Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:22 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:22 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: Talking ourselves into trouble


Hugh White

25 February 2008 11:03

Our new government seems to be talking a lot about Afghanistan — too much, unless they really intend to do something more about it. And I hope they are not going to make that mistake.  Joel Fitzgibbon has turned up at not one but two NATO ministerial meetings to talk about Afghanistan in the three months he’s been Defence Minster. He’s bagged NATO for doing too little, and demanded a bigger say for Australia in the top-level planning. Afghanistan was also a hot topic at the AUSMIN talks last weekend, with a timely announcement of a new AFP deployment. And now we hear that Rudd is going to Bucharest to attend a NATO Summit to talk about Afghanistan too.

It is an iron law of politics that those who keep urging others to do something will eventually be asked to do more themselves, and the more you talk the more you are asked to do.  So why all this attention to Afghanistan?  Back in opposition, Labor talked up Afghanistan to counterbalance their commitment to reduce forces in Iraq: it was a way of showing they weren’t wimps. That may still be a factor: as we saw with East Timor a few weeks ago, the new government seems to have inherited from their predecessors the view that frequent deployments of armed force are essential to any good foreign policy, independent of the operational results they achieve.

But the stronger motive may be a desire to please Washington. People there are deeply worried about Afghanistan. Key contributors like Canada and the Netherlands are heading for the exit, and those that remain like Germany are reluctant to fill in behind them. There is a real risk that over the next couple of years the broad international coalition which has deployed to Afghanistan will dwindle to a rump that will look increasingly like the sad and sorry ‘Coalition of the Willing’  in Iraq. America badly wants to avoid that, and they seem to have offered our new government a tacit deal: we cop your Iraq withdrawal sweet, and you help on Afghanistan. 

The help America wants – at least at first – is for Australia to pressure NATO to do better. Hence the trips to NATO meetings. It must seem a sweet enough deal to Rudd, Smith and Fitzgibbon: all they have to do to please Washington is to talk tough to some wimpy Europeans. But will that be the end of it? I fear not. This is where the above-cited iron law kicks in. How can we keep urging others to do more in Afghanistan when our own troop contribution is only 2% of the total? And who are we to lecture the Canadians, who have lost 78 killed there. (Yes, you read that right.) Sooner or later, as we urge others to do more, we will find Washington turning our own arguments against us and asking us to do more than talk. They will want more troops. Rudd and his colleagues might already be feeling this pressure: it is hard to read the weekend’s AUSMIN-timed police announcement as anything other than a response to calls to do more on the ground.

Would that be a bad thing? There are two reasons for being engaged in Afghanistan. One is to please the Americans. There is nothing wrong with that: for almost thirty years our alliance has been supported by small, low-cost symbolic force contributions like the kind we have been making in Afghanistan. This can make for good, cost-effective alliance management. But to be cost-effective the contributions need to be small, cheap and low risk. Our Afghanistan commitment is already large by these standards — and if it gets any bigger it will become less cost-effective still. That is especially true when we put our timing into the context of America’s political cycle. If there is a time to please Washington by sending more troops to Afghanistan, it’s not now: wait until after the new Administration comes in. Favours for this administration, the lamest of lame ducks, are wasted political capital.

And what of Afghanistan itself? Do we not have interests and responsibilities there? Well, that’s a whole different subject, but I’ll just make two points. First, success in Afghanistan is neither necessary nor sufficient to reduce the threat of terrorism. Second, success in Afghanistan is an extremely remote possibility. It is overwhelmingly likely that five or ten years from now the international community will withdraw from Afghanistan leaving the place much as it is today, regardless of what Australia says or does in the meantime. What’s more, I think that Ministers probably agree with that assessment. Why, then, risk Australian lives there? Governments should be prepared to put lives at risk if by doing so they have a good chance of achieving important strategic objectives. But risking soldiers’ lives on operations which they know will probably fail to achieve their objective is a different matter.