Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 19:51 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 19:51 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan worth doing, even badly

This post is part of the Afghanistan debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

10 August 2009 14:12

This post is part of the Afghanistan debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

In response to Sam, both the 'how' and the 'why' are important in Afghanistan – it just depends on how much effort we put into each, and which part of each we address.

If the 'why' question is focused on why we went there in the first place, we have plenty of time to consider it because it is essentially an academic exercise. To be intellectually honest, we would need to look at why went there first, then why we went back, why the Liberal Government made an initial commitment, why Labor then adopted the conflict and why its rhetoric is so much stronger than its commitment of resources, just as the Liberal Government's rhetoric was in Iraq.

We should also ask why, in any of the commitments so far, there is no alignment between objectives, tasks and resources. But we have lots of time to do that after we win or lose this war.

If the 'why' question is focused on why we should stay or leave given that we are actually there at the moment, then I think we are getting closer to immediate relevance. We should examine both courses of action, but both have consequences.

People who advocated leaving at tough times in Iraq only ever emphasised the consequences of staying. They seemed to think that if we left Iraq, there were no immediate, middle or long term consequences. It was the terrible staying, with death and destruction and unethical action, or it was leaving to play forever in the green fields beyond. We were obviously the problem and once we went then the problem and the symptoms disappeared.

I suspect that the same applies to Afghanistan. Of course leaving is a valid option, but the full consequences of that position must be acknowledged. I understand stubborn attachment to a policy position, but I would really appreciate Sam telling me what withdrawal might look like in the immediate sense, and then in the middle and longer term. And if he, like most of us, cannot predict the future, then perhaps that is yet another reason not to leave.

Sam then makes two arguments about why he wants to consider withdrawal. He says that if our involvement is about reducing the threat of terrorism then it is inefficient — al Qaeda could go to many other countries and set up bases even if we won in Afghanistan.

Despite what presidents and prime ministers regularly say, there are many reasons for being in Afghanistan, not just anti-terrorism. Government might declare only one reason for political purposes. But they tend to make policy on the basis of the many reasons, and we see this 30 years after the event when cabinet papers are released. It is up to us contemporaries to deduce the real reasons if we are going to comment.

I think the real reasons are related to domestic politics, alliances, self interest, humanitarian and values reasons, and geo-politics.

But even if 'anti-terrorism' was the reason, then the solution to reducing terrorism in Afghanistan looks a lot like nation-building (this is not 'rebuild[ing] the political, economic and social institutions of a country we know next to nothing about'). So if there are many reasons, but for domestic political impact the government is stating only one (anti-terror), nation-building in Afghanistan still has some logic.

I think Sam misreads what happened at the start of the Afghan war when he says, 'The 2001 defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda's expulsion from Afghanistan was achieved mainly with the use of air power, special forces and local proxies. If our primary aim is to deny al Qaeda and the Taliban the opportunity to restore their pre-October 2001 status in Afghanistan, why can't that be done with similar tools?'

This is the kind of error that Rumsfeld made in Iraq, thinking that there is no difference between the invasion of a country and a counter-insurgency. If he had not made this error, then perhaps Iraq would have been a one year wonder. They are different types of wars, and we have learnt something from our previous conflicts. The comparison is totally invalid.

Sam then goes on the state: 'Second, the task we have set ourselves in Afghanistan is simply too big'. I agree that it is big; it is in fact bloody big, but only time will tell if it is too big (that is, impossible).

And it really depends on what task we have set ourselves. If the task is to change Afghanistan into a Christian liberal democracy, then it is 'too big'. Military or political leader I associated with have never spoken in absolutes. If you have to do things, you tend to be pragmatic. I happen to think that Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan (February 2009) is a practical strategy. It is clouded in 'Defence White Paper 2009'-style bizarre language, but that is politics. It is the same as the previous NATO strategy, and incorporates what we have learnt from Iraq. It does not guarantee that we will win.

The allocation of appropriate resources to the strategy only increases the probability of winning. And I have confidence (only because I know the people and you have to trust someone sometime) that the application of the strategy on the ground in comprehensive counterinsurgency terms will be practical. Not perfect, not pretty, not without cost, but practical.

I suggest that it is not possible for Sam to say that the task in Afghanistan is too big if by that he means it is impossible. It is all about probabilities. If you have a sound strategy, if you then resources that strategy, if you apply the resources in the framework of the strategy for an appropriate period, you increase the probability of winning.

I am not saying that we are doing this yet, but we may do it in the future, and we are not yet past a tipping point in Afghanistan. I was once whining to my boss in Iraq about how imperfect everything was because we had such a pathetic amount of resources, and he said that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly!

In a separate post, Sam makes an analogy (quoting Rory Stewart) between current Afghanistan policy and driving a car over a cliff while asking if it might be a good idea to fasten the seat belts. It is a great debating point and I promise to misuse it regularly. It is not a good analogy for Afghanistan. We may not be successful in Afghanistan, especially if we do not resource the strategy. At the moment the biggest problem in Afghanistan is that there is no tie up between the overall strategy, the comprehensive military and non-military tasks that fall out of the strategy, and the resources, military and non-military, that are allocated to the tasks. That is why I concentrate so much on the 'how' of Afghanistan.

If something is worth doing, and you cannot regularly achieve perfection, then it might still be worth doing. We are (as my Iraq boss would have said) doing it 'badly' at the moment. I would just like to see it done well for a period, then if that fails, we should look at leaving.

Photo by Flickr user US Army Korea - IMCOM, used under a Creative Commons license.