As toll rises in Afghanistan, so does spectre of Vietnam
by Paul Toohey
The Herald Sun newspaper, Melbourne, Australia. June 22, 2010
WITH every step forward there is one step back. The Defence Department last week said special forces had dealt a "major blow" to Taliban insurgents in Kandahar, but then came yesterday's grim news.
Defence chief Angus Houston said the chopper that crashed and killed three Diggers was not brought down by enemy fire.
He pleaded with the Australian public for time to prove that "steady progress" was being made in Afghanistan.
But with five Australians killed in the past fortnight, bringing the total to 16 in Afghanistan, the value of the investment in Australian lives will come under closer examination than ever before.
Reports from the United Nations Security Council suggest there is no cause for optimism in Afghanistan, with a dramatic increase in the numbers of roadside bombings and assassinations of Afghan officials.
And the arrival of the northern summer means a return to more deadly fighting as insurgents emerge from hibernation to engage in battle.
"They go away in the winter and when it comes to the summer they come out of the woodwork and the shadows and start attacking coalition forces," says Sasha Uzunov, a former Australian soldier who has visited Afghanistan twice as a war cameraman.
"A lot of the Taliban activity is simply giving money to illiterate and poor teenage boys, maybe giving them $US50, and giving them a Kalashnikov and getting them to take pot shots at passing troops.
"It's as basic as that, so it's very difficult to track down who these guys are. They take pot shots and disappear and hide in the villages. How do you know who these guys are?"
Days in Kandahar at this time are up to 43C and even in the depths of the night it is hot. There is no rain in the area at this time.
The crash was in the Kandahar region where Australians Special Forces have been working with their coalition partners and claimed their success of last week.
Defence Minister John Faulkner said the tragedy of the deaths would not cause him to waver.
"We remain very committed to our operational objectives in Afghanistan," he said.
"I think these objectives, these specific goals, these reasons for being in Afghanistan remain of very great importance."
Senator Faulkner insisted the mission was worthwhile.
"I think it's important to say to the Australian people that we are making progress in Afghanistan," he said.
But Mr Uzunov said it was clearer than ever that Australia was facing an enemy it could barely recognise.
"It's a very nasty counter-insurgency war, very much like what the Aussies faced in Vietnam," he said.
"Even though we're told repeatedly there is no comparison, there are strong parallels between the two conflicts.
"It's the same thing, the guerillas doing hit-and-runs, planting booby traps, IEDs, roadside bombs: they let one off and then they disappear.
"There are caves and tunnels that have been there for centuries. The Afghans fought the British, they fought the Soviets; there's a whole heap of networks and hiding places that the coalition forces just don't know about."