Replacing a wounded ally resulted in an Australian brigadier making history during one of the most turbulent periods in Afghanistan’s recent history.
Brigadier John Shanahan became the first non-US commander of the 11,000-strong Train Advise Assist Command – South (TAAC-S) since the Resolute Support mission began in January 2015.
He led TAAC-S for five months and handed command to US Brigadier General Miles Brown during a ceremony in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on 24 February.
The ceremony brought an end to 18 months in Afghanistan for Brigadier Shanahan, who originally deployed for 12 months as the Chief of Combined Joint Operations at Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul.
“Taking over from a predecessor who was wounded in action gives you focus and clarity.”
On October 18 last year, two days before national parliamentary elections, the Kandahar Police Chief, Lieutenant General Abdul Raziq, was assassinated in an insider attack claimed by the Taliban.
Also wounded in the attack were senior local Afghan officials and two US personnel, including the then TAAC-S commander, Brigadier General Jeffrey Smiley.
The Commander of Resolute Support, US General Scott Miller, then requested that Brigadier Shanahan take up the TAAC-S command.
“Taking over from a predecessor who was wounded in action gives you focus and clarity,” Brigadier Shanahan said.
“The elections were delayed in Kandahar by a week in honour of Lieutenant General Raziq, which was a good thing but also put the world’s attention on us. The world was expecting Kandahar to be on fire. I was parachuted onto that drop zone.
“We got the governors and the leaders of the Afghan security forces together and we talked about how we were going to run the elections safely. That calmed a lot of things down.”
“I saw the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces and the soldiers of TAAC-S rise up against the Taliban.”
Despite the one-week delay in Kandahar, elections across the south went ahead on time, and with fewer disruptions and greater voter turnout than many other provinces around Afghanistan.
How his team at TAAC-S and their Afghan partners handled that period of turmoil is one of Brigadier Shanahan’s proudest moments in command.
“I saw the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces and the soldiers of TAAC-S rise up against the Taliban, resilient among sadness and chaos to execute peaceful elections in Uruzgan and Zabul on schedule and Kandahar only a week later,” he said.
He said his time in Afghanistan has been challenging but he would do it again to help the people of Afghanistan.
“I can think of very few things I would have rather have done over the past 18 months,” Brigadier Shanahan said.
“Helping Afghanistan to develop as a country, helping it to avoid descending into chaos and brutality, developing the Afghan security forces to defend the country and its people – and these are wonderful people – has been hugely rewarding,” he said.
The area of operations for TAAC-S includes the Kandahar, Zabul, Uruzgan and Daykundi provinces.
The governors of the four provinces and senior representatives of the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and National Directorate of Security attended the transfer of authority ceremony.
“To our Afghan partners, we have planned, trained and fought together.”
Their presence was a strong show of support for TAAC-S and Brigadier Shanahan.
The new TAAC-S commander, Brigadier General Brown, said Brigadier Shanahan had helped shape the Afghan security forces as an effective fighting force and set the conditions for peace.
“Your personal sacrifice and dedication to the people of Afghanistan speaks to your character, competence and commitment,” Brigadier General Brown said.
“Your style of leadership, laser mission focus and agility has shown you to be the consummate war fighter and has provided momentum for our fight with the enemy. Due to your influence, we have a strategic opportunity to bring this to a logical conclusion.”
Brigadier Shanahan said it had been a “tremendous honour” to lead TAAC-S – which comprised personnel from the US, Australia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria.
“To all of those at TAAC-S, you have poured blood, sweat and tears into this mission and have worked alongside your Afghan partners to forge relationships of trust, mutual respect and, above all, friendship,” he said.
“To our Afghan partners, we have planned, trained and fought together. We call you our partners and we have learned so much from you militarily and as a nation. Your steadfastness and courage against the outrages of the Taliban is remarkable. I will miss you immensely.”
Brigadier Shanahan commissioned into the British Army and initially served with the 7th Gurkha Rifles, one of the most respected combat units in the world, and later the Royal Engineers. He transferred to the Australian Army in April 2008.
Now, after being away so much, his main interest is spending time with his wife, Susan, and twin boys, Scott and Jack.