Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 00:14 | SYDNEY
Friday 23 Feb 2018 | 00:14 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: Rudd's highwire act



13 November 2009 08:30

As Afghanistan tears at Washington and London, the bipartisan political consensus is holding in Canberra. Consider the relative silence at Peter Cosgrove's Boyer lecture conclusion on Afghanistan:

I think we can confidently say we are losing this battle.

The most famous soldier of the era, the previous chief of the Australian Defence Force, says we are losing. Then he places Afghanistan squarely beside the failure in Vietnam. Yet no real fireworks follow.

Cosgrove took much of the political sting from his comments by backing the Afghanistan mission, despite what he described as 'the protracted, seemingly intractable violence.' His complaint, ultimately, seemed to be about mission confusion:

Nobody would dare complain if we were cogent and crystal clear about what will constitute success and how we will get there…We are a loyal friend accompanying others in Afghanistan because it is right but our presence is not and never has been unconditional. In Vietnam our voice was not heard. It is in our national interest that it is heard among our allies at this critical time in Afghanistan.

Cosgrove repeated his view that, in hindsight, Australia's commitment to the Vietnam war was a mistake. After eight years in Afghanistan, he is not yet ready to make the same hindsight judgment. Instead, he offered a set of measures drawn from Vietnam that produce uneasy answers when applied to Afghanistan:

  • Look not only at the reasons why we go but also at the prospects of success.
  • Consider the methods that will be used to win.
  • What price are we prepared to pay?
  • What would be the cost of failure?
  • Remember the law of unintended consequences.

The Cosgrove lecture is thoughtful and balanced with a few sharp edges. But ultimately he does not put the sword to the throat of his government in the manner of US or British generals.

In the US, General Stanley McChrystal's 'real truths' and 'high stakes' speech has told his president to put up or shut up. In London, the ex-generals are going after the Brown Government with a vengeance while eminent journals ponder the strains imposed on the covenant between the British military and the country. The Financial Times has editorialised that Afghanistan is now 'the biggest test' of Brown's premiership.

These Afghanistan schisms are not being replicated here. Maybe the boat people drama trumps all else for the Australian media. Partly, the Rudd Government has political cover because it is dealing with one of John Howard's wars. Add to this the balance struck by Rudd's mantra: we are fully committed but this is our full commitment.

Rudd has to keep Labor's left in mind, especially as the casualty toll mounts. Having a Lion of the Left as Defence Minister is useful for this calculation. On the right, the Prime Minister has less to fear than Obama, who can be attacked by Republicans with the charge that he is a wimp who is not doing enough to win. Rudd has more troops in Afghanistan than were sent by John Howard.

In maintaining the bipartisan political consensus, Brendan Nelson is set to be the former Liberal Leader and former Defence Minister who just keeps on giving for this Labor Prime Minister. As with most things Brendan does, he put a large measure of personal emotion into his attachment to the Afghanistan mission. Making him NATO ambassador means that commitment will have continuing policy — and political — relevance. The Nelson ambassadorship ranks as a useful bit of insurance against any Liberal retreat from the Afghanistan consensus.

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

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