Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 10:01 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 10:01 | SYDNEY

Gillard now owns Afghanistan


Graeme Dobell

22 October 2010 09:44

President Obama wants to focus on the start of the withdrawal from Afghanistan next year. Prime Minister Gillard points to 2014 to complete the present phase in Afghanistan, then lifts the focus to 2020 and beyond. Two leaders talking about the same strategy in the same war, but seeking to shine the light on different aspects of what it will mean.

In launching the Afghanistan debate, Gillard showed the power any leader has to redefine the parameters of an argument. Instead of arguing about 2014 as an end point, she marked it as no more than a major way-station in a much longer journey.

Whatever your view of the logic of the Gillard statement, this is 'brave' in the Sir Humphrey 'Yes, Minister' sense – the Prime Minister has made herself hostage to a range of factors over which she will have little control.

The different politics facing Obama and Gillard are instructive. The scale, of course, is completely different. Obama confronts the big decisions of troops and treasure. To hold the support of a large part of his own party, Obama must emphasise that the withdrawal starts next year.

Gillard may face rumblings within the Labor ranks, but there is no sign of revolt. Her challenge comes from further left, beyond Labor. The reassurance the Prime Minister gives Labor is that the big commitment of 1550 troops should be completed by around 2014, depending on 'conditions'.

Then the hope would be to cut troop numbers back to a couple of hundred. The best case scenario would see Australian troops in Afghanistan operating on a more vigorous version of the long-term East Timor model. The Gillard vision is that Australia will keep doing what it is doing now – no more – and then eventually it will be able to do much less. Timor and Solomon Islands show the Australian polity can cope with long-term deployments, even a form of garrison duty. The polity just doesn't want to have to attend regular funerals.

Mark this as a huge political benefit of an all-volunteer military. The Prime Minister hails from Labor's Left, but she is not confronting any echoes from Labor's huge schism over conscription in World War I or the bitter and initially disastrous fight against the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam reference, though, brings us to the weak point, even the agonising error, in the Afghanistan consensus presented by the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader: the idea that things are on the improve in Afghanistan and something can be achieved.

You don't need to go to the Greens to see a well-constructed questioning of that progress claim. Just read the contribution to the debate by Joel Fitzgibbon. (Hansard, October 20, p.35). By his discussion of what 'winning' will mean, Labor's former Defence Minister went close to the potent sentence uttered last year by the previous chief of the Australian Defence Force, Peter Cosgrove: 'I think we can confidently say we are losing this battle.'

Gillard would be most uncomfortable if she had to deal with the Vietnam-era checklist Cosgrove gave for Afghanistan:

  • Look not only at the reasons why we go but also at the prospects of success.
  • Consider the methods that will be used to win.
  • What price are we prepared to pay'
  • What would be the cost of failure'
  • Remember the law of unintended consequences.

Unfortunately, for a Prime Minster who avers her lack of interest in foreign affairs, she now confronts the problem so well expressed by Trotsky: you may not be interested in war, but is war interested in you. Kevin Rudd inherited Afghanistan from John Howard, then claimed the war as his own. By the parameters she set this week, Julia Gillard has claimed the Afghanistan war as her own. As long as she is leader, Gillard will have to rise in the House each year to make a formal statement on the progress in her war.

Photo by Flickr user US Marine Corps, used under a Creative Commons license.