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Australia's Afghan war

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COMMENTS

13 July 2010 09:49

Following the death of Private Nathan Bewes, the sixth Australian soldier to be killed in Afghanistan in little over a month, the public is again asking what the war is all about.

Reacting to these concerns, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has trundled out a familiar policy one-liner, declaring that 'Our objective is clear: to combat the threat of international terrorism, to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a training ground for terrorists launching attacks against us and our allies'.

Such cursory remarks about Australia's 'war on terror' do not amount to a clear articulation of this country's strategic objectives. As Soldier Z and Peter Leahy have argued, Australia urgently needs a public debate about our national interests in Afghanistan. Before the Government decides to either withdraw the troops, stay the course or offer more than a 'token' contribution to fighting in Oruzgan, the Australian public must be told why we are there and what interests are at stake.

So what are Australia's reasons for being in Afghanistan? It seems to me that there are three good answers.

First, Australia has an interest in supporting the American alliance. Although our forces play an important role in ISAF's state-building and counter-insurgency mission, providing political support for 'America's war' is by far the most salient reason for our presence. Nor should the Government be shy about this fact. Maintaining the alliance is prudent foreign policy. It offers benefits like sensitive technology and high-value intelligence; and would be indispensable in the defence of Australia.

Moreover, most Australians accept this argument. While the latest Lowy Institute poll puts opposition to the Afghan war at 54%, a clear majority of 86% continue to support the alliance. In fact, had the Australian Government more openly articulated 'alliance management' as a motive for being in Afghanistan, it is possible our contribution would have enjoyed greater public support from the outset. As no prime minister will dare to withdraw our troops until the US begins to leave, this defence of 'Australia's war' may still be worth making.

Second, it is in Australia's interest to support the kind of rules-based international order that finds its expression in the Afghan war. As a so-called 'middle power', Australia depends as much on collective security arrangements as it does on the American alliance. In terms of trade, regional security and global stability, we benefit from an international environment where conflict and violations of international law are met with a multilateral resolve to act. 

Since UN Resolution 1386, our participation in ISAF has served to uphold such a rules-based system. This is not to say that routing the Taliban is in Australia's direct (or indirect) national interests. But as collective security is premised upon the 'one for all, all for one' principle, assisting ISAF's mission is critical to its political underpinnings. And it is likely to pay dividends when we next require international support for a security contingency in our region.

Third, Australia has an interest in a positive resolution to the war. If stability cannot be achieved through national reconciliation and the consolidation of an ISAF-trained Afghan National Army, it is likely the conflict will further destabilise the Af-Pak border and spread across the region. While a failed Afghanistan would be dangerous, instability or state failure in nuclear-armed Pakistan would have dire implications for all of South Asia. And it would no doubt necessitate an even greater response from the international community, including Australia. If the Somalia debacle taught us anything, it’s that withdrawing in advance of a lasting solution will only come back to haunt us.

Of course, the overall validity of the Afghan war will depend on the ability of NATO commanders to turn ISAF's strategic goals into victories on the ground. On the question of whether or not this is achievable, I willingly defer to the experts. Either way, this issue is of secondary importance to Australia. Our contribution is predominantly political. It was, by itself, never designed to win the war. If Australia stays the course in Afghanistan, it should be for the reasons outlined in this post.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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