Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 16:35 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 16:35 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: Is victory worth the price?

25 March 2011 11:36

John Hardy is Sir Arthur Tange Defence PhD Scholar at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

We've recently heard from Raoul Heinrichs that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable and that Australia ought to cease the deployment. In response, Anton Kuruc and Jim Molan have presented the case for staying the course in Afghanistan and turning the war around.

But I think that we have a few crossed wires about whether we are discussing strategic or political interests in Afghanistan.

In defence of my friend and colleague, Raoul, I would like to unpack the idea of 'unwinnable'. I think what he means is 'unachievable at a satisfactory cost'. The war may well be winnable with the appropriate resources — but those resources are not forthcoming and probably aren't warranted.

Anton notes that the few counterinsurgency (COIN) victories on record have occurred when the insurgency has lasted more than a decade, possibly reflecting the impressive capacity of the state to sustain organised violence compared to insurgent groups. However, an equally important factor is the state's interest in devoting resources to the COIN campaign.

We often hear that attrition of will is a weakness that Western democracies are particularly sensitive to, but at what point can we make a sensible cost-benefit analysis and decide that, actually, a protracted COIN campaign in a far-flung corner of the world isn't worth all that much to us'

For Australia, the war in Afghanistan is about two things: a strategic outcome and an alliance relationship. On one hand, there is a war going on and we are debating the merits of an ongoing Australian military presence in it. On the other, there are extremely important alliance politics at play.

Let's separate these two ideas for a minute.

On the strategy side, Afghanistan is of little interest to Australia. The outcome of the war is unlikely to make any significant difference to Australia's strategic position in the world; the spectre of global terrorism emanating against us from Afghanistan is nonsensical, due to the large number of terrorist safe-havens in the world that we do not intend to intervene in; and there is no solid evidence that waging war against terrorists abroad increases homeland security (by that logic, our unicorn defence systems are also doing a spectacular job). So our purpose for being in Afghanistan isn't simply to win the war — because that outcome is not worth the blood and treasure involved in achieving it.

On the political side, we have an alliance that we are contributing to. Not just any alliance, mind — our most important political relationship. This relationship buys us into an alliance network throughout our own region and the world, affords us access to the military technology and intelligence that enables us to amass strategic weight with a small military, and brings with it a host of economic incentives. On top of all of that, America is also our security guarantor, in the minds of policy-makers at home and abroad. We have a strong interest in demonstrating our solidarity by 'flying the flag' in Afghanistan. Now, that interest is probably worth some of our blood and treasure. So the question becomes: how much are we willing to expend in Afghanistan'

More importantly, are we, Australia or the international coalition, willing to expend the blood and treasure necessary to win Afghanistan' Even if we were, and recent experience suggests otherwise, what is the cost-benefit rationale for winning Afghanistan' Anton might be correct in asserting that Raoul's prescriptions are contrary to good operational practice for counterinsurgency, but since when does good operational practice trump good strategy' If the cost outweighs the benefit, then operational practice might not factor into key strategic decisions.

The Australian debate needs to separate the strategic and alliance issues in order to make sense of our role in the Afghanistan war. Basing an argument about a continued contribution on purely military factors is erroneous — it doesn't matter to us how many insurgencies were won in the past, because the bottom line is, we aren't in it to win it. We are investing a political relationship that is deeply important to us.

As such, we should reserve the right to set limits on our investment, which are commensurate with our interests.

Photo by Flickr user wynlok.