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Three things you may not hear in the parliamentary debate on Afghanistan

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15 October 2010 10:54

The Government has announced that the promised parliamentary debate on Afghanistan will start next Tuesday with a statement by the Prime Minister. Over the next few days, I would like to discuss three things you may not hear in the debate. Here is the first.

1. It' s about leaving (it has always been about leaving).

To draw a very crude analogy, the issue facing the coalition in Afghanistan is like the classic one-night stand dilemma: boy meets girl; boy goes back to girl's place; later that evening boy is thinking, 'Do I leave now, or do I have to hang around until morning''. In Afghanistan, the coalition has ended up hanging around till midday, the point at which the girl is starting to think, 'What is he still doing here''.

The US-led coalition went to Afghanistan on a justified punitive and preventative mission — to strike at those that had carried out the September 11 attacks, and those that had harboured them – but had very little idea —or, more accurately, lots of different ideas — about what to do next. 

So up until about 2007, residual US forces mostly chased terrorists not captured or killed in the original invasion, NATO did some poorly thought-out security and reconstruction work, and we all helped put in place a new Afghan government, providing it (at least initially) with relatively miserly amounts of aid, a lot of which ended up in the pockets of Western contractors.

Different countries had a mix of different motivations for being in Afghanistan: to finish the hunt for al Qaeda; to support the new Afghan government; to promote democracy and development; to prevent future terror attacks; to stop the Taliban from coming back; to demonstrate alliance solidarity with the US; to show that NATO had post-Cold War relevance; to avoid being asked to send troops to Iraq; and maybe even because they felt some responsibility toward Afghans.

Only two things tie all of these rationales together: uncertainty ('what will happen if we leave'' — to the terrorist threat, to Afghanistan, to our credibility, to our alliance relationship, etc), and a desire to get out as quickly as possible. Ironically, this has seen the coalition hang around for nearly a decade while it worked out how do the latter, while trying to answer the former. 

It is only fairly recently that the coalition has agreed a reasonably common aim and strategy – which kind of looks like nation-building, but is not (more on this in a later post). One can debate whether the coalition is doing any better now than it was before and, to pinch Rory Stewart's argument, the coalition is possibly overestimating what it can do and what it needs to do in Afghanistan. But either way, it does not change the fact that what we are still trying to do is leave. 

Therefore, in Australia's debate about Afghanistan, it would be nice to see less a discussion about why we should or should not stay, but what we should and can achieve before we leave. This may seem a subtle difference, but it is an important one. 

For the Government, it means framing its narrative in terms of Australia leaving rather than staying – something which will reassure an increasingly sceptical public, without, at the same time, setting artificial deadlines. I suspect this is what the former Defence Minister Senator Faulkner was trying to do, and the Government seems to have continued it by talking about Australia's focus being on training the Afghan Army to assume security responsibility in Uruzgan.

It also means not getting sidetracked into debates about whether Afghanistan is a bigger potential terrorist threat than, say, Yemen or Somalia, as if we were still deciding where to send our troops. 

But mostly it means starting our debate from the fact that we are there, that the coalition, of which Australia is a significant member, is still a factor in what happens in Afghanistan (one can debate the extent), and therefore that leaving has consequences. Our debate should try to help define what these consequences are – for Australia's national interest, but also for Afghans – and decide which ones we can live with and which ones we can't. 

In debating these consequences we can't, however, simply confine ourselves to the reasons we went to Afghanistan in the first place. The moment coalition forces set foot on the ground they raised issues and set in train processes and consequences – positive and negative, intended and otherwise – that cannot now be ignored in making decisions about how and when to leave. And what this means for Australia is that Afghanistan cannot just be about the alliance. I'll discuss this further in my next post.

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

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