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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 01:31 | SYDNEY
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Pakistan/Afghanistan: Are Australia's priorities right?

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5 March 2009 21:00

Over at The National Interest Online you'll find a penetrating, if slightly grouchy, review of a new book by Australian counterinsurgency (COIN) expert David Kilcullen. The reviewer is Andrew Bacevich, of whom we've spoken before on The Interpreter.

Bacevich hits on what I regard as the key theme in this debate, one which he alleges that COIN practicioners like Kilcullen are too polite to make explicitly: that meddling in traditional societies is a fools errand, and that the West should never have embarked on projects to remake Afghanistan and Iraq. This just plays into al Qaeda's strategy to bleed the West dry, so a far better idea is to practise containment against the Islamist threat and just wait it out. Here's Bacevich's closing paragraph:

When it comes to dealing with Islamism, containment rather than transformation should provide the cornerstone of U.S. (and Western) strategy. Ours is the far stronger hand. The jihadist project is entirely negative. Apart from offering an outlet for anger and resentment, Osama bin Laden and others of his ilk have nothing on offer. Time is our ally. With time, our adversary will wither and die — unless through our own folly we choose to destroy ourselves first.

That line about the jihadists' negative project rang particularly true for me in light of the Lahore terrorist attack against the Sri Lankan cricket team. It is hard to think of a more counter-productive strategy for al Qaeda and its sympathisers than to attack one of Pakistan's most loved pastimes. Indeed, on first hearing of the attack, my reaction was that it was a profoundly stupid move that would strengthen the hand of reformist and modernising elements in Pakistani politics.

But if Pakistan really is slipping into the kind of decline my colleague Rory worried about earlier this week, one wonders if those forces have the resilience and fortitude to resist such a slide and exploit the stupidity of the Islamists' tactics. If not, then Bacevich's containment strategy, which I think is a sensible one, would demand that the West comes to the financial and political help of those forces. Ahmed Rashid's latest notes that the US is already doing this, but it also describes why more is urgently needed, as Pakistan 'teeters on the edge of chaos.'

All of this raises a question: is Australia's military effort in Afghanistan (which looks likely to grow soon) really the best use of the resources we devote to that region? If, out of Pakistan and Afghanistan, we could choose only one that would stumble along with a vaguely pro-Western orientation and a stable central government, while the other is condemned to poverty and Islamist rule, well, wouldn't that be a pretty simple choice?

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