Bickering warriors in coalition of unwilling

We squabbled with our allies, yet in public we talked of close co-operation. We frustrated the Americans with unfulfilled promises. Our politicians big-noted in public, but dithered in private.

Our bamboozled bureaucrats tried to make sense of the details. All along, the public was kept in the dark.

Thanks to WikiLeaks, we now have an insight into the diplomatic and political skirmishes behind the war in Afghanistan, now in its ninth year and which has cost 21 Australian lives.

Leaked US diplomatic cables expose friction between Australia and its allies, undermining the public veneer of coalition solidarity.

We did not trust the Dutch, our key partner in Afghanistan. We confounded the Americans by dithering over Kevin Rudd's promised ''civilian surge'', a pledge made to head off a US request for more troops, by offering civilian advisers and police instead.

All along, we trumpeted the size of our contribution, while insisting we wouldn't give more.

The US State Department cables, released exclusively by WikiLeaks to The Sun-Herald, include secret reports from the US embassy in Canberra.

Cables from 2007 reveal intense distrust between Australian and Dutch forces in Oruzgan province, where Australia was part of a Netherlands-led force.

In February 2007, Australian officers, concerned that the Taliban were preparing a do-or-die offensive, started planning to send special forces back to Oruzgan.

This was just five months after the Howard government pulled them out, in September 2006, when it argued Oruzgan was ''relatively stable''.

The government and defence chiefs defended the withdrawal at the time, saying Australian reconstruction troops remaining in the province were well-protected, with their own forces and 1400 Dutch soldiers.

But their claims of stability and their stated faith in the Dutch were undermined by early 2007, when intelligence reports warned of a Taliban resurgence.

While senior officers planned another special forces deployment, officials in Canberra briefed journalists that the troops would be under Australian - not Dutch - command.

But the WikiLeaks cables make clear that privately, Australia wanted them under the US command.

In February and March 2007 Australian officers briefed US diplomats in Canberra, expressing ''frustration'' that the Dutch were more focused on reconstruction than military operations. This complaint is odd, given that the 550 Australian soldiers then in Oruzgan were also focused on reconstruction.

At the time the Dutch were the lead nation in Oruzgan, as part of NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Australians officials believed ISAF's rules on when troops can open fire were too restrictive. They told the US embassy that if the special forces were under US command, they ''would be able to take a more aggressive posture against the Taliban''.

The Dutch opposed the plan, arguing it would divide the chain of command and that ISAF's rules were sufficiently ''robust''.

Dutch diplomats took their concerns to the Americans, the Dutch foreign minister called the then-foreign minister Alexander Downer, and the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, was sent to The Hague to try to resolve the dispute.

On March 6, 2007, the US ambassador in Kabul sent a terse cable to the US embassy in Canberra, dismissing the Australian concerns, and complaining Australia had not taken the issue to the US commander in Afghanistan, General Dan McNeil.

In the end, Australia agreed the special forces would operate under ISAF command.

New sources of friction emerged in January last year when the Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen visited Australia for talks with the then-foreign minister, Stephen Smith, and Mr Rudd.

While publicly Mr Smith applauded Dutch efforts in Oruzgan, and spoke of close co-operation between the two allies, accounts of their private talks revealed clear divisions. The US embassy was given separate briefings on the talks by Australian officials and a Dutch diplomat. The Australian account suggested the two allies were at odds on what was supposed to be a shared strategy. Mr Verhagen told Mr Smith: ''The Dutch focus is on assistance to the Afghan people and not on preventing a safe haven for terrorism.''

Yet Australia's prime justification for its role in Afghanistan is to deny terrorists a haven.

Mr Verhagen restated her government's plan to withdraw from Oruzgan by the middle of this year, saying the province would be ''fully civilianised by then''.

Mr Smith saw this as ''an incredibly optimistic outlook, given current security trends''. Instead, he urged the Netherlands not to withdraw too quickly.

A Dutch diplomat gave the US embassy a different account, including a key detail not mentioned by the Australian officials - that the Dutch were pressing for more Australian aid.

A cable on February 16 last year revealed Mr Verhagen had asked Mr Rudd to send a civilian political adviser and AusAID staff, and to increase aid. Mr Rudd was cautious, expressing concern over security.

The Dutch diplomat reported that his foreign ministry colleagues ''were markedly unenthusiastic about co-ordinating with Australia on projects in Afghanistan''.

The diplomat said this ''lacklustre'' response stemmed from ''Australian foot dragging'' over construction of a new prison for captives taken by Australian and Dutch troops. Australia had not responded to ''numerous entreaties to provide inputs''.

American diplomats told Australia's special Afghanistan envoy Ric Smith and deputy national security adviser Angus Campbell that the US would appreciate ''strong expressions of support'' before a NATO ministerial meeting the next month.

But the Australians said the government was ''studying'' ways of increasing its non-military contribution, though this was a problem because of security concerns as Australia ''did not have a culture of deploying civilians into a war zone''.

On December 1 last year, Mr Rudd - visiting Washington before President Barak Obama's announcement of a troop surge - announced his own civilian surge, involving police and aid workers.

A day after Mr Rudd's announcement, the US ambassador in Canberra, Jeffrey Bleich, told Mr Smith he understood Australia was thinking of sending 125 civilians. ''Smith said this sounded about right, though he was not up on the details.''

Subsequent cables show the foreign minister was not the only one not in the loop. On December 16, the US embassy reported Australia's civilian surge was ''still a work in progress'' after Ric Smith told US diplomats the government still had not agreed on numbers.

Commenting on the delay, a US diplomat wrote: ''Rudd, who is loath to increase troop levels, had hoped to offer the increased civilian effort to the United States as a substitute.''

Frustrated Australian diplomats and aid officials told the embassy a decision was still months away, with the plan no clearer than when Mr Rudd announced it two months earlier.

The Australian officials partly attributed the delay to uncertainty about security and budgets, although these were not the prime concerns. One official ''hinted that DFAT is at odds with the finance and aid ministers as how to proceed''.

Mr Rudd finally released details of the surge on April 24 this year, five months after first announcing it.

It was more a trickle than a surge. Australia doubled the number of diplomats, federal police and aid workers in Afghanistan from 25 to 50.

Correction: This story was amdended on January 7, 2011 to correct Mr Verhagen's honorific.

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