent were ‘not operating at all’. Nonetheless, over 4,000 teachers were on the government payroll. The vast majority of them, investigators found, simply collected paychecks and stayed at home, giving a cut to local officials, who in turn funnelled a portion to warlords as a way to purchase influence. The story was similar around the country.”

Health figures are the same. “US officials often stated that in the post-Taliban era, 85 percent of Afghans had access to healthcare”, Gopal writes. “Yet that figure turned out to refer only to the fact that 85 percent of districts had at least one health centre, which many Afghans could not access due to distance or insecurity.”

The reality of Afghanistan today stands in stark contrast to the self-congratulatory rhetoric of the Australian government and its allies. It highlights that for all the talk of making Afghanistan a better place, the motivations of the Western forces was never to improve the situation for ordinary people, but always to pursue the strategic interests of the Western powers. In the process, they have spurred on legitimate resistance to their presence.

In an immensely strategic location and sharing a border with Pakistan, Iran and China, it is no wonder that Afghanistan has long been a territory over which major powers have fought for dominance. The price of this battle has been, and continues to be, paid by Afghan civilians.