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Afghanistan and the primacy of politics

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COMMENTS

10 August 2010 16:20

Dr Stephan Frühling and Dr Benjamin Schreer are Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Jim Molan makes good observations about our earlier post, and we welcome the opportunity to discuss the course of the Afghan war, and Australia's engagement in it.  Jim continues to do great service to the Australian debate by highlighting the tactical and operational aspects and limits of Australian coalition contributions.

However, his critique of our argument lacks what is essential to strategy: political context. Without it, any discussion of strategy is meaningless, because it is political objectives and commitments that justify and give sense to military operations. 

In 2009, months of delay in Obama's deliberations on his Afghanistan commitment demonstrated how limited was the resolve of the Administration. Last month's Kabul conference has reinforced the fact that a speedy handover has become a Western goal in its own right. And as the havoc wreaked on US and European societies by the global financial crisis becomes clearer, and savage cuts to military budgets a near certainty, there is no realistic prospect that Western leaders will mount the political will to throw their weight once again behind an unpopular, decade-long war.

Jim rightly highlights US and British verbal facades regarding 'conditions on the ground', but he neglects the fact that these 'conditions' will not be objective benchmarks. Instead, they will be evaluated by Western political leaders in the light of their overall narrative on the war, and that narrative has now become one of withdrawal. If the level of Western commitment in Afghanistan was really determined by 'conditions on the ground', we would have seen a much larger force deployed by the US and its allies in the first place.

If it was 'conditions on the ground' that mattered, we would also not see a focus on deadlines, whether they are 2011 or 2014, but an acknowledgment that a Western presence would continue as long as required — just as Western forces are still deployed to the Balkans, 20 years after first deploying there. But the political reality is that, unlike in the Balkans or Australia's East Timor commitment, there are few enduring Western strategic interests in Afghanistan.

Western operational strategy cannot and does not remain independent of this wider context, and we stand by our evaluation that an adjustment of US strategy is already in train. 

Of course, local militias are a part of any population-centric counter-insurgency. But the reality in Afghanistan is that local militias have become a substitute for the political order that the West has been trying to build in recent years, and not a reinforcement of it, nor a way of binding disenfranchised parts of the community into the larger order (as was the case with the Anbar Awakening in Iraq).

Australia's Afghanistan commitment cannot remain isolated from these wider political changes. The size of Australia's military presence was always determined more by alliance considerations than by 'conditions on the ground'. And how could it be otherwise, given the size of the ADF' Even deploying a whole brigade would not have had a decisive impact on the overall campaign.

When other allies begin to draw down forces, what possible political motivation could the new Australian Government have not to follow suit' The real challenge for the Australian Afghanistan strategy is to craft this commitment to have the greatest strategic, operational and tactical efficiency and impact. And it is this question that we tried to introduce into the debate in our original post.

In this context, we are somewhat bewildered by Jim's and Sam's responses to our proposal to send a frigate or F-18s as part of the wider Western presence in the Middle East. There are numerous NATO countries with maritime forces in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf regions. Western naval forces conduct anti-piracy missions off Somalia, conduct escort duties in the Straits of Hormuz, supervise the UN embargo on Iranian weapons exports, track weapons shipments to Lebanon and Gaza, intercept suspicious cargoes as part of the Proliferation Security Initiative, and much more.

Australian Super Hornets could conduct air patrols as part of that wider presence, fly close air support missions in Afghanistan, or simply train with their carrier-based US colleagues. All of these operations are ongoing and valuable, and none of them have anything to do with bombing Iran.

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