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Gillard\'s Afghanistan challenge

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8 March 2011 17:21

Prime Minister Gillard's visit to Washington this week presents her with a golden opportunity to prepare the Obama Administration for an accelerated draw-down of Australian forces from Afghanistan. This is the defining foreign policy challenge of her prime-ministership.

Australian soldiers have had an almost continual presence in Afghanistan since 2001. They have acquitted themselves with honour and distinction, and they have allowed the Australian Government to demonstrate its status as a loyal and steadfast US ally. They should now come home.

Despite our best efforts, and those of our allies, the situation on the ground is hopeless. The war is lost, and has been for years. This is not due to incompetence, weakness or lack of heart, but rather because of the profound asymmetry of the conflict. Whereas the Taliban can win just by surviving, coalition forces must fulfill an overwhelming set of objectives, including building up Afghan security forces, clamping down on corruption, and administering large swathes of territory without alienating the Afghan population.

Any one of these is a formidable undertaking. Taken together, they've proven insurmountable. Indeed, even if coalition objectives could be achieved in Afghanistan, the presence of al Qaeda and Taliban forces next door in Pakistan — largely out of range – has, as I've noted many times, doomed the whole exercise to futility.

Other countries have been quicker to recognise this than we have. The Dutch have gone. Canada will be out by the middle of the year. Germany begins its withdrawal in December. And Poland and Lithuania have committed to leaving in 2012.

As Hugh White points out, even Washington has begun to accept the reality of an ignominious conclusion to the war. President Obama has outlined a time-frame for America's withdrawal, beginning in July this year. He's also initiated talks with senior Taliban leaders aimed at exploring a political settlement to end the war.

In the meantime, each side will be aiming translate its military fortunes into leverage at the negotiating table. But make no mistake: the Taliban has the upper-hand, and it's now a matter of time before a deal is cut, whether formally or not, that cedes to them vast amounts of power and territory. In fact, the withdrawal last month of US forces from the Pech Valley, an area once described as critical to the war effort, suggests this process may already be underway.

What should Gillard do'

For one thing, she needs to begin from the premise that, with no direct interests at stake and no hope of success, the struggle for Afghanistan is not worthy of any more Australian lives. As such, she'll need to negotiate a compressed time-frame for Australia's withdrawal and, more immediately, a new set of rules that minimise the risks to Australian personnel.

The combat element of Australia's contingent should be taken out of the line of fire as soon as possible and sent home for a well-earned break. The bulk of Australia's forces, those involved in training the Afghan army, could stay on a fraction longer, but only under much tighter restrictions. That would mean no patrolling dangerous roads, no defusing road-side bombs and training Afghan forces only from inside the base.

For Gillard, all of this will require enormous courage, leadership and diplomatic skill. The Army won't like it and even minor adjustments to Australia's role will elicit cries that she risks ruining the alliance. She should pay no attention.

In fact, as China rises and Asia becomes more contested, Australia is becoming more, not less, relevant to the US. The last thing Washington needs right now is a dispute with one of its most devoted Asian allies. This gives Gillard considerable leverage to reshape the Afghanistan deployment in ways that better reflect our interests.

Photo by FLickr user ISAF Media

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