11 July 2010

Why are we in Afghanistan?

In this morning’s edition of The Sunday Age, 11 July 2010, Prime Minister Gillard was quoted as saying, in relation to the death of yet another Australian soldier:

There will be Australians who are asking themselves in the face of this loss why as a country do we continue to pursue our mission there.

We pursue that mission because Afghanistan is a safe haven for terrorists. I believe Australia, while mourning these losses, will understand our continuing determination.

 She had better reconvene the focus groups and get a better line on Afghanistan than that one.  The fact of the matter is that, while some terrorists have had training at Afghanistan during a certain period of history, Al Qaeda can do very nicely without Afghanistan, thank you very much – they have “moved forward” into the tribal areas and the big cities of Pakistan. If we want to eliminate terror cells in our ally Pakistan, with its almost 200 million people, we have a big job ahead of us.

Afghanistan was never more than a convenient base of operations for a certain number of the world’s disparate terror groups. Carlos the Jackal didn’t need it, Osama bin Laden operated from Somalia for a time, the Lockerbie bombing was hatched in Hamburg, a number of terror episodes have emanated from the Yemen, and the bombers of the London Underground were home-grown. To the extent that Afghanistan ceases to be convenient to them the terror cells will move somewhere else. To imagine that we make progress in suppressing international terrorism by “winning” in Afghanistan is akin to imagining that one can make progress in a mice plague by killing all the mice in one room.

The fact that no-one can articulate a coherent statement of why we are in Afghanistan is an important part of the problem.  It is very difficult to plan to accomplish an objective when you do not know what the objective is.

There are no good reasons for being in Afghanistan (we went along for the ride because the Americans were going) but there are good reasons not to pull out – it is much harder to disengage than it is to refrain from going in in the first place.  The reasons to think very hard before pulling out are:

 - Management of the alliance: we did commit to this and there is a cost in alliance relationship terms in announcing that this is all too hard and we are going home.

-  There are very important ethical considerations which counsel against walking away – considerations which apply more to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as a whole rather than to any individual participant.  The lesson of our own experience in Timor in 1942, the French withdrawal from Algeria in 1962, and the American withdrawal from Vietnam, is that the local people who have worked with us in good faith face a very bleak prospect at the hands of the other side when we walk away. If it ever gets to the stage where US helicopters are plucking people from Kabul rooftops, Afghan President Hamid Karzai had better make sure that he is one of them.

My best reason for our staying there is to try to work towards calming the situation to the point where a sustainable solution can be negotiated between the Afghan parties themselves.  That involves making an honest statement to the peoples of the ISAF participating states that we will be there for at least another decade, and that we are going to match the military effort with a much better resourced civil program.  I don’t see either Barack Obama or Julia Gillard doing that.

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