Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 13:11 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 13:11 | SYDNEY

The great powers and Afghanistan


Hugh White

22 February 2010 15:27

I like Michael's suggestion that Coalition strategic objectives in Afghanistan should address what we want to avoid rather than on what we want to achieve. People are often uncomfortable about negative statements of purpose, but in strategic policy they are often the simplest and most direct way to say what we mean. For example, I think Australia's core strategic interests in our own region are best expressed in terms of what we want to prevent.

I also like his argument that the most important thing we want to avoid in Afghanistan is for it to become a focus of strategic competition between major powers in the new Asian strategic order. 

Several major powers will shape Asia's order in coming decades, but lets focus on China and India, which seem the most important to Afghanistan. The argument then runs like this: as India and China grow, their strategic relationship will become critical to the Asian strategic order. A weak Afghanistan could destabilise that relationship by offering a focus for strategic competition between them. We want to avoid this, and we therefore have a strong interest in helping Afghanistan become the kind of robust state that does not invite strategic interference from big neighbours. 

This is my kind of argument. The reasons usually given for why Afghanistan matters strategically to Australia are pretty unconvincing. In contrast, stable relations between Asia's major powers matters to us a great deal, and will matter more as they grow. But I'm not sure it follows that avoiding problems in the emerging Asian order provides a compelling reason for Australia or its coalition partners to commit the resources required to make Afghanistan a robust and interference-proof state.

Two reasons. 

First, the argument seems to presuppose that having a weak state to compete over causes strategic competition between major powers, rather than simply providing a venue for it. But China and India have much deeper reasons to compete strategically, and much bigger things to compete over, than Afghanistan. 

Eventually, if India's power grows to approach China's, they will compete over primacy in Asia. The management of that competition, and its implications for Asia's order, will be critical to Australia's future security, but what happens in Afghanistan will not make much difference, unless something about Afghanistan makes it important in that bigger competition.

Is that likely? Those who say it is point out that Afghanistan has attracted strategic competition before; between Russia and America last century, and between Russia and Britain the century before. Yet I don't think these examples provide much support.

Afghanistan was a theatre of strategic competition between Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century because it offered an invasion route from Russia to India. British fears that Russia would invade their Indian empire seem fanciful today, but they were real enough at the time, in part because the memory was still fresh of Russia's extraordinary strategic achievements in the Napoleonic Wars (about which Dominic Lieven has recently written a marvelous book). Afghanistan didn't cause those fears, nor did it cause the strategic competition that underlay them, but for simple geographic reasons it became one of the theatres in which the competition was played out. Not the only one, of course, as our own humble Fort Denison attests.

Likewise, Afghanistan in the 1980s became an accidental theatre for a global strategic competition which had started forty years before and spread around the world. No need to labour the point, I'm sure. 

China and India are strategic competitors today, and they compete in Afghanistan. As their power grows, their competition will quite probably intensify, and that will no doubt be reflected in Afghanistan. But that will not be the reason they compete. And for Australia, it is the nature and intensity of their competition that matters, and how it affects our interests closer to home, not whether it is played out in Afghanistan. Indeed, to be a little heartless, it might be better for us the China and India compete in Afghanistan than in Indonesia, for example.

My second argument comes from the other direction. Say I'm wrong about the first point, and Afghanistan's vulnerability to major power competition really does make a difference to Asia's wider order. To argue that this provides a reason to persist with the Western campaign presupposes that Afghanistan can be made strong enough to resist strategic interference by competing major powers, simply by providing the very modest levels of effective governance which even the most ambitious proponents of the present intervention agree is the most we can hope to achieve there. 

I think that's implausible. However successful the intervention proves to be, Afghanistan will remain a weak and vulnerable state. If India and China ,or other major powers, are determined to compete there, nothing we can do to transform the country will stop them.

Photo by flickr user ratterell, used under a Creative Comons license.