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June 30th 2017 print

Michael George Smith

The Singing Diplomat

The Dust of Uruzgan
by Fred Smith
Allen & Unwin, 2016, 399 pages, $32.99
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Fred Smith is a junior diplomatic officer in the Civil, Military and Stabilisation Section of the Humanitarian Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. His father, Richard Smith, now retired, was a senior public servant and diplomat who, among other things, was appointed Australia’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan in April 2009. In the late 1990s, the younger Smith worked as a UN Peace Monitor in Bougainville. In July 2009, he became the first civilian to be posted to Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, serving an eighteen-month tour working out of the Multinational Base in Tarin Kowt as part of the second Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force.

Smith is also a singer-songwriter, and it was through that other career that he was able to bridge the cultural divide between himself and the tribal leaders he was obliged to work with in order to achieve the aims of the Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT) during that tour. He wrote songs about what he saw and experienced, most movingly in the song that gave the album he made on his return to Australia its title and, subsequently, this book, which rounds out his experience of that first eighteen-month tour with his six-month tour in 2013 to help facilitate the transfer of the base in Tarin Kowt to Afghanistan’s defence forces.

While the tone Smith takes in the book is more reflective of the singer-songwriter-entertainer, and the chapters take their titles from the songs on The Dust of Uruzgan CD and the CD that followed, Home, the diplomat is also very much in view. He explains how Australian troops came to be in Afghanistan, something of the challenges those troops faced, and what they achieved during their tenure. It’s also a very human and sometimes deeply personal insight into what Australia lost to the dust of Uruzgan and beyond, all leavened with his insights into the political and tribal dimensions of Australia’s work in Afghanistan and, of course, Uruzgan in particular, as well as his wit, irony and self-deprecation. Apart from whatever may have been achieved militarily during Australia’s time in Uruzgan, at the time of publication there were now 200 schools, thirty-eight of them specifically for girls, six times the number there had been when they’d arrived in 2006, and there were thirty-two health clinics. More than 200 kilometres of roads had been repaired, and bridges had been built. By 2015, across Afghanistan, some eight million children were attending school where only 900,000 had attended in 2001.

He points out:

Soldiers at the forward operating bases in Ghilzai, Noorzai, Barakzai and Achekzai country worked closely with tribal leaders like Malim Sadiq and Malim Habibullah to protect their people. The PRT, meanwhile, went out of its way to ensure that leaders of those tribes got a share of the projects …

Most of the ADF’s time and energy in Uruzgan was invested squarely in the Fourth Brigade of the Afghan National Army … We worked on building the institutional capacity of the ANA Fourth Brigade, but in Afghanistan, “big man culture” prevails; personalities dominate over institutions … It’s called a patronage system.

For all the geopolitics underpinning it, The Dust of Uruzgan is an accessible and occasionally funny entry point for anyone interested in the complexities of the efforts of the Western alliance, and Australia in particular, to bring some sort of order to the chaos that is Afghan politics.

Michael George Smith lives in Sydney.