April 18, 2012
And so it has finally come to pass. Australia will pull its combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013.
It follows the US. It is not before time as it was a bad war, Afghanistan is not a vital Australian interest, and we had come to expect the Australian governments to do or say whatever they could to sustain public support for the war effort, even though trying to win wasn't worth the cost of the massive intervention that would have been required.
The withdrawal is ironic that the Taliban/Haqqani network's extensive and well-coordinated assault on Kabul indicates that the US /NATO efforts to defeat them haven't succeeded. No doubt the hawkish neo-conservatives will spin the result differently--the US and Australia need to stay in Afghanistan until the job is done. What job is that?
The reality is that the US is negotiating with the different Taliban groups. As in Vietnam, the puppet Karzai government is incompetent, corrupt, dysfunctional and illegitimate. This fake democracy has little popular support and civil war is inevitable once the US gravy train leaves town. The US and Australia will declare victory and pull out, and the Karzai government will collapse a year or two later. Maybe even sooner.
As Stephen Walt observes in the New York Times:
Staying longer will not lead to victory, because the Taliban have sanctuaries and allies in Pakistan and will simply wait us out. Their ideology may be deeply objectionable, but they are an integral part of Afghan society while we are intruders from afar. It would be nice if we could protect Afghan civilians from further strife or future repression, but trying to do so will cost additional hundreds of billions of dollars, take a decade or more, and could still fail. The sad truth is: we do not know how to create stable governance in that unhappy country. Building an effective Afghan state is ultimately up to the Afghanis, not us.
The decade long Afghan war was one big disaster with popular anger against the United States continuing to rise across Afghanistan. The Taliban, while bloodied, remain resilient and unbroken by the U.S. military surge.
The Taliban cannot be defeated militarily at a reasonable cost, especially when the insurgency can consistently regenerate itself and launch attacks from the safety of sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. The only viable approach for bringing bloodshed in Afghanistan to an end is the political process.