Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:39 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:39 | SYDNEY

Australia-Afghanistan: A short look at a long war


Graeme Dobell

6 March 2009 11:17

Afghanistan is to be the longest war of the long war. That prediction by General David Petraeus to Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 is going from forecast to a statement of fact. So Kevin Rudd and Canberra’s defence establishment are thinking long and hard about what a generational war in Afghanistan will mean for Australia’s military and the US alliance.

When the Prime Minister sits down with President Barack Obama in Washington this month they will be gazing into the crystal ball over the global economy and ruminating on climate change. But Afghanistan is where the immediate test will come. The new President — no doubt with courtesy and charm — In Canberra today, the definition of being ‘off message’ is to say something about the near future before The Kevin has actually decided what it will look going to twist Rudd’s arm and ask how much more pain Australia is ready to carry.

 The Afghanistan question is not an alliance buster. But Australia’s response to the US surge will influence whether Canberra is seen in Washington as lining up with the A team or the B team.  I’ll come back to that Premier League versus Reserve Grade image in a moment.

First, consider the set of issues at the top of the agenda. Rudd wants to be a player in fixing global finance, with Australia and the rest of the G20 reflecting the new balance of power. Ditto on climate change. For a man derided as a ‘toxic bore’ by the Opposition, Rudd has set out the Washington stakes starkly (either that or the PM has found someone he trusts to turn his thoughts into short declaratory sentences). Consider the concise nature of the Rudd statement on his Washington mission:

  • Sentence 1 - The announcement that the grip-and-grin will be on 24 March.
  • Sentence 2: - Top of the agenda: ‘A coordinated international response to the global economic crisis and how we can work together in Afghanistan.’
  • Sentence 3 - The second layer issues will be climate change, nuclear disarmament and the future shape of the Asia Pacific.
  • Sentences 4 & 5 - The oft-repeated special stuff we fervently hope Obama will buy or at least give some credence to: ‘Our alliance with the United States is the bedrock of our foreign and security policy. A strong relationship with the United States is critical for Australia’s future.’

The Rudd visit to Washington set the scene for a conference I moderated in Canberra yesterday entitled ‘Preparing for the Afghan Surge: Australia’s interests and strategy in Afghanistan’. It was run by the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre but the venue was the Members’ Dining Room in the Old Parliament House. We could look out the windows at the flag flying over the New Parliament as we considered how many more military flags Australia might send to Afghanistan.

One notable absence from the table was any representative of the Australian Army. The Army had agreed to put up one of its heavies to speak on the key session on Coalition Operations in Afghanistan. But suddenly it had became just too hard for the Army to say almost anything. The ex-generals had to fill the gap.

In Canberra today, the definition of being ‘off message’ is to say something about the near future before The Kevin has actually decided what it will look like. And that goes double when the PM is about to look into the eyes of the President and decide whether Australia needs to surge beyond the 1090 troops currently deployed in Afghanistan.

The debate around the table was whether Australia should stick with the status quo or do its own troop surge. Rather unfairly (which is part of the fun) I got the inner table of wise owls to vote on whether Australia should stick with the status quo (1000 troops) or do a surge up towards 5000 troops. There were 11 votes for the surge and eight votes for a muscular version of the status quo (1000 plus some extra soldiers, police and civilians).

The former Chief of Army, Peter Leahy, was in favour of doing more but expressed a widely shared concern about ‘mission confusion’ in Afghanistan. A former director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, Frank Lewincamp, argued that the real issue  for Australia is not terrorism or the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan — it’s the alliance.

An impressive American historian, Daniel Marston, put the alliance choice in language that came straight out of the US Marine lexicon. The American military, he said, saw Australia’s decision on putting in more troops as a measure of whether Australia wanted to be on the A team or the B team. The A team do the fighting and the death. The B team do important but safer tasks. Both Obama and Rudd fought their way into office describing Afghanistan as the good war. Now they had to confront the weight of those arguments.

A former chief of the Australian Defence Force, Chris Barrie, mused further that being relegated to the B team closed a lot of doors in the US. Exhibit A for the B team experience: New Zealand.

The talk turned to whether Australia is ready to commit to another decade in Afghanistan. What would that do to our military and what would that mean for Australian politics? What seems now to be the custom of the Prime Minister going to every military funeral might become a real issue of time management.

I’ve been struck by the import of one recent quote out of the US, from Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, in his essay in Foreign Affairs:

Given its terrain, poverty, neighborhood, and tragic history, Afghanistan in many ways pose an even more complex and difficult long-term challenge than Iraq.

Obama is going to say exactly the same thing to Rudd. And ask what more Australia will do to help.