Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 08:32 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 08:32 | SYDNEY

Another decade in Afghanistan


Graeme Dobell

19 October 2010 17:45

Australia is to have a role in Afghanistan for another ten years. That promise from the Prime Minister means the hung parliament has delivered what the election campaign could not: a debate on Afghanistan and a timeline well beyond 2014. The rebalanced Afghanistan promise from Labor is for the big military role to be over by 2014, but for a smaller role for the rest of the decade and beyond.

The Prime Minister began the much anticipated parliamentary debate on Afghanistan with a statement, which was followed by a speech by the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott. The parliamentary debate will come over the next two days.

Such statements in the House of Representatives can be marked in many different ways: as leadership contests, as parliamentary performance, as attempts to set parameters for the debate of the coming days, as efforts to persuade the Australian people, even as a form of dialogue and encouragement for the military. Beyond these purposes, such statements are closely measured for their explanatory power, perhaps a moment of inspiration or aspiration, and ultimately as indicators of constancy or potential shifts in policy.

How did Gillard and Abbott score in parameter setting'

The joint effort by Gillard and Abbott was to sell the current mission but use this as the basis to argue for a longer-term role in Afghanistan. The parameter setting was the effort to say that Australia should stay involved in Afghanistan for decades, not just years.

The Prime Minister said Australia's commitment is not 'open ended' but neither is the 2014 withdrawal date set in concrete: 'There is no transition day'. Gillard had a General Petraeus moment when she said that the military transition must be 'conditions based'. Australian troops will go, she said, when conditions are right, not on some set date. 'We must not transition out only to transition back in,' she said. 'Australia will do everything in our power to ensure Afghanistan is never again a safe haven for terrorists. Australia will stand firm in our commitment to our alliance with the US.'

The Opposition Leader used history to argue for a long-term commitment. Abbott said rather than the Vietnam quagmire example, Australia should look at the dozen years Britain fought in the Malayan Emergency and Australia's continuing aid programs in Papua New Guinea 35 years after independence. Abbott said if the West allowed the collapse of the Karzai Government, it risked disastrous consequences throughout the Middle East and Central Asia: 'For the West, a regional melt-down could be a far worse outcome than an indefinite commitment in just one country.'

The ultimate importance of this day will be in what it states or hints about what will stay the same and what might change in Australia's policy in Afghanistan. Picking the shift involves stepping back a moment to show the way the policy presentation has been moving, especially over the last two years.

On that perspective, Gillard was making the sixth formal statement on Afghanistan from the Labor Government (and she promises more such regular statements to the House). The first in this line was Kevin Rudd's self-described 'substantial statement on our future military commitment in Afghanistan' in April 2009. Rudd said Australia had two fundamental interests in Afghanistan: to deny sanctuary to terrorists who have killed Australians and the enduring 'treaty commitment' to the US.

Following the Rudd model, the Defence Minister, John Faulkner, made four statements to parliament about Afghanistan, in the process adding a third fundamental interest to Rudd's two: to help stabilise Afghanistan. Prime Minister Gillard returned to the Rudd formula, listing two key purposes: Afghanistan must never again become a safe haven for terrorists and Australia would stand firmly by its alliance commitment to the US.

The Prime Minister's strongest moment came at the end when she sought to speak well beyond the House: 'Australia will not abandon Afghanistan but we must be very realistic about the future.' Australia's political leaders have gone to the funerals of the 21 Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Gillard turned to the emotions of that duty in her closing moments: 'Attending funerals for Australia's soldiers is the hardest thing I have done.' Understanding the cost, Gillard's call is that Australia must stay on what has become the internationally-agreed path in Afghanistan.

Abbott trod gently around any suggestion of an increase in Australia's military force. The Opposition would not be prescriptive about troop numbers. The Coalition instinct would be to do more rather than less but 'this is the Government's call, not ours.' Abbott said war should never be popular, but it sometimes can be right: 'The best exit strategy is to win. For Australia, this means completing the task of training the 4th (Afghanistan) Battalion and ensuring the central government is capable of containing and defeating the insurgency.'