Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 00:30 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 00:30 | SYDNEY

Our Afghan war revisited


Ashley Townshend


30 July 2010 15:17

John Hardy’s rebuttal of my post on Australia’s interests in Afghanistan is a rare example of strategic-level opposition to our Afghan war. Yet despite his ostensibly prudent realpolitik, John’s arguments expose the weaknesses of this opposition.  

I have two major gripes with most strategic-level critics.

The first concerns their portrayal of alliance management and its requirements. John agrees that supporting the US alliance is Australia’s fundamental reason for being in Afghanistan. He also believes this to be a worthy goal as ‘we derive a great deal of benefit from our relationship with America’.

But like most critics John thinks we have already done enough. With less than 2,000 troops on the ground, Australia, he argues, has been a ‘loyal and committed’ ally, spent blood and treasure on a war of ‘little direct interest’, and offered our national flag as ‘political currency’ for America’s unpopular war.

My colleague, Raoul Heinrichs, takes this line even further. In a scathing opinion piece last week, he wrote:

Alliance management is meant to be cheap and easy. It involves weighing the benefits of a healthy US alliance and tailoring lowcost, lowrisk military contributions which lend just enough political support to keep our ally happy.

These arguments misconstrue the requirements of effective alliance management. Sure, Australia might get away with contributing the ‘bare minimum’ towards what critics view as our alliance ‘obligations’. Indeed, in light of the political support we’ve offered over the years, Washington is highly unlikely to walk away from ANZUS and its southernmost Asia-Pacific partner.

But actually strengthening the alliance is about investment not obligation. It requires genuine political commitment to ventures of substance that matter to the Americans.

In Afghanistan, this means taking ownership of part of the problem and having a stake in its success or failure. As Whit Mason and others have argued, Australia could do this by leading in Uruzgan — a relatively undemanding task that would require few additional troops and would help Canberra rekindle the respect of our allies.

This commitment would also meet the demands of a growing number of frustrated Australian soldiers who believe our second-fiddle presence in Uruzgan will become a tactical ‘burden’ on American forces once the Dutch withdraw next month. As many have privately expressed, a ‘token’ commitment is no way to contribute to our most important strategic alliance.

By playing the Afghan game with one foot out the door, Australia has avoided committing political capital to the war. While our troops are doggedly professional, committed and willing to risk their lives for the mission, our politicians — more concerned with electoral risks — display cowardice, unwilling to assume political responsibility for even a small part of the war.

My other gripe with John and like-minded strategic critics concerns the view that Australia has nothing to gain from supporting a global rules-based order and its expression in Afghanistan. There are two problems with this reasoning.

First, as the current rules-based system is a manifestation of Westphalian laws and Western-liberal values that are backed, as John notes, by American military might, this global order is well-tailored to Australian interests. True, it’s not perfect, but it’s a pretty good system that, broadly, keeps state sovereignty intact, minimises regional instability, enforces collective security, attempts to regulate arms traffic, defends human rights and seeks to justify the use of force under (albeit fallible) international laws.

These ‘public goods’ serve the interests of middle-powers like Australia. Of course, this does not mean there is a direct link between our commitment in Afghanistan and some future ‘return’ Australia might receive. Rather, Australia stands to gain from the broader stability, security and external support that this rule-governed order provides.

And to the extent that this system reflects the interests of powerful states like the US or EU members, these are our allies  —and we’ve a vested interest in a world they govern, and where our mutual needs remain intact. In short, Australia should follow its liberal-internationalist foreign policy tradition and do, as it generally does, its bit to support an international system that is conducive to our interests.

Second, the notion that the Afghan mission is irrelevant to the maintenance of this rules-based order is wrong. International rules exist to the extent that states choose to follow them, support their institutional foundations and deploy hard and soft power in their defence. Without such vigilance rules are meaningless and prone to being broken. Were ISAF to give up on Afghanistan — that is, on buttressing a fragile state, building South Asian stability and empowering those that resist extremism — doubt would be cast over the entire UN-sanctioned state-building agenda.

As this would demonstrate a weakening international resolve to assist (wherever possible) states in crisis, it risks hampering future peace-enforcement missions and emboldening those who would seek to challenge weak governments with impunity.

While practitioners may quibble over the merits of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, it is clear that, from a strategic standpoint, there are good reasons to stay.

Photo by Flickr user United States Marine Corps Official Page's photostream, used under a Creative Commons license.