Troops face a messy move after a year coloured by attacks

IT WAS the year when ''green-on-blue'' became, sadly, a household phrase. This year was the third deadliest for Australian troops serving in Afghanistan, with seven soldiers killed, three of them by an ostensible Afghan ally.

As the 3300 Australian soldiers on active deployment around the world send home Christmas messages to their families, the defence community is reflecting on a difficult 12 months.

All up, at least 60 soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force were killed in such green-on-blue attacks this year, up from 33 in 2011 and 16 in 2010.

Such was the frequency of news stories about such attacks that the Australian Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University selected ''green-on-blue'' as its new word of the year.

In many ways, Defence will be pleased the year is over. At home, 2012 was dominated by the deep defence budget cuts announced by the Gillard government - $5.5 billion over four years - and the continuing fallout of the 2011 Skype scandal, which has turned the magnifying glass on the culture within the military.

It culminated in the DLA Piper report that found 775 credible claims of abuse going back to the 1950s.

The government maintains that progress continues to be made in Afghanistan. Australian soldiers in Oruzgan have pulled back from the patrol bases and are now largely confined to the main base at Tarin Kowt, having handed over responsibility to the Afghan 4th Brigade troops they have helped train.

But Afghan enthusiasm for fighting was far from certain, said former soldier James Brown, now a military fellow at the Lowy Institute.

''I don't have a great amount of optimism about the Afghan security forces continuing to take the fight to the Taliban. I think they'll reach accommodation with them. They'll say, 'That's your valley, this is ours.' A status quo will descend and we just won't hear a lot of what happens down there.''

Defence recently released to Fairfax Media two documents under freedom of information detailing the performance and readiness of the Afghan 4th Brigade. Every page was blacked out for security reasons.

Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said little had changed militarily in Afghanistan over the past year.

''What you had was a gritty stalemate. That's as good as it's going to get and hopefully it'll remain that way until 2014.

''Nothing has diminished the one point of consensus among the international coalition partners, which is, 'Let's get the hell out of there as fast as we can'.''

Australian soldiers are probably less vulnerable to green-on-blue attacks now that they have less contact with the Afghan soldiers. But Mr Brown said 2013 would still carry significant risks.

''Transitions are messy periods,'' he said. ''The likelihood of us getting through the next 12 months of transition without having anybody seriously wounded or killed is very low.''

Experts agreed the government needed to be clearer over the next 12 months about what its plans were beyond the end of 2014, by which time most Australian forces are expected to be out. The government has hinted it will leave some special forces in the country for high-level mentoring of Afghans and counterterrorism.

''They have still not decided what to leave behind,'' said Neil James, the executive director of the Australian Defence Association. ''There's talk of a special forces contingent, but they haven't said where it will be based, how big it will be, what its job will be. Will it just be to back-up the Afghans or will it conduct its own counterterrorism operations?''

Defence is unlikely to find 2013 much easier than 2012. The budget cuts effectively killed the 2009 Defence white paper, meaning the government has now pledged to produce a new one, to be released in the first half of 2013, though some observers doubt whether we will see the paper before the federal election.

And the abuse allegations will be scrutinised - one at a time - by a task force headed by former military judge Len Roberts-Smith, a process expected to take at least a year.

This story Troops face a messy move after a year coloured by attacks first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.