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Afghanistan: a fool's errand « Previous | |Next »
June 22, 2010

There have been more deaths of SAS commandos in Afghanistan. And lots of deeply felt expressions of regret from ministers and politicians on both sides of politics. Expect more deaths and bodies they add. They then insist that the conflict is on the right course as they eye the rising American expectations for greater Australian involvement as the Dutch and Canadians pull out.

However, what the politicians say about the constant progress (painting a rosy-picture) often bears little resemblance to what happens on the ground in Afghanistan.

The core justification for Australia's involvement in this war is the Taliban providing a safe haven for terrorists, Al Qa’ida and the threat of a sanctuary and base for international terrorism, and the fact the conflict now involves Pakistan’s future stability. This then requires the defeat the Taliban and keeping Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan.

This justification barely stands up as no terrorist groups threaten Australia and al-Qaeda is now largely in Pakistan. The exit strategy is the Karzai regime standing on its own two feet, but that regime is corrupt and incompetent, and it stands little chance of ever truly being able to rule the country and keep the Taliban at bay. That means that the American military will have to stay there to "do the job" (whatever that is) for many years to come.

The Australians are there to support the Americans as an insurance policy for the Anzus alliance. But no minister will say this. We are offered a flurry of fictions whenever there are deaths with no attempt being made to address whether the NATO forces have the capacity to achieve the goals that have been set when there is no centralized state.

What is not being said much is that the war is not going well for the Americans. This means that Obama won't be able to "declare victory" next spring and start withdrawing troops next summer as he had planned.

Nor do many say that the decision to escalate in Afghanistan was a mistake. Our involvement there is a fool's errand that is rife with strategic contradictions, which is why we keep having "setbacks." The proper lesson to draw is not that it will be harder to get out; the proper message is that the sooner we do, the better.

Anthony Bubalo at the Lowy Institute for International Policy says in The Age that both sides of politics have done a poor job in explaining why the war is crucial for Australia's security:

Explicitly and implicitly, Coalition and Labor governments have justified Australia's involvement in Afghanistan by narrow reference to terrorism and the needs of the US alliance. But almost a decade after the 9/11 attacks, this narrative has passed the time when a broader public - less obsessed than policy-makers with the finer details of counterterrorism strategy or alliance management - will accept it...If the government's justification for Australia's war is less and less compelling, then the only story left to tell is how and when we will leave.

There is a broader narrative of the importance of a stable Afghanistan in a region that is still a central node for international terrorism, a region that contains two nuclear powers (with a third on the way) and sits astride major trade and energy routes. I've only ever heard Malcolm Turnbull make reference to that on the ABC's Q+A

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 9:02 AM | | Comments (21)


I agree completely. Whatever the merits of the original invasion and occupation, there is no justification for remaining there indefinitely in the vague hope that something will turn up that allows us to claim victory. Some commentators in the USA are now saying troops will need to be there for another 20 or 30 years, without any apparent qualms about such a grotesquely imperialist mentality. The region risks being frozen into another Israelis/Palestinians type permanent conflict that can never be resolved. The sooner we distance ourselves, the better, before the warmongers in Washington get control of policy again and decide to take on Iran.

I don't think it was a mistake.

The Taliban had to be stopped, and still do. This war could have been won if Bush hadn't invaded Iraq, but focused on Afghanistan, but they lot their advantage, and now it's a war of attrition.

If the foreign soldiers pull out now, it will leave a resurgent Taliban, and if you don't think we're going to be attacked by terrorists, at least acknowledge that there would be massive ethnic cleansing of the Hazaras. They would continue to systematically kill 3 million people.

That's aside from executing teachers of all ethnicities, and forcing all boys to go to madrassas to learn a distorted version of the Qur'an, not how to read or write, and girls nothing at all.

yes NATO pulling out of Afghanistan would result in a civil war and a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, with all the horrors that would result from an ugly, totalitarian fundamentalist Islamic regime.

But it does not follow from that that such an Afghanistan represents a major threat to Australia's national interest. Nor do I see what strategic interests that Australia, as a medium sized regional power, has in invading Afghanistan.

I am advocating that Australia pulls out--like the Dutch--and that leaves the Americans to stay the course. I do not see that Australia pulling out would result in a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan.

It's America's war not ours. What they do with their counter insurgency campaign is their concern as their interests as an imperial power are different from Australia's.

I'm sorry, but I'm pretty sure that if you know something bad is happening, and then do nothing, you're complicit. We can't just leave and say 'not our problem'.

the Taliban reject the current corrupt and inefficient Karzai government and they fight what they see as a foreign occupation. This is shared by many Afghans, even those who do not sympathize with the Taliban. The Taliban are a political movement with political aims.

There is talk of integrating the Taliban into the Karzai government whilst the U.S., prefers to weaken the Taliban militarily first, so that they won't be able to negotiate from a position of strength.

McChrystal was given the job of reducing the Taliban militarily to the point at which they would effectively sue for peace at almost any price.McChrystal's Marja offensive in Helmand this spring was not a success and his Kandahar offensive has yet to get off the ground.

we know that very bad things are happening in Burma under a military dictatorship. But we don't invade Burma to set things right in that country.

Australia invaded Afghanistan not because of the Taliban government 's brutality towards the Afghan people, but because after the 9/11 attacks the Americans under Bush pressured Howard to support them to clean out al Qaeda and to get Osama bin Laden.

No one talks about Al Qaeda these days--the military talk is all about fighting the (Afghan) Taliban.

"...Australians are there to support the Americans as an insurance policy for the alliance..."

This argument is is bogus.

Does anyone really believe that the US will abandon us to... well... ah... some vague, ill-defined, nasty fate unless we regularly refresh the "alliance" with Australian blood?

At the end of the day, the Americans will assist us only if it is in their interest. That's all.

@Peter S Stock,
The Taliban aren't just a political movement, they're dangerously insane religious fanatics. They aren't the IRA, they were around and more vicious before the invasion.

the intent is irrelevant 10 years on, and givewn that we're already there, leaving now knowing that it would lead to genocide would be reprehensible.

I really don't know what to think on this topic. The stupid decisions that got us into the current mess can't be helped. Now it's being justified on the grounds of a resurgent Taliban and stability in the region, which you're not going to get whether we stay or go because the Afghan govt is crap.

Like John, I'd hate to think we pulled out so people could be beaten and hung in football stadiums again. Yet Nan is also right, that we don't invade Burma, and I wouldn't agree with that if it was proposed.

The idea that we can "win" in Afghanistan is stupid. The idea that anyone wins any war is offensive. It's not a sport or a board game. But I can't help feeling we have some responsibility to at least leave the place better than we found it.

Lyn that sounds like the contemporary version of taking up the white man's burden. Afghanistan belongs to the Afghan people and it's up to them to arrange their own internal affairs. If they don't want the Taliban they'll get rid of them - it's not as if the Taliban are armed with death rays or the one true ring. And if they aren't motivated enough to risk their lives in taking back their own country, why on earth should we step into the breach and risk the lives of our soldiers?

However it's all a bit beside the point. We didn't invade to help the Afghan people and that's not why we are there now. As Howard told us repeatedly about Iraq, the issue is the global prestige of the USA. Why, if they leave with their tails between their legs they'll be admitting they're no better than those damned Russians.

National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, is happy to admit that the US destabilised Afghanistan to draw the Soviets into it's own "Vietnam" quagmire. They showed no regard for the welfare Afghan people and all the misery that ensued. Afghanistan was merely another chess piece to be moved at will. The fact that is was turned into a battlefield didn't really matter.

So why should I believe that our intervention NOW will succeed in making it all better? Why should I believe that our troops are fighting there for the benefit of the Afghan people?

Oh... give me a break! It has NEVER been about improving the lives of the people. The whole "crocodile tears" schtick has been done to death!

John, when they invaded Iraq they gave us a number of excuses for this, non of which proved subsequently true, starting with the "weapons of mass destruction" lie.
Could America have been about invading Iraq for another reason (geopolitics, oil, that it was less proud to share with its public?
We should NOT accept without thought even what the Americans say, any more than anyone else and anymore than we should allow ourselves to be gulled by the promises of a used car slaesman when we are trying to buy a car, for example.

They have killed less that 20 of our troups. I wonder how many of their heroes our troups have killed. Would be interesting to know.

What are you getting at Les? Are you hinting that an Afghan life is worth as much as an Australian life? And surely it doesn't matter how many of theirs have been killer. If they are dead, and they're Afghan... well, by definition, they're Taliban. So who cares?

Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a FINITE number of the buggers! There's more born every day!

BTW. If our handful of troops are truly facing an intolerable menace... I reckon conscription might be the way to go.

The Afghan war lacks a military solution, and the sooner this fact is faced, and new emphasis placed on a diplomatic approach, the better for all concerned.I realize that this view is what the Americans--and their supine Australian camp followers--- do not want to hear.

However , that a negotiated peace is unavoidable is privately shared by most, if not all, of the European Nato countries with troops in Afghanistan. It looks like the most probable outcome.

McChrystal's Marja offensive in Helmand this spring was not a success and his Kandahar offensive has yet to get off the ground. The first months of 2010 have seen a large-scale military campaign by thousands of United States and Afghan forces to take control of the Taliban-dominated district around Marjah in the centre of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan.This operation has been a prelude to a much larger plan to win control of the key city of Kandahar, to the east of Helmand, long seen as the base for the whole Taliban movement.

The pace at which Afghan troops and police are being trained to the necessary standard is not matching urgent security needs or the desire of Nato contingents to hand over responsibility to local forces. Likewise, the Afghan government has yet to show it has the drive, let alone the resources and skill, to extend good governance in areas from which the Taliban are ejected.

Taliban strategists, for their part, can now anticipate that most foreign troops will leave Afghanistan within three years - a short time by their standards.

Just watch for the rhetoric to turn on a dime when the Americans announce they are withdrawing from Afghanistan, mineral wealth notwithstanding.

George mentions a comical aspect of the situation. The US is supposed to be training a local army so it can take on these fiends-from-Hell terrorists. That's the big mission - creating an Afghan army so it can maintain security and the occupiers can go home (all bar a token presence of 10 or 20 or 50,000 garrison troops of course).

The thing is: Afghans have been fighting each other and invading armies since the days of Alexander the Great. Not too long ago they managed to kick out the Russians. And the Taliban is managing to regain control of large chunks of the country without the benefit of anyone training them, unless those al Qaeda camps are a lot more extensive than we've been led to believe.

So why TF should the Afghan army alone amongst all the combatants be such a helpless force, powerless to do anything in defence of its own government until a bunch of Americans have taught them how to read The Counterinsurgency Thoughts of Chairman Petraeus? Like so many themes within US policy, it is a self-evidently idiotic proposition. But that doesn't prevent all the professional nodding head pundits solemnly repeating it as if it's unquestionable truth.

The Americans say that an important strategic reason for the sacrifices in Afghanistan is to prevent a further destabilisation of Pakistan and, as a result, the entire Central and South Asian region.

Yet the American drone attacks on the Pakistan Taliban along the north west frontier are destablizing Pakistan. Their actions are causing internal fragmentation in Pakistan, that could set off one of the most dangerous security threats in Asia, and the world---nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the Pakistan Taliban.

Can't argue with that either, Ken. Except to ask why it hasn't worked in Burma, or Iran, or Zimbabwe.

At the end of the day Australia is in a position where it needs allies. I don't agree with most of the wars and stuff that we have been involved in but I can see a need for us to be seen to be helping our allies. Only a fool wouldn't be able to see this given the size and wealth of this country, the size of its population, and its position on the globe.
Yes, 20 of our people have died so we can all have a nice life in our nice big country. Perhaps thats fair enough?

"At the end of the day Australia is in a position where it needs allies...."

Oh really? Why? Who is coming to get us?

Wait... it's all those greedy Asians, right? The ones with a long history of invading adjacent states for their resources. Oh yes... THEM!