So another Australian soldier has been killed in Afghanistan — that makes 11.

In the broad scheme of things it’s not many, but the numbers are mounting steadily, and there appears to be no sign that they will ease; indeed, casualties are likely become more frequent as the northern summer bring the Taliban out of their shelters and back into battle.

The government, of course, is still as gung ho as ever: we are there in the front line of the war against terrorism, we are protecting Australia from potential suicide bombings of the kind that occurred in Jakarta last week. And, importantly, we are there not as part of a unilateral American adventure but with the full imprimatur of the United Nations. This is not another Vietnam or Iraq.

Well, perhaps not. But after seven years of achieving very little, it may be timely to ask just how and when we an expect to bring the troops home. In fact the previous defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, asked something pretty similar shortly after he was sworn into the portfolio and was roundly castigated for it; the official government line was to increase Australia’s commitment and to urge others to do the same. There has in fact been something of a mini-surge, but so far at least it has proved ineffective.

The move into Afghanistan was a direct result of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001. Understandably, the Americans felt compelled to strike back, and Afghanistan was the obvious target; it was, after all, where the loathsome Taliban regime had given shelter to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaida organization. The original aim was to capture Osama and destroy Al Qaida, but that has still not happened; as far as anyone knows Osama is still ensconced somewhere in the fastnesses of the Hindu Kush and Al Qaida, while now somewhat dispersed, still has secure cells in various parts of the world.

So our objectives changed: we were there to root out an oppressive dictatorship and help the struggling nation towards democracy. Sound familiar? Well yes, and as was the case in Iraq it has proved a bit harder than it seemed. Shifting the Taliban out of the capital Kabul was accomplished reasonably quickly, and there were plenty of local warlords willing to fill the hole. Shown a bit of stick and a great deal of carrot they were even prepared to introduce a form of democracy and a measure of social reform. Life in the area under government control has certainly improved, especially for women.

But the area remains very limited. The vast majority of the country is held either by a resurgent Taliban, or by war lords whose attitudes are hardly more progressive. And given the topography this is highly unlikely to change unless the West is prepared to stage a full scale invasion, which it clearly isn’t. Without a truly massive occupation force the country cannot be controlled, and even with one it is hard to see it becoming either peaceful or democratic in the foreseeable future. The history of Western incursions into the country is a long and dismal one, and there is little reason to believe that the present operation will be any different.

Moreover, it has had some really bad unforseen consequences. The destabilisation of Pakistan through the cross-border activity is probably he most serious, but it should also be noted that the war has restored Afghanistan as the predominant source of opium on the planet. Originally the Taliban had tried to wipe out the cultivation of the poppies as contrary to Islam. But the mullahs have now concluded that since the drugs are exported to the infidels, they are a legitimate and effective component of Jihad. And of course, they can use the money. The heroin factories of the west now get their raw materials not from the golden triangle of Laos, Thailand and Burma, but from the poppy fields of Afghanistan.

And then there is the constant stream of refugees, an embarrassing number of whom end up in detention on Christmas Island. A sensible government would at least be undertaking a revived cost-benefit analysis with a view to reconsidering our policy. Kevin Rudd’s great criticism of Australia’s involvement in Iraq was that the Howard government never had either a clear objective or an exit strategy. But the same could be said of his commitment to Afghanistan. We will, he suggests, leave when the Afghans can take care of their own security; but if that means waiting until the government in Kabul is in effective control of the whole country, the prospect is not even on the horizon.

And even the more modest aim of eliminating the terrorist training camps appears to be fanciful. If all the resources of the allies cannot track down one old and probably invalid man after nearly eight years of persistent effort, cleansing the mountains of all subversives is simply off the agenda. Indeed, while Afghanistan is looking grim, the wider war on terror is not going too well either. We had generally been led to believe that Indonesia was now progressing satisfactorily towards becoming a stable democracy and that the influence of Jemaah Islamiyah had been effectively broken.

But although the mob who bombed the Ritz-Carlton and the Marriott has been described as a splinter group, it is obviously a highly effective one. Typically, our Foreign Affairs Department immediately stepped up its travel warnings for Indonesia; the sound of receding hoof beats was overwhelmed the slamming of stable doors. And of course, the scene of a terrorist attack is, for some time after, the safest place in the world; the terrorists have run for cover that there is a massive security presence.

But our security people are undeterred. They have, they insists, ensured that there have been no terrorist attacks within Australia. Well yes, and my elephant repellent is astonishingly effective. I have used it since childhood and have never been trampled by an elephant.