Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:10 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 14:10 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: What hubris?

16 July 2010 15:04

Will Clegg is a research analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the Defense and Foreign Affairs correspondent for Government magazine. The views expressed here are his alone:

I'm very interested to see Sam Roggeveen concurring with Jason Thomas' assessment that 'defeating an insurgency requires a massive (program of) social re-engineering and a rebuilding of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs'.

None of the authors who contributed to this very well regarded volume came to that conclusion, nor did counterinsurgents such as Galula, Trinquier, Kilcullen, Kitson, or Thompson. In each case, more modest and more effective means of countering insurgencies are proposed, and most of the authors write with the authority of first-hand experience. This excellent academic study of civil war also found that support for counterinsurgents is generated without any form of 're-engineering' at all.

On the basis of what evidence did Sam come to support Jason Thomas' conclusion? I don't think many would seriously argue that counterinsurgency looks like this.

A broader comment about The Interpreter's treatment of the war in Afghanistan and counterinsurgency war. Readers could be excused for thinking that Sam has created a straw man out of counterinsurgency theory and the ISAF campaign plan, which Sam heroically sticks his rhetorical bayonet into time and again.

I think it would be difficult to find evidence of ISAF attempting to 're-engineer' Afghan society. My research indicates that ISAF has been far more pragmatic in Afghanistan than our political leaders sometimes pretend. Obama said he wasn't interested in 'nation building', and I don't think that's what ISAF is trying to do. Rather, they are trying to shape the security environment, build an army, and provide Afghanistan's ruling elite with the political opportunity and political support necessary for them to put Afghanistan back on the trajectory of gradual modernisation and state formation that it enjoyed throughout the 20th century and was knocked off by the coup and subsequent 'revolution' of 1978.

This is a modest strategy acknowledging our very significant strategic weight within Afghanistan at present and our very limited ability to change the fabric of Afghan politics, if at all. Its also a strategy that serves America's real interest in countering terrorism, withdrawing with honour, and preventing Afghanistan from becoming a vacuum for regional conflict once again. 

Perhaps some members of the international development community are inclined to try and 're-engineer' Afghan society. I haven't met many political agents or military officers who share this urge. Most are focused on issues of power, perception, and security, the same factors that counterinsurgency theorists also tend to emphasise.

Indeed, a bit more strategic analysis and a little bit less ideological warfare would do wonders for the quality of debate about Afghanistan. It might also help focus and refine ISAF's strategy so that the international community, including Australia, can withdraw from Afghanistan without being guilty of hubris or having waged war for almost a decade without being able to sustain a single one of our achievements and only to watch an emergent Afghan state once again collapse.

Given the looming start of a draw-down of ISAF within a year or so, gradual as this draw down might be, a good point of departure would be to ask three questions:

  • What have we achieved in Afghanistan so far? 
  • What can we still achieve in the time available?
  • How can these gains be sustained, bolstered, and entrenched over the mid- to long-run?

In one way or another, the international community — and America in particular — will have to deal with Afghanistan and remain engaged with (if not in) Afghanistan for a very long time. Best we take a cold hard look at what is actually happening in that country so that we can decide the form future engagement should take.

Beating up on 'hubris' that may well not exist doesn't really get us any closer to answering the vexing question of what can be achieved and at what cost. Surely the answer is not 'nothing'. Is it?