THE government is deeply pessimistic about Australia's engagement in Afghanistan and officials have described as hopeless the key task of training the Afghan national police.
Despite repeated public assurances that gains are being made in Afghanistan and that long-term success is possible, secret US embassy cables reveal that some of our top diplomats and officials hold grave concerns about the prospect of success in the nine-year war that has claimed the lives of 21 Australian soldiers.
The cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and made available exclusively to the Herald, also include further embarrassing revelations about the conduct of the Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd.
Mr Rudd derides the contribution of France and Germany to the fight against the Taliban as ''organising folk-dancing festivals'' and confides that the outlook in Afghanistan ''scares the hell out of me''.
Another of the cables sent to Washington in November last year by the US embassy in Canberra records the Australian special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ric Smith - a former secretary of the Defence Department - delivering a bleak assessment of the international community's Afghan strategy.
''Smith had just returned from a visit to Oruzgan and described the mission in Afghanistan and Afghan government presence as a 'wobbly three-legged stool','' the cable says.
Referring to Australia's plan to increase funds for training Afghan police - a task undertaken by more than two dozen federal police officers - Mr Smith warned it might involve ''putting good money into a bad situation''.
Another cable, from December last year, says that ''Smith questioned what the AFP would be able to accomplish given the 'train wreck' that they had to be given to work with in the Afghan National Police''.
The cables give a stark insight into the private views of Australian and American officials on the war, including frustration about Canberra stalling on promises to increase Australia's civilian contribution beyond the 1550 soldiers deployed.
A cable from October 2008, which records what Mr Rudd told a group of visiting US congressmen, says he ''concluded by noting that the national security establishment in Australia was very pessimistic about the long-term prognosis for Afghanistan''.
Mr Rudd also told US politicians that ''he supported the Afghan war 'from day one' but confided that 'Afghanistan scares the hell out of me'.''
Mr Rudd is also critical of Australia's European allies, accusing them of having ''no common strategy for winning the war or winning the peace''.
''In the south-east, the US, Canada, British, Australia and Dutch were doing the 'hard stuff', while in the relatively peaceful north-west, the Germans and French were 'organising folk-dancing festivals','' a cable reported on Mr Rudd's comments.
Other cables detail repeated criticism from officials about Australia's plan to boost its non-military contribution by sending federal police to train Afghan police and by providing greater aid assistance.
The civilian boost was announced by Mr Rudd late last year, about the time that the US President, Barack Obama, released his nation's revised Afghanistan strategy.
A cable from last December says: ''Rudd, who is loath to increase troop levels, had hoped to offer the increased civilian effort to the US as a substitute. The Australians began preparing for the President's announcement months in advance and the lack of progress is surprising.
''Coupled with [Ric] Smith's increasingly pessimistic attitude, this may be a sign of friction within the government over the proper role for civilians in Afghanistan.''
Another cable describes how the internal government debate over the civilian strategy had ''dragged on much longer than anyone predicted''.
The US cables also reveal that the head of the AFP's International Deployment Group, Assistant Commissioner Frank Prendergast, had also raised concerns about what federal police officers could achieve in Afghanistan.
''Even Prendergast, who was generally optimistic about AFP efforts in Afghanistan, noted that the odds were stacked against success. Current training programs are hampered by illiteracy, corruption, drug addiction and insurgent penetration within the pool of trainees,'' the cable says.
''He believes that a successful police training program will take 20 years to be effective in Afghanistan.''
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said last month that Australian's Afghan efforts may last for a decade.
Other Australian officials who briefed the US embassy ''hinted'' at clashes between officials and ministers over its ''apparent lack of progress''.
The cables also detail long-standing tensions between the Dutch and Australia over their respective roles in Afghanistan's south.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.