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Reader ripostes: Re-engineering Afghanistan

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21 July 2010 11:09

Two responses to the exchange between Jason Thomas, Will Clegg and myself about whether the Afghanistan counter-insurgency campaign represents an overly ambitious attempt to re-engineer an entire country. Further down, Daryl Morini dissents from this claim. But first, Olivia Kember:

Has Will Clegg actually read any of the other COIN theorists he name-checks? Kilcullen, for one, refers explicitly to Maslow's hierarchy in Article 23 of his most accessible (and most accessed) piece, 28 Articles: Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency:

"Counterinsurgency is armed social work; an attempt to redress basic social and political problems while being shot at. This makes civil affairs a central counterinsurgency activity, not an afterthought. It is how you restructure the environment to displace the enemy from it. In your company sector, civil affairs must focus on meeting basic needs first, then progress up Maslow's hierarchy as each successive need is met...Your role is to provide protection, identify needs, facilitate civil affairs and use improvements in social conditions as leverage to build networks and mobilize the population. Thus, there is no such thing as impartial humanitarian assistance or civil affairs in counterinsurgency. Every time you help someone, you hurt someone else - not least the insurgents."

This sounds like re-engineering to me. In fact, Clegg's own summary of ISAF's aims in Afghanistan — 'shape the security environment, build an army, and provide Afghanistan's ruling elite with the political opportunity and political support necessary for them to put Afghanistan back on the trajectory of gradual modernisation' — also sounds like re-engineering to me. That third goal is, when you consider what needs to be done to make it happen, hugely ambitious.

Interestingly, despite Clegg's statement that military and political operators aren't focused on re-engineering (and it's tempting to suggest that this might have something to do with the lack of progress in Afghanistan despite nearly a decade of fighting), they seem to be developing more interest.

For example, this article from the New York Times describes the growing interaction between senior military leaders and the girls' school-building author of 'Three Cups of Tea', Greg Mortenson. As Mortenson notes, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are engaged in re-engineering over a long, multi-generational term. Why would we think we needn't do the same?

And here's Daryl Morini, an Honours student at the University of Queensland:

I mostly concur with the recent post by Will Clegg that Australia is not involved in Afghanistan to socially re-engineer anyone, least of all the Afghans. Out of fairness to the line of thought supported by Sam Roggeveen and Jason Thomas, though, counter-insurgency may well bear resemblances to law enforcement. But isn't the point of police patrols, parking tickets, and jail sentences — at least in principle — to deter most instances of illegal, indecent and violent behaviour, most of the time, rather than to radically re-engineer the very fabric of our society?

No analogy is ever perfect; neither is any society. Australia has a world-class state apparatus of policing, national security, and defence force which has effectively monopolised the legitimate use of coercion over this continent. Compare this with the sorry state of the Afghan National Army, not to mention the notoriously inept Afghan National Police, and you come to appreciate the fundamental problem in Afghanistan. The Afghan government lacks the basic capabilities to police its own territory, and legitimise its sole ownership over the use of organised violence in Afghanistan. Hence, NATO-ISAF is not in Afghanistan to build a nation, but to reform and strengthen a once functioning state battered by thirty years of more or less constant war.

Anyone reading the 2006 Afghanistan Compact could rightly counter that the multi-national intervention is also in the business of supporting Afghanistan's socio-economic development and civil society. But the document highlights the consensus view that basic security remains 'a fundamental prerequisite for achieving stability and development in Afghanistan.'

This explains why progress in Afghanistan is best benchmarked against the gradual transition to the Afghan government's own policing and defence capabilities, with the year 2014 being the potential end game in this final hand-over. But this also reveals the limited utility of the criminal-Taliban analogy. Pushed any further and the crime-insurgency nexus resembles not so much a dispassionate observation as a policy-concealing Trojan Horse. Sure, Australia has the Hell's Angels, but they are no Taliban — brawnier, perhaps, but their existence is not as consequential to national let alone international security. The Australian ice epidemic is certainly devastating to the people whose lives are consumed by it; but it is incomparable to the estimated 100,000 deaths which the Afghan poppy claims every year around the world, the addicts whose lives it destroys, and the violent insurgency which it ultimately finances. Finally, to the best of our knowledge, Australian gangs are not likely to welcome Osama bin Laden into their ranks anytime soon. Neither are they suspected of having the A-bomb on their weapons wish list.

I am being blunt to illustrate the point that we shouldn't be ahistorical in our national debate about Afghanistan. Arguing by analogy has its limits. Using a general observation (ie. civil wars are like petty crime) as a proxy for a more targeted argument (fixing Afghanistan is impossible and, therefore, undesirable) is not good enough.

Somewhat hubristically, I would like to propose some parameters to this very important discussion. First of all, let's reflect carefully on why we wound up in this country before rushing for the exit door and turning the lights off behind us, as Obama put it. Secondly, we should extrapolate a full spectrum of the possible consequences of our actions and non-actions — from the loss of Afghan to Australian lives — and then, and only then, proceed to make policy recommendations for the incoming Australian government.

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