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Afghanistan

22 Jul 2009 09:48

Allan Behm, a former head of the International Policy and Strategy Divisions of the Department of Defence, is a risk analyst with Knowledge Pond.

Recent comments by Prime Minister Rudd and Foreign Minister Smith to the effect that the fighting in Afghanistan and the 17 July bombings in Jakarta are in some way connected because they are aspects of the 'international fight against terrorism' drew quick corrective therapy from the commentariat.

So often, as we saw with the phony 'Defence of Australia' debate a few years ago, what passes for conversation on important policy issues is more like barrackers shouting at each other, thinking different thoughts and speaking different languages. Perhaps talking past each other, rather than to each other, is an enduring Australian trait.

COMMENTS

23 Jul 2009 11:29

Allan Behm ends his defence of the Afghanistan operation with the warning that Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Noordin Top 'would derive considerable encouragement' from any Western decision to 'walk away from a military unwinnable fight against the Taliban'.

But when the fight against terrorism demands the continuation of a costly and unwinnable war, just because ending it would encourage terrorists, isn't it time to question our strategy? If we saw someone we didn't like continually butting their head against a brick wall, we wouldn't be intimidated by them or admire them for their toughness; instead, we'd question their sanity and perhaps think we had the upper hand against them.

Basing our strategy on what would 'encourage' the likes of Noordin Top is to enter a hall of mirrors. Sure, leaving Afghanistan might look like weakness, but hasn't going in there in the first place encouraged terrorists too? It has certainly exposed the West to just the kind of defeat the Soviets suffered and which so bucked Osama bin Laden.

COMMENTS

27 Jul 2009 10:25

Two readers have written in to comment on Sam's post on knowing our limits in Afghanistan. The first is from Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan who is the author of Running the War in Iraq. Sam is away for a few days and will, no doubt, respond on return.

Sam’s post on Afghanistan (widely quoting Rory Stewart’s almost very good article) annoyed me so much, I have now tried three times to draft an answer. It reminded me that there is a vast difference between the real world and our comfortable world of commentary and blogging.

COMMENTS

30 Jul 2009 15:29

I'm sorry to have moved Jim Molan to such fury with my post about Afghanistan, but I can't find anything in the Allan Mallison article he recommends that changes my mind. As with many such articles, the arguments are mostly about what the coalition needs to do to build a functioning, self-defending Afghan democracy. But the overarching argument about whether that aim is even worthwhile is skated over very quickly.

Mallison says it's all about creating a state that won't harbour terrorists of the kind that perpetrated the 9/11 and London underground atrocities, which is fair enough as far as it goes. But if the Rory Stewart article I quoted is right, and that can be done with around 20,000 troops, why not confine the mission strictly to anti-terrorism rather than the incredibly ambitious nation-building strategy we now have?

COMMENTS

3 Aug 2009 14:05

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

The reasons Sam moved me to such annoyance are simple, and he mentions both of them in his riposte.

The first is the proposition that you only need 20,000 troops to do anything in Afghanistan. We did have 20,000 troops there at one stage and it did not quite work. I acknowledge that Rory Stewart might be right; there are no absolutes. What he advocates might work now when it did not work before in Afghanistan or Vietnam or Iraq or Malaya or Northern Ireland, but I doubt it, and what will Rory Stewart do if he is wrong?

COMMENTS

4 Aug 2009 11:17

It seems Jim Molan and I have been talking past each other. In his latest post, Jim says that, 'given that the probability of leaving seems to me to be very low, most of our brain power should be directed at how to proceed.' That means Jim wants to talk mostly about questions of 'how', whereas I remain stubbornly attached to discussing the 'why'.

Jim is probably right to say that it is too late to have the 'why' debate, because the die is cast. But good arguments can change minds and eventually change policy, so here are two points that summarise my scepticism about the Afghanistan operation, one specific and another general.

First, it is a misallocation of resources. This is particularly the case if you want to argue that our presence in Afghanistan is primarily about reducing the threat of terrorism — given the variety of lawless places from which an al Qaeda attack could spring, there is little justification for expending so many resources on denying them just one. As Stephen Biddle argues in his guarded defence of the Afghanistan mission: 

COMMENTS

4 Aug 2009 17:24

Mark Corcoran is has been a journalist with ABC-TV’s Foreign Correspondent program for 13 years. From 1998-2004 he spent considerable time in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

I think much of the debate triggered by Sam's post misses a crucial issue: setting aside the 'War on Terror' rhetoric for a moment, if the US-led forces achieve a short-term military victory in Afghanistan, what happens next? Exactly who are Australia and the NATO alliance fighting for? What kind of people are going to run this New Afghanistan?

When you put those questions to US officials over the past several years you got the usual empty, non-specific rhetoric about 'nation-building'. But a key security factor ignored by many in this debate is the simple, indisputable fact that Afghanistan is a narco-state. Half of all economic activity is derived from narcotics.

COMMENTS

6 Aug 2009 09:35

The Afghanistan debate between Jim Molan, myself and others (click on the 'read more in this debate' button above to see the whole thread) has drawn heavily on a London Review of Books article by Rory Stewart.

Just to reinforce a point I made in one post about distinguishing between the 'how' and the 'why' of Afghanistan policy, I can't resist quoting Stewart again, this time from an interview with the Financial Times (h/t Drum):

“I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks, pronging a mussel out of its shell.

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says ...’”

COMMENTS

10 Aug 2009 14:12

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

In response to Sam, both the 'how' and the 'why' are important in Afghanistan – it just depends on how much effort we put into each, and which part of each we address.

If the 'why' question is focused on why we went there in the first place, we have plenty of time to consider it because it is essentially an academic exercise. To be intellectually honest, we would need to look at why went there first, then why we went back, why the Liberal Government made an initial commitment, why Labor then adopted the conflict and why its rhetoric is so much stronger than its commitment of resources, just as the Liberal Government's rhetoric was in Iraq.

We should also ask why, in any of the commitments so far, there is no alignment between objectives, tasks and resources. But we have lots of time to do that after we win or lose this war.

COMMENTS

14 Aug 2009 12:22

Well, this is reassuring. The speaker is US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke:

Asked about how to measure success and progress in Afghanistan, Holbrooke remarked, "In the simplest sense...We'll know it when we see it."

To be fair, the NY Times reports that the National Security Adviser is working on a document setting out nine objectives for the mission, but they seem to reflect the worryingly expansive terms in which the Obama Administration now sees the Afghanistan operation: building the Afghan Army, decreasing corruption, increasing local cooperation with police and coalition forces, improving election processes. Marc Lynch takes the words out of my mouth:

...what happened between President Obama's March 27 declaration of a limited set of objectives --"I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future"  -- and the expansive goals of "armed state building" which appear to now define the mission?

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