Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 17:58 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 17:58 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: The costs of success


Rodger Shanahan


16 November 2009 07:49

Graeme Dobell's post on the lack of Australian coverage, let alone debate, about Afghanistan paraphrases a question cited by Peter Cosgrove during his Boyer lecture: 'What would be the costs of failure?'

I would be more inclined to ask about the costs of success, because success will not look much like what Joe Public thought it would when we entered Afghanistan. That is not to say that the intervention cannot ultimately be called a success. I baulk at the term 'victory' because it connotes a sense of totality and finite time. No, the mission in Afghanistan could well be successful, but I can't ever see it being called a victory. 

In reality, we are not fighting for the installation of a democratic government in Kabul, nor the eradication of opium production, nor the promotion of equal rights for women or religious or ethnic minorities. And claims that a withdrawal without the establishment of a fully functioning and transparent central government with control over its territory and a willingness to tackle endemic corruption constitutes a failure miss the point. This was never really an achievable aim, even if sufficient resources had been employed at the start.

Establishing a governance or security structure that is able to deny the use of its territory to elements that seek to train and equip themselves and plan for attacks against the West would constitute a success. This is a much less grandiose measure but one that is more achievable and one that also provides justification for the military losses suffered to date and those to come.
But there will be 'costs' of success. Besides the obvious physical costs of war, there will be political costs as national leaders explain that grandiose visions for the future Afghanistan will have to be scaled back. But as none of the main political leaders were in power when the war began, this is a minor issue, and in any case democratic elections tend to be determined by economic, rather than geo-strategic issues.

It is also likely that some element of the Taliban will be part of a future Afghan government. But this should not be seen as constituting failure because the Taliban entered the crosshairs of the West when it provided succour to al Qaeda, not because of its predilection for governing from the Middle Ages. Cut the al Qaeda linkage and the Taliban potentially become part of the solution rather than the problem.
And what of al Qaeda in all of this? Unlike the victory of the mujahideen over the Soviets, the current war in Afghanistan is not going to produce the numbers of battle-hardened Afghan Arabs that formed the core of al Qaeda and which continues to pose a security threat around the world.

Al Qaeda will claim the eventual withdrawal of ISAF as a victory, but if it remains restricted to the badlands of Pakistan with little ability to train or equip footsoldiers or develop new leadership cadres then this becomes little more than rhetoric, and foreign militaries and security services can then focus on the more manageable counter-terrorism task, rather than the seemingly endless counter-insurgency.

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