Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:07 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 11:07 | SYDNEY

Australia has done its bit in Afghanistan


Raoul Heinrichs

23 March 2011 12:04

My call some weeks ago for Prime Minister Julia Gillard to begin drawing down Australian forces in Afghanistan provoked two interesting responses — one from Anton Kuruc, the other from Jim Molan — both arguing for Canberra to stay the course.

They're in good company. Over the past fortnight, Prime Minister Gillard has unequivocally reaffirmed Australia's commitment to Afghanistan. General David Petraeus has presented a cautiously upbeat appraisal of the war, while US Defense Secretary Bob Gates has publicly castigated his European allies for 'too much discussion of exit and not enough discussion about continuing the fight'.

For Anton, it's a numbers game. Drawing on data compiled by the RAND Corporation, he suggests that, with the war entering its tenth year, the chances of prevailing against the insurgency are swinging in our favour. I have my reservations. If we look at Anton's broader data, out of a total of thirty recent insurgencies, insurgents have won twenty-two of them, or 73% of the time. That's a very limited data set, yet it doesn't inspire confidence.

Anton's optimistic conclusion is drawn from an even smaller data set: insurgencies that have lasted longer than twelve years, which is just seven out of a total sample of thirty. Of these, counter-insurgents won only four, or 57%. Even brave academics would be reluctant to generalise from such a limited and ambiguous data set.

To keep fighting on the strength of it would be strategic policy by coin-toss. It's not a definitive basis on which to risk anything, certainly not the lives of Australian soldiers.

Jim Molan seems to misunderstand Australia's role in Afghanistan, and in particular the political dynamics that shape Australia's way of alliance management. It's odd because the Australian Army, of which Jim is a distinguished former member, has been the principal instrument of that policy for over 100 years.

Moreover, Jim's role in Iraq was itself symptomatic of this approach. By allowing an experienced and committed general to assume a senior command position, Canberra was able to establish presence — that is, demonstrate its fidelity to the alliance — without placing large numbers of Australian soldiers at risk. Jim served — perhaps unwittingly — as a force multiplier in the kind of pragmatic alliance management strategy he now recoils from.

The same principles apply to Afghanistan. Our involvement there has always been about giving meaning to Canberra's expressions of alliance solidarity. This is a political objective distinct from Washington's broader war aims, and can be achieved — indeed, already has been achieved — with little regard to the overall progress or eventual outcome of the war and, ideally, without unnecessarily risking the lives of large numbers of Australian personnel.

Moreover, despite Jim's doubts about the practicality of this approach, it's worked, allowing successive Australian governments to enjoy, at a comparatively low cost, the demonstrable benefits of the alliance, including strategic assurances and virtually unfettered access to intelligence and defence material. What more does he want'

Indeed, having achieved all this, there are now diminishing returns for staying on and risking more Australian lives. This is especially true as the fighting season resumes, posing greater risks to our forces, and as Washington begins looking to us to accept a greater share of the burden in balancing China's rising power.

Of course, this whole approach to alliance management is, as Jim points out, selfish and unsentimental, designed to maximise Australia's alliance dividends while minimising costs and risks. As such, it does not accord with Jim's notion of 'honour', which is to him inseparable from calculations about political objectives and military means — and which led him once to recommend sending 6000 Australian troops to Afghanistan. This is what Clausewitz was getting at when he talked about war, devoid of political purpose, tending toward extremes.

Photo by Flickr user Jonathan_W.