Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 14:07 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 14:07 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: The case for 6000 Australian troops

25 March 2009 09:30

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

I have confidence that the war in Afghanistan is being prosecuted legally and morally. My concern is that the war in Afghanistan, and Australia’s small part in it, is not being prosecuted effectively.

We are likely to lose if we keep doing what we are doing. We are likely to ‘win’ if we intelligently do the kind of things that we know to work. Winning is a joint endeavour with the Afghan people through their (imperfect) government. Ultimately, winning is ensuring that the Afghan people — not the warlords, drug lords, the Taliban, al Qaeda or us — have some control over their country. But even this will not be perfect. Success or winning in Afghanistan will look only vaguely like Iraq.

Many of those who say we cannot win in Afghanistan also said that we could not win in Iraq. They were wrong that time but they may be right this time, though only if we keep doing everything wrong. This time, in all humility, we know so much more. The friction will occur as we try to adapt lessons and apply them in Afghanistan. If we intelligently apply the right techniques with an appropriate level of military and non-military resources over the right period of time, this war is winnable.

The war in Afghanistan is being badly run because of a lack of resources and lack of a comprehensive strategy. Every war that I can think of has started this way and some have gone on to be successfully concluded. We may not be applying the latest counter-insurgency techniques (as Soldier X points out) at the moment, but at least we do know what is likely to work now, and given time and the right number of troops, they will be adapted to Afghanistan and applied.

We have adopted essentially a holding strategy, under which we conduct stabilization and counter-insurgency operations with whatever forces we happen to have, until a comprehensive strategy appears and sufficient resources are made available. Within this perfectly legitimate Afghanistan strategy, our Australian soldiers' actions have logic until the point that we continue to not resource the war and merely extend pointless military action in the midst of the Afghan population. We are rapidly approaching that point.

If I look at our present commitment, I do not see it being related to ‘winning’ in Oruzgan Province as part of our contribution to ‘winning’ across all of Afghanistan. We have been in Oruzgan now for over three years and we are still fighting the same clever little tactical battles amongst the Oruzgan citizenry, at a cost to everyone. Our soldiers are performing very well in a tactical sense but unless we change an awful lot, we can expect them to continue performing well until the day that we lose the war. We are only marginally increasing our control over the province (if at all) and we are not impacting on the Taliban’s control of the people. Call it token or call it niche, it is what it is.

For our Government to be other than token, we need to make an effective contribution to winning. I anticipate (hope) that there will soon be a much more effective strategy coming out of Central Command, largely shaped by Petraeus, which if resourced, should give the coalition a chance to actually win.

Australia needs to assess this strategy and to decide whether or not to increase our commitment from token or niche to a meaningful contribution to win. That contribution must be to establish a level of control over Oruzgan Province that supports the overall winning strategy, and under which we can increase security (this will involve offensive military actions), assist local governance, build up local security forces, and increase economic and humanitarian activity to give the people something for all their suffering.

To do this, we must make a substantial increase in our force.

In 2009, it would be militarily meaningful to increase our force by a battle group of about 900 personnel. But it would only be meaningful if they are permitted to conduct offensive actions. Troops are not the only answer, but they are the first answer so that sufficient security is established to then go on to do all the other clever things we need to do. And the ADF can do this – it has the resources if it wants to do it.

Then, in the worst case that the Dutch lessen their commitment and no other alliance partners offer up troops, by 2011 Australia must be prepared to take over the province and to provide up to 6000 troops. This is a figure that I assess as being necessary to establish a basic level of control in the province while the Afghans get on their feet. This could be a commitment of three to five years.

If we only make another token increase (more trainers and some security for the elections), and the US Marines do not step in to take over the whole thing (or to take over a substantial part of the province), then our entire effort could becomes meaningless because I cannot see any form of success appearing in the future. The ADF could find the troops in two years' time if it wanted to, and if it started to prepare now.

But we should not do this unless there is an overall strategy that makes sense and gives meaning to our contribution. I suspect that we will get a good strategy in the next few days. The appearance of a good strategy represents a real problem for the Australian Government and the ADF if they do not want to make a contribution greater than tokenism, because Australian tokenism will be even more noticeable in the context of a good overall strategy.

Let me finish with an emotive statement about a cold hard strategic issue. I suggest that it is about time that the Government and the Australian people, in terms of deciding a future commitment to Afghanistan, match the courage of the soldiers that it has already sent. It is time to begin the process of winning in Afghanistan. Anything less than a commitment to win should be called exactly what it is – tokenism.

Photo by Flickr user angelfire 3182, used under a Creative Commons license.