Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 12:46 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 12:46 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan silence leaves soldiers stranded

5 July 2010 08:34

Peter Leahy is a former Chief of Army and is now Director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra.

Soldier Z should be commended for the coherence of his argument and his efforts to ask for a more substantive public debate on Australia's involvement in Afghanistan. I trust that, having taken the initiative to ask these questions, Soldier Z is not hunted down. Unfortunately, I think I can hear the 'search parties' preparing for action now. Our soldiers are loyal and brave. By asking questions like this they also show their intelligence and concern for the nation and the Army.

Soldier Z has asked, 'What is our policy?' He is right to ask this question. 

So far, the Australian debate on Afghanistan has been predominantly about the military mission and is set at the tactical level. What is needed is a public debate that deals with Australia's national interests for being in Afghanistan, our strategy and the elements of power that we use. 

In Afghanistan and in other places, the military is being left to do the vast majority of the work. In many cases it is doing jobs that are not for soldiers, but only soldiers are available to do them. A counterinsurgency campaign needs a much greater civilian and political effort than we are deploying now. Without an informed public debate we are unlikely to adjust the way we are fighting the war. This is bad strategy.

As well as a public debate, a debate in the parliament is required. Parliament should be asked to review decisions to go to war and then, on an annual basis, be asked to review the decision to stay engaged. 

We have been in East Timor for over ten years and are approaching ten years since the original deployment to Afghanistan, so the real issue is not so much the decision to go to war but the decision to stay at war. This needs a more active and frequent consideration than a periodic statement to the parliament by the Minister for Defence.

Opinion polls show that public support for our commitment to Afghanistan is declining. Our soldiers deserve our support and Government should establish an environment and a narrative that engenders support rather than allow a slow decline by not engaging with the public either frequently enough or at the right level. Let us not leave our soldiers stranded between government policy and public opinion.

Our soldiers are doing our bidding. They are doing us proud and Australia needs to hear about their good work. We should all be proud of how we are helping the people of Afghanistan. By clamping down on publicity, the Government is denying Australians the ability to be informed and engaged, the nation is being denied its heroes and heroes are being denied their heroism.

For the record, my view is that we should be in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda must be stopped, the Taliban must be moderated (the only real solution is some kind of accommodation between the Karzai Government and the Taliban), the people of Afghanistan need our help to build a secure and stable society and we need to show our resolve with the US and other allies. 

But until the Government can make a more persuasive and compelling case on our national interests, and can articulate and resource a comprehensive whole-of-government strategy, we should not send any more troops. The Army would find it difficult to support a larger commitment and it is required for potential contingencies closer to home.

A broadened debate is required not only for the present in Afghanistan but also for the future in Pakistan. The reasons for our intervention and presence in Afghanistan have shifted to Pakistan. Let's hope we think seriously about what we do to support Pakistan and expose this to a much more serious and prolonged public and parliamentary discussion. What happens in Pakistan will be on an entirely different scale than what is happening in Afghanistan and will be immensely more difficult.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.