Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:34 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:34 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: It doesn't stack up (part 1)


Sam Roggeveen


2 September 2009 15:11

The recent (mostly American) blog debate about the strategic justification for the Afghanistan war (see this site, and this one and this one and this one) has now hit the US media mainstream, with veteran Washington Post columnist George Will calling for a rapid withdrawal.

The contrast with Australia is striking. Among the Australian political class, there seems to be almost total unanimity about Afghanistan — not only are both major political parties in favour of the mission, but no prominent political or foreign policy commentator opposes the status quo (Correction: Hugh White is a significant exception). That's rare under any circumstances. What makes it extraordinary in this case is that the arguments for the current Afghanistan mission are so weak.

Of course, that's purely an assertion on my part, and I need to back it up. So although The Interpreter has recently hosted a lengthy debate about Afghanistan, I thought I would try to be a bit more systematic about this, and test my assertion through a series of posts tackling the strongest arguments for the current operation. These seem to be the main arguments for the mission:

  • Counter-terrorism: to prevent al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for future attacks.
  • Moral/humanitarian: to improve the standard of living of Afghans and save them from the depredations of the Taliban.
  • Pakistani stability: to prevent the Taliban from destabilising Pakistan.
  • India-Pakistan: to stabilise the region and prevent the deterioration of this relationship.
  • Reputation/prestige: losing or withdrawing would bolster the morale of al Qaeda and its supporters.
  • Counter-narcotics: A major social problem can be arrested at its source.
  • Alliance management (specific to Australia): a price we have to pay to maintain or even strengthen our security alliance.

Lets begin with counter-terrorism, since that is the primary public justification for the war, at least in Australia and by our two major allies. President Obama said in March when he launched his new Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy that the goal was to 'disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future'. The Australian Government has very similar stated objectives, and the British Government calls counter-terrorism the 'overriding reason' for the Afghanistan mission.

What is striking about these statements is their narrowness: the aim is solely to deny terrorists the use of Afghan soil to prepare attacks. By contrast, what is striking about the actual Afghanistan mission is its ambition. In the same statement quoted above, Obama said 'Our efforts will fail in Afghanistan and Pakistan if we don't invest in their future'. He then announced a sweeping new nation-building effort that includes aid for economic development, agriculture, education, infrastructure and counter-narcotics. Similarly, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said in his statement that 'Our objective...can only be achieved through an approach that combines military action with national development and political effort.'

The premise is that there is a close connection between counter-terrorism and nation-building, and indeed there is a respectable argument that a more prosperous, politically stable and law-bound Afghan state would be less hospitable to terrorists. On the other hand, many of the terrorist attacks the West has suffered in recent years have been perpetrated by terrorists operating partly or wholly in advanced countries of the kind we would like Afghanistan to be. So there may be little or no relationship between a stable, more prosperous Afghanistan and a reduced threat of global terrorism.

But one does not even have to enter the theoretical debate about nation building as a counter-terrorism strategy to question its applicability to Afghanistan. For even if there is a close connection between the two, building a viable Afghan state is unlikely to reduce the overall threat of terrorism, since al Qaeda and its sympathizers can simply move to other lawless territories.

Indeed, they have already moved to neighbouring Pakistan, but they could also try Somalia, Yemen, Chechnya, the southern Philippines or a number of other semi-governed places. For nation-building to work as a counter-terrorist tool, all these places would have to be reformed on the scale proposed for Afghanistan.

That is clearly unaffordable and impractical, and is advocated by no government. In practice, the counter-terrorist policies adopted by the US and its allies in such territories has focused not on armed nation building but on diplomatic, policing and intelligence efforts occasionally accompanied by some small-scale military operations. There is no obvious reason for Afghanistan to be the exception to this rule.

Some argue that counter-terrorism is not the main reason or even the most important reason only reason for the current military operation in Afghanistan, and I will try to address some of those other reasons in future posts. But it ought to be emphasised that our political leaders do not say this — they consistently reinforce the message that counter-terrorism is the primary reason for the war.

If that argument is sincere but weak, it ought to be questioned. If, as is sometimes implied, it is merely the 'public case' for a policy that in fact has other justifications, then this should be met with more than a shrug of resignation about the ways and means of modern politics. This would actually be a substantial deception and breach of public trust, leading to an expanding war conducted under false pretenses. That is unacceptable in a democracy.

Photo by flickr user ChuckHolton, used under a Creative commons license.