Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 05:55 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 05:55 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: Let failure be our guide


Michael Wesley


18 February 2010 10:35

So much of the recent discussion about Coalition strategy in Afghanistan seems to ultimately revert to how one defines success. The debate about the conditions of success tends to oscillate between the long-term ideal of a stable, non-corrupt, functioning state – which almost everyone admits is unachievable – and a series of short-term operational benchmarks, such as training Afghan police and armed forces.

Success benchmarks have become commonplace in all interventions by democracies. They are less about fixing a problem and more about democratic politics and strategic credibility; about establishing a set of arguments for when it is feasible and honorable to withdraw from a potentially open-ended commitment. Success benchmarks are then progressively lowered as the war draws on and public frustration mounts.

The problem with success benchmarks that are explicitly or implicitly tied to withdrawal schedules is that they give heart to adversaries to bide their time. Most insurgents are not clever enough to realise that it's in their interests to help occupying forces achieve their benchmarks, but many have the sense to ready themselves for a surge once occupying forces leave.

That's why what look, in the short term, like orderly withdrawals so often turn into strategic disasters with the passage of time.

There is a case for arguing that rather than planning withdrawals around success benchmarks, we should plan around failure benchmarks. In other words, we should take a step back and think about what medium to long-term strategic outcomes in Afghanistan would be a strategic disaster for our interests – not to mention a gross waste of life and money – and think about how our military-diplomatic strategies can contribute to avoiding disaster.

A resurgence of Taliban rule in Afghanistan would not be a strategic disaster for Australia and its allies. Nor would a continuation of warlordism, tribal warfare and instability. There is no logical progression between these outcomes and a resurgence of catastrophic terrorist attacks against Australia or its allies.

The fact that there hasn't been another terrorist event as complex and ambitious as 9/11 or the Bojinka plot is only partly related to the toppling of the Taliban; by far the greatest contributor has been the turbo-charging of the domestic security and intelligence efforts of most countries since 2001. These efforts will not lapse if the Taliban re-takes Kabul; indeed they would redouble.

The real threat in Afghanistan is that it will lapse back into its historic role as a strategic vacuum once the Coalition leaves.

If the Coalition concentrates just on building domestic institutions in Afghanistan, ignoring the competing strategic interests of regional powers, it is inevitable that it will become an arena of competition between China, India, Pakistan and perhaps Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Not only will such competition destroy any domestic institutions so painfully constructed by the Coalition, it risks spreading and embedding a complex and entrenched strategic competition across the southern tier of the Asian landmass. Considering the economic dynamism and resource holdings of this region gives one a flavour of the scale of the strategic disaster this could bring.

This means we should refocus our strategy in Afghanistan away from counter-insurgency and state-building and towards removing Afghanistan's potential as a strategic vacuum.

We have a recent example as a roadmap. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, Cambodia was a strategic vacuum in Southeast Asia, drawing competing powers into its instability and thereby destabilising the entire region. The solution that emerged was to treat the strategic competition surrounding Cambodia as an integral part of the problem, and then to slowly mitigate competition, building institutions and confidence measures that over time have permitted the emergence of an accepted, non-provocative equilibrium.

The problem with the Coalition's diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan is the assumption that the Coalition, the Karzai Government and the Taliban are the only interested actors. It ignores just how central Afghanistan is to the competition among regional powers. Pakistan's tentacles into Afghanistan are well known, but China and India have been quietly investing, building and infiltrating as well.

Fortunately these interests can also be the building blocks of a solution. A new peace conference on Afghanistan should be convened, confined only to the powers directly interested: the US, China, India and Pakistan. The agenda should focus on just two questions: what eventual order in Afghanistan will be acceptable and non-threatening to all concerned powers? And how do we get there from here?

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