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Afghanistan: conundrum central February 8, 2011

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

Christopher Snedden

Afghanistan provokes many conundrums, but few answers. The most important current question is whether external forces can defeat the Islamically-motivated Afghan Taliban trying to regain control of their fragmented, underdeveloped and war-weary country? Policy makers and military strategists from 48 foreign nations believe so. Accordingly, they have ‘surged’ their International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan to 132,000 personnel. And, since President Obama came to power, ISAF—particularly its United States’ component of 90,000 personnel—has been better focused and may be gaining ground.

However, a significant conundrum is to determine the actual ‘state of play’ in Afghanistan. The Taliban, about which we know little, almost certainly overstates its strength and position. Equally, official Western sources may paint a picture rosier than reality. On 3 December, at Bagram Air Base, President Obama stated that ‘Because of the progress we’re making, we look forward to a new phase next year [2011], the beginning of the transition to Afghan responsibility’. This suggested that operations were going well. By contrast, on 26 December, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Nations’ maps showed ‘a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan’ during 2010. Much of southern Afghanistan was still at ‘very high risk’, while the risk in previously ‘low risk’ areas in northern, central and western Afghanistan had increased ‘considerably’. Similarly, in January, a ‘NATO official’ estimated there were ‘up to 25,000’ insurgent fighters, ‘the same as a year ago, before the arrival of an additional 40,000 US and allied troops’. ISAF may not be doing as well as we are led to believe.

President Obama’s remark above about ‘the transition to Afghan responsibility’ also confirmed that ISAF is keen to extract itself from Afghanistan. Accordingly, ISAF is trying to develop the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police so they can take responsibility for Afghanistan’s security. This task is difficult. Low education levels, high attrition rates and Taliban intimidation make these forces’ capabilities questionable. Equally, ISAF needs to succeed in other nation-building activities—which, in a dilemma, it cannot do until it has secured and stabilised the country. These activities include: developing Afghanistan’s economy; enhancing its political and governmental structures; overcoming people’s deep fear of a Taliban takeover after ISAF’s inevitable withdrawal; reducing corruption; and, delivering meaningful aid and infrastructure throughout the country.

Another conundrum is why haven’t the 54 per cent of Australians ‘opposed to Australia’s military commitment to Afghanistan’ (as per the Lowy Institute Poll 2010) not vocalised their opposition? One reason is because Afghanistan is basically ‘out of sight and out of mind’. Bipartisan Labor-Liberal support for Australia’s involvement in ISAF discourages discussion—and opposition. Australian journalists and cameramen also seem to avoid reporting from this difficult nation, with the result that Afghanistan does not regularly, and vividly, appear on our television screens like the Vietnam War did. Equally, there is little non-partisan, non-official reporting about Australian Defence Force (ADF) actions in Afghanistan, a situation that prevents us from determining how well—or poorly—the ADF is actually doing, including determining whether ADF casualties are, indeed, relatively low. Finally, many Australians seemingly realise that, because the ADF participated in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and helped to create the mess there, Australia must now help to fix this situation. It is not feasible, therefore, to agitate to have the ADF withdrawn.

Nevertheless, Australia has spent billions in Afghanistan. Currently, 1,550 ADF personnel are deployed there under ‘Operation Slipper’—a name chosen, perhaps, because we want to put the ‘boot’ into the Taliban? Since 2001, ADF operations have resulted in 22 soldiers killed, 167 wounded, and two receiving Victoria Crosses for bravery. Figures in Defence Annual Reports reveal that the total cost to Australian taxpayers of Operation Slipper will be (at least) $5.756 billion. This comprises: $3.027 billion spent in 2001-2010; a $46 million contribution to the Afghan National Army Trust Fund in 2009-2010; and, estimated costs for 2010-2014 of $1.649 billion for operations and $1.034 for ‘advanced protection’ for the ADF. Other costs for Australia include staff and operations for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Federal Police, AusAID, etc. Interestingly, Operation Slipper’s total cost is slightly larger than the Labor Government’s current Flood Response Package of $5.6 billion.

Has Australia’s Afghanistan commitment provided good value? On 3 February, while condoling the ADF’s 22nd fatality in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Gillard stated that ‘it is vital that we see this mission [to prevent Afghanistan from again being used by terrorists to plan and train for terrorist attacks on innocent civilians] through’. This overstates the case: Australia’s Afghanistan mission is not ‘vital’. It is good to help impoverished Afghanistan but, in reality, this nation has almost no strategic value for Australia. Furthermore, most (non-Taliban) ‘terrorists’ left long ago for places like Yemen and Pakistan, with the latter a nuclear-armed nation confronting problems far more serious for the world than Afghanistan’s. Australian leaders, whether Labor or Liberal, now use such language to shore up Australia’s part in an ineptly conceived, poorly executed and prolonged venture. We would have been better spending our money in areas much closer to home.

This suggests a final conundrum: will ISAF withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, as Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, suggested? Local political agendas fuelled by increasing voter disenchantment, particularly if civilian and military casualties increase, will compel politicians from participating nations to ‘encourage’ ISAF to meet this date—regardless of the actual situation in Afghanistan. However, current trends suggest that it is unlikely that, by 2014, the Taliban will have been defeated and that neighbours, such as Pakistan, Iran and India, will have been deterred from meddling. Almost certainly, therefore, ISAF will leave an unstable, weak and insecure Afghanistan. (For this nation to become otherwise will require decades.) Post-ISAF, a new conundrum will then be: after 13 years, what did we actually achieve in Afghanistan?

War is an awful thing. A futile war is even more awful. I hope I am wrong.


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