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The case for (more) tokenism in Afghanistan

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COMMENTS

18 March 2009 12:02

As things go from bad to worse in Afghanistan, President Obama has begun the familiar process of managing expectations, conscious that the barriers to success, however modestly defined, remain virtually insurmountable. With his credibility at stake, however, Obama is gambling on more forces, a more realistic strategy, and the comforting thought that Afghanistan has finally been afforded its rightful prominence among competing strategic priorities.

For its sins, the Rudd Government’s loud and frequent calls for a more coherent strategy have been answered. Canberra is under no illusions about American expectations, and is almost certain to enhance its commitment to the war. Against this backdrop, a number of Australia’s leading strategic thinkers have made the case for Australia to substantially upgrade its military presence, to double or triple its force levels, or take responsibility for Oruzgan province.

These are, in my view, eminently misguided recommendations. In operation, they would be dangerous, costly, and out of touch with the scale of Australian interests in Afghanistan, as well as the strength of our alliance position. While the Government should seriously rethink its long-term commitment to the war, if it is determined to ‘stay the course’, here are some strategic considerations that ought to guide the size and composition of any additional contribution.

1. The war is already lost: The invasion of Afghanistan seems to have been motivated more by a reflexive desire for retribution than by a rational set of political objectives. To the extent that the war was based on strategic objectives, it was to deny al Qaeda a permissive environment and a territorial base from which it could raise and train forces, command and control operations, and conduct its affairs with relative impunity.

This might once have been possible, had the war been conducted differently, but no longer. Since 2001, the Taliban and al Qaeda have re-established almost full freedom of action in Pakistan. They have consolidated their position, organised an effective resistance in Afghanistan, and resumed their depredations against targets in Pakistan and elsewhere. Even if Obama is able to hold his adversaries at bay in Afghanistan, without a massive intervention in Pakistan — which isn’t going to happen — failure is a foregone conclusion.

2. Australian involvement is, and always has been, an exercise in alliance management: That the war is already lost should logically preclude Australia’s ongoing involvement; from a strictly ethical standpoint, it should at least disqualify any additional contribution. But these considerations belie the fundamental reason for Australian involvement in Afghanistan, which is to demonstrate Canberra’s fidelity to the US alliance — an objective that can be achieved, and to a certain extent already has been, with little regard to the overall progress or eventual outcome of the war, and without risking the lives of large number of Australian personnel.

Australians are naturally uncomfortable with the thought of fighting a war for the sole purpose of currying favour with an ally, despite a proud tradition of doing precisely that. The Government tends to emphasise other, more appreciable objectives. In reality, though, Australia has few, if any, direct interests in Afghanistan. Where it does have some peripheral interests, in Pakistan, it has no capacity to affect them at any credible level of cost or risk.

Few people understood this better than John Howard, and it is to his model of alliance management to which Australia should now turn. This means being entirely symbolic with any additional contribution, supplementing it with regular and conspicuous expressions of diplomatic solidarity. Like Iraq, the key to effective symbolism in Afghanistan is to maximise Australia’s visibility, using the lowest acceptable number of personnel, subject to the lowest levels of risk.

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

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