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Reader riposte: A soldier's view of Afghanistan tokenism

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19 March 2009 08:36

From an Australian soldier who prefers not to be identified: 

In response to Raoul Heinrichs' 'The case for (more) tokenism in Afghanistan', while I agree with some of Raoul's ideas, perhaps the use of a different and more diplomatic title should be considered.

Being a special-operations soldier who served in Afghanistan, I understand that our contribution may not turn the tide, but considering the cost of what we are doing (especially in light of the recent ninth casualty) perhaps rephrasing the title would be appropriate. While to some, Australia’s contribution may seem token, sometimes we need to be reminded that some of our guys are being killed. And it really doesn’t feel token when an RPG explodes in front of you.

Moreover, what is going on in Afghanistan is not a ‘war’ — it is a counter-insurgency occurring predominantly in the areas occupied by the Pashtun people (a notoriously proto-insurgent people and one of the largest ethnolinguist groups without sovereignty) who inhabit the arbitrary Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

The situation is dire, needs a significant change in perspective, and would most certainly take a long time to stabilize, but the assumption that the 'war is already lost' is premature. Counterinsurgencies live and die with the population. Until we have the support of the population and local ownership of the stabilization efforts we will not be able to defy history and avoid the fate the Soviets and British suffered.

We need to alter our strategy from a military-led strategy, which is inherently inflexible, to a more nuanced approach which takes into account and respects the intrinsic complexity of a society with as much cultural solidarity as the Pashtun people — the classical 'strong society, weak state'.

I have mixed feelings about this. I can easily see how the 'token' label can be hurtful to those serving in Afghanistan. But it does the Australian public and our military personnel no good at all to deceive them about Australia's mission — they are owed the truth.

On the other hand, the tokenism strategy does imply a certain level of implicit deception. I don't think Raoul would advocate that we flat-out tell the Americans we're only making a 'token' contribution. Yet that would be the honest truth, and both sides would know it, while refusing to publicly acknowledge it.

As for whether the Afghanistan war is already lost, I'm  open to our correspondent's suggestion that this is not so. But it seems to me the more important question is whether the war is worth winning.

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