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The long war with radical Islam

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COMMENTS

9 December 2009 15:04

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

Sam Roggeveen and I appeared on ABC Local Radio's Nightlife on Monday night talking about Afghanistan. We each took our predictable positions on the subject but as the program progressed I kept thinking about why we are in Afghanistan and the changing nature of the conflict.

One of the regular criticisms of those who advocate continued involvement in Afghanistan is that even if we are successful, it will not make us safe from terror. That's a legitimate point because there are many other places from which terror attacks can be planned and mounted. Sam and I only had the chance to go 'once over lightly' on this issue.

But preventing terror attacks on the US or Australia is only one of the reasons to be in Afghanistan. Regardless of what the declared reasons are, the full range is something like: to lessen the pressure on Pakistan and lessen the chance of terror attacks emanating from that region; to maintain the alliance with the US; for humanitarian and moral reasons; and because we are there and it is harder to withdraw troops than it is to get involved in the first place.

We should also be mindful of the consequences of failure. Sam (quoting Steve Coll) listed four consequences of failure in Afghanistan: civil war in Afghanistan; increased momentum for the Taliban in Pakistan; possible damage to the Pakistan-India relationship; and an emboldened al Qaeda. I would add one more: the wider impact on the resolve of a humiliated US and its ability to deter actions contrary to Western interests.

Any of these reasons by themselves might justify some involvement. Several of them might justify substantial involvement.

What about success? Let's define success for the coalition as reducing the Taliban to a level that could be handled by the Afghans, setting up governance structures that give some chance of honest government with some representation and with rights at least partially protected, with the economy beginning to develop, and the chance of terror attacks being planned and mounted from Afghanistan significantly reduced.

But would it all have been worthwhile if the terrorists could just move to one of many other countries?

I agree that new centres of terror are likely to arise as soon as we deprive the current ones of oxygen. Those that oppose extremist Islam (variously defined) are of course involved in many of those places already: Indonesia and the Philippines, some pretty ineffectual involvement in Somalia by neighbours and (occasionally) the US, involvement by US Central Command in many countries within its area of responsibility using soft power, and the formation of the US Africa Command. I'm sure there are more examples.

It seems to me that the Clausewitzian era of the decisive battle or campaign after which we all go home and declare 'mission accomplished' has passed, at least for our confrontation with radical Islam. It is now unreasonable to expect that one or two campaigns would end our confrontation with this challenge. And the fact that it might go on for a very long time is primarily due to those that challenge us, not necessarily because of our guilt or our mistakes.

It might just be a lot easier for all of us if we come to accept that our deployments of military and non-military resources are unlikely to end after a modest and cautious victory in Iraq or Afghanistan. This then frees the mind to consider what I think is our priority – how to actually win the war we are in.

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

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