Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:03 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:03 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Our Afghan war

16 July 2010 08:33

John Hardy is a PhD student in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU:

Ashley Townshend offers three reasons for Australia's continued involvement in Afghanistan: alliance management, the preservation of a global rules-based order and the negative regional and global consequences of a failed Afghan state. None of which, individually or in total, provide a compelling case to stay.

Ashley's first reason is the strongest. Alliance management is very important to Australia as we derive a great deal of benefit from our relationship with America. The alliance allows Australia to maintain a technological and intelligence lead in our region that we could not afford to acquire ourselves. The political and economic utility of the alliance is also very important to Canberra and weighs heavily on decisions to commit troops to coalition operations.

But let's not forget that Australia has supported the US in Iraq and Afghanistan from day one. We have already demonstrated that we are a loyal and committed alliance partner. We have shed blood for the alliance despite having very little direct interest in either campaign and have loaned the US political currency in doing so.

But Obama has essentially conceded defeat, establishing a timetable for a US troop withdrawal. Since he clearly doesn't want to be in Afghanistan any more, there is no reason why Australia should stay to the bitter end. In effect, the insurgents have already won. Why continue to fight a lost war?

Considering Australia's near-decade of support and America's lack of will to persevere, there is little scope for an Australian withdrawal to damage the alliance. It would be unlikely for the US to shut us out of established intelligence and technology deals and even less likely for our withdrawal to impact the decision for America to support Australia in a contingency.

The next reason is the support of a global rules-based order. There are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, a 'rules based international order' is neither a purpose nor an aim in itself. States in the international system accept no higher authority than their own prerogative. They do not subscribe to a universal set of rules. To the extent that such an order exists, it is a product of national power and interests, in large part American power and interests.

Second, Ashley suggests that Australia's involvement in ISAF would return some 'dividend' when next the international order needs to respond to a crisis in Southeast Asia. I can't see how our support of an unpopular war, even one sanctioned by the UN, would affect the international community's decision to intervene in some future contingency in our region. Even if our support for security contingencies impacted UN resolutions or international political will to intervene (and I am not convinced that it does), our actions in Timor-Leste and the Solomons clearly overwrite the withdrawal of support for a counter-terrorism and/or counterinsurgency campaign in a country that was relatively stable prior to invasion.

Ashley's third reason is that a failure to stabilise Afghanistan now would lead to spill-over effects destabilising Pakistan, the rest of South Asia and affecting global security. Experience suggests that if Afghanistan returns to Taliban or warlord rule, then it will probably be contained with relatively little external spill-over. Maybe this isn't the best option for all Afghan citizens, but continued occupation by international forces isn't very popular either.

The example of Somalia in the 1990s isn't appropriate to Afghanistan. Has Somalia really redounded to the detriment of our security to the extent Ashley suggests? The implicit alternative: years of armed social engineering in Somalia and the difficulty and bloodshed which that would have entailed, would have been an expensive price tag for a rules-based order that probably would not be noticeably different from today.

Finally, Afghanistan does have a potential lasting solution in sight. It just isn't the solution that the international community would prefer. This brings the argument back to square one – is the political situation in Afghanistan of direct concern or Australia's national interests? The answer remains 'no'.