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Australia and the next phase of the Afghan war

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4 August 2010 09:47

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

At the Kabul Conference of 20 July, Western leaders and President Karzai staged a show of confidence in Afghan national institutions that sometimes bordered on the bizarre. 

The Canadians and Dutch are leaving, and other allies, including the Brits, will begin to draw down troops from 2011. But even now, NATO does not have enough forces to implement its population-centric COIN strategy, and General Petraeus has scrapped the planned offensive in Kandahar. Western allies do not have the stomach to implement the ambitious strategy laid out by President Obama only six months ago, yet the war itself is also not likely to end soon. 

Clearly, something has to give.

In Senate hearings last week, incoming CENTCOM commander James Mattis was asked whether the US should not 'begin moving toward a more limited strategy of hunting down insurgents without trying to rebuild Afghanistan' in 2011. His response: 'I think that is the approach'. This does not mean the advent of the 'counter-terrorism’ strategy, which was soundly rejected in last year's strategy review. But it does signal the end of the current, population-centric COIN approach, which required NATO forces to directly pacify the country.

Instead, the US will now have to rely on local strongmen and village defence forces to keep the Taliban at bay. NATO will remain responsible for military operations in the country until at least 2014. In tandem with Western forces, the Afghan National Army can punish any rogue warlords that Kabul cannot buy through patronage. 

The emerging approach thus does not mean that Afghanistan will disintegrate as a nation — Petraeus is even intensifying the efforts to reduce corruption in the central government. But it will be local power-brokers, rather than Kabul ministries and their liberal-minded Western donors, who decide whether girls will go to school.

Managing the transition to the new phase in the war will pose difficult challenges for the next Australian Government. ANZUS does not have the institutional depth of NATO. Any precipitous withdrawal by Australia would put strains on the alliance while geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific are becoming more antagonistic. To avoid this scenario, the next Government should take three complementary steps.

First, the ADF contingent in Afghanistan must be structured to provide meaningful support to the new US strategy even after a visible reduction in size. The Australian SAS should be allowed to serve without the caveats currently imposed by Canberra.

Second, politicians and Defence need to change their narrative on Australia's Afghanistan operation. The ADF has long relied on local warlords to keep the peace in Oruzgan, but this fact does not sit well with the official line spun by Defence and Government. To convince the public that a continued, if smaller, contribution is in Australia's interest, the Government must first become more honest about the current situation. 

Third, the Australian military presence in the Middle East should be shaped to support wider US interests than only those in Afghanistan. The unresolved conflict over the Iranian nuclear program is shaping up as a major future challenge. Sending an additional frigate to participate in maritime security operations in the Persian Gulf, or deploying the new Super Hornet fighters there, would be strong signals that Australia remains willing to invest in its security relationship with the US.

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

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