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Perspectives

March 20, 2009
The debate on Australia’s role in Afghanistan

After Australia lost a tenth soldier in the war in Afghanistan, the second to be killed this week, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told Brisbane Radio on Friday that “We think our current commitment’s about right” — despite a NATO request for more troops.

There are currently about 1,000 Australian troops in Afghanistan.

Raoul Heinrichs is a scholar at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and engages in a discussion on Australia’s role in the war with an anonymous Australian soldier below, courtesy of the “Interpreter” blog.

RAOUL: The case for (more) tokenism in Afghanistan

Australian and American soldiers in Afghanistan.

As things go from bad to worse in Afghanistan, President Obama has begun the familiar process of managing expectations, conscious that the barriers to success, however modestly defined, remain virtually insurmountable. With his credibility at stake, however, Obama is gambling on more forces, a more realistic strategy, and the comforting thought that Afghanistan has finally been afforded its rightful prominence among competing strategic priorities.

For its sins, the Rudd Government’s loud and frequent calls for a more coherent strategy have been answered. Canberra is under no illusions about American expectations, and is almost certain to enhance its commitment to the war. Against this backdrop, a number of Australia’s leading strategic thinkers have made the case for Australia to substantially upgrade its military presence, to double or triple its force levels, or take responsibility for Oruzgan province.

These are, in my view, eminently misguided recommendations. In operation, they would be dangerous, costly, and out of touch with the scale of Australian interests in Afghanistan, as well as the strength of our alliance position. While the Government should seriously rethink its long-term commitment to the war, if it is determined to ‘stay the course’, here are some strategic considerations that ought to guide the size and composition of any additional contribution.

1. The war is already lost. […]

2. Australian involvement is, and always has been, an exercise in alliance management. […] Australians are naturally uncomfortable with the thought of fighting a war for the sole purpose of currying favour with an ally, despite a proud tradition of doing precisely that. The Government tends to emphasise other, more appreciable objectives. In reality, though, Australia has few, if any, direct interests in Afghanistan. Where it does have some peripheral interests, in Pakistan, it has no capacity to affect them at any credible level of cost or risk.

Few people understood this better than John Howard, and it is to his model of alliance management to which Australia should now turn. This means being entirely symbolic with any additional contribution, supplementing it with regular and conspicuous expressions of diplomatic solidarity. Like Iraq, the key to effective symbolism in Afghanistan is to maximise Australia’s visibility, using the lowest acceptable number of personnel, subject to the lowest levels of risk.

A SOLDIER’S REPLY:

[W]hile I agree with some of Raoul’s ideas, perhaps the use of a different and more diplomatic title should be considered.

Being a special-operations soldier who served in Afghanistan, I understand that our contribution may not turn the tide, but considering the cost of what we are doing (especially in light of the recent ninth casualty) perhaps rephrasing the title would be appropriate. While to some, Australia’s contribution may seem token, sometimes we need to be reminded that some of our guys are being killed. And it really doesn’t feel token when an RPG explodes in front of you.

An Australian soldier on patrol in Tarin Kowt.

Moreover, what is going on in Afghanistan is not a ‘war’ — it is a counter-insurgency occurring predominantly in the areas occupied by the Pashtun people (a notoriously proto-insurgent people and one of the largest ethnolinguist groups without sovereignty) who inhabit the arbitrary Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

The situation is dire, needs a significant change in perspective, and would most certainly take a long time to stabilize, but the assumption that the ‘war is already lost’ is premature. Counterinsurgencies live and die with the population. Until we have the support of the population and local ownership of the stabilization efforts we will not be able to defy history and avoid the fate the Soviets and British suffered.

We need to alter our strategy from a military-led strategy, which is inherently inflexible, to a more nuanced approach which takes into account and respects the intrinsic complexity of a society with as much cultural solidarity as the Pashtun people — the classical ‘strong society, weak state’.

RAOUL REPLIES: Calling a token a token

Soldier X at once seems to accept Australia’s commitment as strategically tokenistic, and at the same time recoils from the thought of it being described in such a way. It’s a telling position, not dissimilar to the view held by our own Government.

Above all, it reflects the strange disjuncture that has grown between Australia’s operational and strategic realities in Afghanistan — between the extraordinary exertions of our servicemen on the one hand and the symbolic political purpose to which their overall effort is being directed on the other.

As I suggested, Australians are naturally averse to the idea of fighting wars for tokenistic purposes, simply to consolidate Canberra’s credentials as a reliable US ally. To civilians in Australia, the acknowledgement of this as our fundamental purpose in Afghanistan would be unpalatable and, frankly, a little disempowering. I can only imagine how disconcerting the same thought must be to our soldiers on the front line, exposed to the horrors of war and whose lives, as we were tragically reminded this week, are very much at at stake.

I think we do ourselves no favours by mincing words. That the war has begun to exact a greater human cost only reinforces the need to think and speak as clearly as possible about what we’re doing in Afghanistan, why we’re there, and whether – under conditions in which none of our vital national interests are stake — we should be prepared to expend the lives of our soldiers.

Read the original posts.

For more on U.S. allies in the war in Afghanistan, listen to our Online radio show on Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

Photos courtesy of Flickr users david_axe and Army.mil under a Creative Commons license.

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Comments

4 comments

#4

Obama the the great black hope that didn’t happen!

#3

The concept of tokenism implies that what the US is attempting to do in Afghanistan is irrelevant to Australia’s interests. This is far from the truth. Therefore the American alliance helps Australia project its own influence.

#2

I’ve been commenting about our commitment to Afghanistan from day one and described the Australian government’s response as a “token commitment”. However I can assure you it was never meant to imply a token effort. The two are entirely different points. Our effort in Afghanistan is an exemplary display of our military professionalism. Our government’s commitment is token and undermines our national interest. It fails to recognise that relationships are multi layered. It may suit the politicians to deal in tokenism but on the ground the fighting reputation of our regular soldiers (not SF) has suffered because of it.

#1

Australia’s hope (deep down) is that if they are a token ally that the US will be willing to come to our aid and defend us (again) if needed. lets hope they will.

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