Dutch and Afghan forces reportedly did most of the fighting in last week’s battle for Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan. So where were the Aussies? That’s a question I’ve been asked a dozen times by desperate Australian reporters, soldiers and members of the public. 700 Australian troops are based alongside the Dutch at Kamp Holland, but most of them appear to have played only a minor role in the fighting.
Australian officers were involved in planning the battle, but pulled out of the June operation as it would contravene Australia’s rules of engagement. … Almost 70 civilians died when Dutch forces fought a 500-strong Taliban assault in the Chora Valley. … The civilians died in a storm of bombing and artillery fire, human rights investigators report. The Australian Defence Force issued two statements days after the battle, saying Australian troops were not involved in the fighting. Defence Minister Brendan Nelson and senior military officers expressed concern about civilian casualties in the battle, the statements revealed. The army’s Lieutenant-General Peter Leahy has reiterated Australia’s commitment to avoiding civilian deaths wherever possible.
Civilian casualties resulting from the West’s over-reliance on artillery and air support has emerged as one of the most vexing problems of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Every time we kill a civilian, we risk losing the support of the Afghan people and government.
The problem is that the Western way of war still hinges on directing overwhelming air and artillery fires at targets, a practice perhaps perfected by the infantry-weak U.S. Army during the Italian campaign in 1943 and ’44, during which tens of thousands of civilians died.
One alternative approach replaces fires with infantry for a more precise application of violence, but this inevitably means more infantry deaths. Combine growing worries over civilian casualties with Western armies’ reluctance to put infantry in harm’s way (owing mostly to fragile public support back home), and you’ve got a perfect impasse, as the Aussies demonstrated. You can only fight when conditions are such that no civilians are at risk from the massive fires you must employ to avoid losing your own infantry. Where do you go from here?
Only one place: home.