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Afghanistan: Get serious, get moral or get out

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21 December 2009 16:27

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Paul Kelly has written in defence of Prime Minister Rudd and his Afghanistan policy, acknowledging that the Australian contribution to Afghanistan is token. Kelly considers that the hardline stance against more troops shows 'astute' management of the US alliance and is 'clever, serious and limited'. It may be none of these. Token contributions can be cynical, of questionable morality and may work against long term interests.

It is just as stupid for Australia to have a reputation as an unreliable, almost irrelevant military ally as it is for us to be seen as 'dumb but loyal and eager', as Owen Harries put it. But that's just what we are in danger of doing in Afghanistan. 

The 'contemporary Australian tradition', as Kelly calls it, has become the Australian way of war – of cynical, token military contributions.

Our contribution is token because it does not have the number or type of troops to materially contribute to Obama's oft repeated (and still confusing) 'disrupt, dismantle and defeat' ambition or to the tactical mantra of 'shape, clear, hold and build'. This is not to disparage the troops themselves, whose tactical success is almost the only redeeming feature of our contribution.

Australia is also deficient in numbers and types of troops needed to achieve the aim that the PM set in April, to train sufficient Afghans in Oruzgan to replace us. This is because it takes not just trainers but also formed units to fight alongside a building army (referred to as 'partnering' and continually mentioned by General McChrystal, the commanding general). To do otherwise is to rush the emerging Afghan security forces to failure. That's not 'clever' or 'serious'.

If you can put more troops into a conflict and refuse to do so on the grounds of political expediency, there is a moral question about the contribution. If your troops are suffering and inflicting casualties above token levels but are not strong enough to achieve some decisive result even locally, then morality must become an issue. Why are we fighting the same fights in roughly the same places against generally the same people, where we kill a few of them, they kill a few of us, and we both kill civilians? Is that what Kelly calls 'astute'? Is this 'careful calibration'?

Kelly mentions that the Defence Minister relies on tsunamis and earthquakes as reasons for Australia's 'real priority' being 'home defence and light duties in the region'. This is just plainly wrong. The kind of forces that go to earthquakes and tsunamis, and even those that might be held in readiness for permissive evacuations of Australians from Pacific hotspots, are generally not those that would go to Oruzgan Province.

This war is not won just because a questionably committed US president has provided half the number of US troops requested by his military commander for a limited period. The US needs its allies because it is desperately short of resources even if it does not publicly embarrass them when their contribution is only token. This war should be prosecuted effectively by all allies, not just the US, UK, Denmark and Canada. The Prime Minister roundly condemned NATO last April for doing exactly what he is doing now.

As Liam Fox (UK Conservative Shadow Defence Secretary) said recently, 'Common security implies common commitments'. Get serious, get moral or get out.

Photo by Flickr user lafrancevi, used under a Creative Commons license.

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