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Afghanistan: will ISAF just walk away one day? September 24, 2009

Posted by barbaranelson in : Afghanistan, Snedden, Christopher , trackback

Christopher Snedden

Recently, while re-watching Richard Attenborough’s film about Mahatma Gandhi, I was struck by the scene in which Gandhi presciently told the bewildered British that, in the finish, they would simply walk away from India. I immediately thought of Afghanistan. Unless things change dramatically there for the better – and soon, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) may also ‘walk away’. Unlike the British in 1947, however, ISAF’s departure will be couched in justificatory terms to suggest a victory, not a defeat.

As things currently stand, it appears that ISAF will fail in Afghanistan. There are (at least) five reasons for this. First (and not in any order), ISAF’s overall military resolve to engage and defeat the Taliban is weak. United States’ forces appear to be fully committed to, and engaged in, Afghanistan. Other nations (including Australia), to varying degrees, appear primarily to have military forces in ISAF to ‘pay their dues’ to the US. ISAF may have the overall military capability to win in Afghanistan, but it is hampered by the weak and/or wavering intent of its various component militaries. This is a poor basis on which to fight a resurgent Taliban. With forces such as the Dutch and Canadians keen to withdraw from Afghanistan, ISAF’s military resolve is unlikely to improve in the short term.

Second, ISAF has been unable to defeat the Taliban and stabilise Afghanistan. Indeed, ISAF now confronts “a resilient and growing insurgency”, for which ISAF Commander, General Stanley A. McChrystal, seeks “additional resources” (including troops). Peace and stability is desperately needed in Afghanistan so that aid workers can get out of Kabul and deliver much needed aid to Afghans. Such aid would genuinely help people in what is a poor, backward, village-based society. It also (belatedly) would deliver on Afghans’ developmental expectations raised sky high after the initial defeat of the Taliban.

Third, staying in Afghanistan for ‘the long haul’ (as Kevin Rudd states) will be increasingly difficult for Western politicians to ‘sell’ to ‘battle-shy’ electors. Voters’ uneasiness increases in equal proportion to battlefield deaths. Leaders’ resolves to deploy forces on distant and expensive operations in Afghanistan will decrease in equal proportion to voter unease, especially when an election is looming. For Australian politicians, the death of more soldiers will ensure that Australia’s commitment becomes more questioned and less sustainable.

Fourth, the West’s strategies in Afghanistan have often been just that – the West’s. Many of the ideas, tactics and military operations proposed for, and in, Afghanistan are Western in origin, Western in aims and orientation, and very paternalistic. This ‘we know what is best for you’ attitude does not give many Afghans a sense of ownership, involvement or even comfort. They live in a presidential system that concentrates power and largesse in President Karzai’s hands in Kabul – not disperses these nationally. Flawed Western-style presidential elections also do not help. Commendably, McChrystal has consulted Afghan ‘ministries’ for his latest report. Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s future still primarily appears to be determined in Washington, rather than in conjunction with Kabul, Kandahar, Konduz (or even Canberra).

Fifth, Afghanistan lacks sufficient strategic significance for the West to continue justifying the deployment of expensive military forces there on a long term basis. Geo-strategically, and problematically, Afghanistan straddles three regions and has neighbours (Iran, Pakistan) and near neighbours (Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, etc.) that like to meddle and/or make it difficult for ISAF forces. Afghanistan also has no significant resources, such as oil (although its poppy crop is problematic). Finally, and thankfully, Afghanistan lacks large military forces equipped with nuclear weapons (unlike Pakistan).

So, why is ISAF in Afghanistan? Its major purpose is to defeat the Taliban and to prevent the return of al Qaeda, otherwise “Afghanistan could again become a base for terrorism [my italics]”. Nevertheless, senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders now live in Pakistan (as McChrystal confirms). Equally, should ISAF withdraw from Afghanistan, there is no certainty that the Taliban would win power and/or that al Qaeda would again become powerful there. There are other Afghan elements who would oppose one or both and who would want to capture power for themselves.

Overall, with ISAF lacking strong reasons to be in Afghanistan – and to encourage others to commit to being there, ultimately it may simply ‘walk away’ from this difficult and troubling nation.


1. Neil Kitson - September 28, 2009

If ISAF were to “win” in Afghanistan, what would the “win” look like?