Like Star Wars figures beamed back to the 17th century, Australia’s hi-tech, lethally-equipped soldiers cut a surreal presence as they cautiously patrol the baking dustbowl of southern Afghanistan, drawing just casual glances from turbaned tribesmen and nomadic herders.
To the locals, they’re Americans who wear an emblem of a red rat. But the Australians are trying to carve out a special identity among the 40 nations that have come to Afghanistan on a mission to suppress violence and get society functioning again.
The Australians face an unseen enemy who emerges at night to lay hidden roadside bombs then melts back into the villages. "The enemy around here don’t wear a uniform like we do – so it could be anyone, any kid, any person," observes a private.
They must vie with such elusive insurgents for the support of a civilian population that is brutalised, war-weary and cynical about corrupt, ineffective government… and especially vulnerable to Taliban claims that it is the real protector of the people.
So how are the Australians handling these challenges in their $200 million mission? To find out, a Four Corners team led by reporter Chris Masters joins the Australian Army at its forward operating base at Tirin Kot in southern Uruzgan province.
While combat forces hunt Taliban, others in the Australian contingent set out to win over the people. Their weapons are bricks and mortar and tradies’ skills – an Afghan-style Backyard Blitz. Victories are measured less by enemy casualties than by small advances like fixing a school or a hospital.
Masters joins the Australians as they pursue their multi-pronged mission - on night patrols and daytime construction convoys - asking if Australia and the rest of the international community can achieve military and political victory over the Taliban and its allies. They undoubtedly have the firepower… have they the staying power?
They might need to remain in Afghanistan as long as 20 years, Masters is told. The price of failure is a collapsed state and an even safer haven for al Qaeda to export its terror. "Forward Base Afghanistan" – how Australian soldiers are prosecuting a counter-insurgency war - on Four Corners, 8.30 pm Monday 2 July, ABC TV.
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