Hugh White’s brave call (Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 20 July) to the effect that the war in Afghanistan is “unwinnable” and that Australia should withdraw is significant, coming as it does from a senior and respected analyst.
The truth is we don’t know what is likely to eventuate should Australia and the rest of the foreign forces hold firm in Afghanistan. We don’t know what it means to ‘win’ in Afghanistan and we won’t know until we actually go the distance and see. It is all too easy in the Afghanistan context to commit the sin of ‘historicism’ and to argue that no great power has ever been able to subjugate that people – if indeed, that is what we are attempting to do, which we are not. But each set of circumstances is entirely different, and this one is no exception.
What we can assess, however, is what could occur should Australia and other foreign forces withdraw prematurely.
Most commentary has analysed this set of consequences in terms of Western interests in relation to the ‘war on terrorism’. These arguments have been well canvassed and I won’t repeat them here.
But there are regional consequences that go well beyond the natural concern in Western capitals of bombings in their public places and killing and maiming of their people.
Afghanistan is located at the fulcrum of three important regions – Central Asia, with its wealth in oil and gas; the Gulf-Middle East, with its major strategic imperatives and massive oil and gas reserves; and South Asia, home to 1.5 billion people and one of the longest-standing strategic rifts in the modern world – one moreover with nuclear overtones.
Assuming premature withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is more than likely that Afghans would ‘sniff the wind’ and create favourable circumstances for a comeback for Taliban in wide areas of the country. We don’t know for sure what that Taliban would look like, but our expectation would be it would be no more compromising than its predecessor government in Kabul. On the contrary, it would likely be triumphalist.
Such an eventuality would have implications both within and outside Afghanistan. Within the country, the lot of women would deteriorate, in itself a significant human rights issue. Other human rights – for example those of Hazaras and other Shiites – would be sorely tried and the struggling economy would be adversely affected. Some would argue that none of this would be worth expenditure of Australian blood and treasure. And, indeed, this was the position of the West in the Taliban years prior to 9/11. Some would also say the lot of women is not particularly good under the Karzai government. And this is true. But it is also true it would be worse under Taliban.
But even accepting that these significant human rights costs are not worth Australia’s intervention, there are other implications of withdrawal that could prove even more profound, especially in South Asia.
Pakistan’s stumbling campaign against the so-called ‘Pakistan Taliban’ in Waziristan would be derailed. Waziristan, other parts of the North West Frontier Province and parts of Baluchistan would likely become highly unstable. The entire areas considered the abode of the Pushtuns would likely emerge as a quasi-independent zone in which exchange of weapons, funds and fighters could freely occur.
This would in turn have profound implications for stability in wider Pakistan. The fragile, basically feudalistic settlement in Southern Punjab and Sind would be further destabilised, as Taliban and other extremists promise land and an end to the feudal settlement, just as they did in Swat. The Pakistani moderates and middle classes would not be given the time and space to conduct the socio-economic and political reforms now so badly needed.
Should a government of extremist bent actually emerge in Islamabad, the implications for India-Pakistan relations would be highly negative. The struggling rapprochement, under which the two are tentatively setting some (however inadequate) ground rules for counter-terrorism cooperation, would likely be derailed. Cross-border insurgency into Indian Kashmir would again likely increase, as would Pakistani sponsorship for terrorism elsewhere in India. This would cause further friction between India’s 150 million Muslims and the Hindu majority, triggering further ‘home-grown’ terrorism and a possible downward spiral of attack and revenge. The nuclear stasis between the two powers – to the extent it exists – would be seriously destabilised. The hand of the violent jihadists in Bangladesh would be strengthened and this too would have cross-border consequences for India.
These are some of the developments possible, even likely in South Asia. Although they would be not as serious as the consequences in South Asia, there would also be adverse consequences in Central Asia, the Gulf and the Middle East.
But above all, in making our deliberations on whether to stay in or depart from Afghanistan, let us not view the problem just through the lense of counter-terrorism requirements in the West, important as these are. That perspective is only of minor consequence in terms of the regional unravelling that could ensue if Afghanistan were again to fall to Taliban.