Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:11 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:11 | SYDNEY

Three things you may not hear in the parliamentary debate on Afghanistan


Anthony Bubalo

18 October 2010 12:25

This series anticipates the Australian parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, which starts tomorrow. Part one is here.  

2. It's not just about the alliance.

In the Australian debate about Afghanistan, ministers, hard-nosed mandarins and critics all agree on one thing. Ministers say publicly that the alliance is a reason for our being in Afghanistan; mandarins privately work the balance between alliance needs and the risk to Australian soldiers; critics as diverse as Hugh White and Andrew Wilkie charge that Afghanistan stopped being about terrorism a long time ago and is now just about the alliance.

They are, however, all too quick to dismiss what Afghanistan means to Australia's security. Part of the problem is the way we tend to see the terrorism problem in relation to Afghanistan.

For example, our parliamentarians might debate whether Afghanistan is a bigger terrorist problem than Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia. But this would be a waste of time.  We are not debating whether to send troops to Yemen; we are in Afghanistan now and, as I suggested in my last post, what we should be debating is how the manner and timing of our departure impacts on, among other things, the terrorist threat we face.

We debate whether we should simply accept the risks to our security from Afghanistan, but we shouldn't pretend that the risks are not significant. It is not just about terrorism. Afghanistan lies at the centre of a broader regional insecurity complex. Its weakness as a state has meant not just that it has played host to terrorists over many years (and not just al Qaeda), it has also become a major source of drugs and its neighbours have fought proxy wars in its territory.

In this regard it does not really matter if an early and expedient coalition withdrawal were to result in a return of the Taliban or another civil war. What it will mean is a continuation of Afghanistan's role as a vector of regional instability, with broader international implications, whether it be terrorism, drug trafficking or the risk of war between India and Pakistan. This should concern us.

The symbolism here is also important, particularly in relation to terrorism. It is no coincidence that foreign fighters seem to be returning to Afghanistan. In a forthcoming paper, the Afghan NGO, The Liaison Office, points to foreigners dubbed 'Zarqawieen' (in reference to the late al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi) in parts of Kandahar province. Al Qaeda's partisans read our newspapers and understand the impact of anything that might be portrayed as an al Qaeda victory in Afghanistan will have on debates about the al Qaeda narrative elsewhere, from the Middle East to Indonesia.

What the critics and, one suspects, many of the mandarins can hide behind are doubts about both the coalition strategy, and Australia's ability, given its size, to impact on that campaign.

I share their doubts about the coalition's counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy. It seems to require our infantrymen to become diplomats, development workers and anthropologists as they help build an Afghan nation. As a crusty veteran of the Australian Army told me recently, it is hard enough making them infantrymen. No disrespect was intended, just an appreciation of what is involved in making a good soldier today, without adding kilos of unrealistic expectations to their packs.

Even if Australian soldiers and their allied counterparts do not live up to the unrealistic nation-building rhetoric of their military and political leaders, they can still help Afghans prepare a foundation for their own eventual nation-building (most of which would happen, if it happens at all, long after we have left). 

Simply by being in Afghanistan, our military provides a counterweight to the prospect of civil war or the return of the Taliban to power; by holding off the insurgency they make it more likely that the latter will be forced into a negotiation, hopefully on terms that are as unattractive as possible; and by training the Afghan Army (Afghanistan's one national institution at the moment), we help Afghans escape their decades-old role of weak prey for neighbours and transnational groups. There are other non-military things we must do as well, but little of it can be done without a significant military role.

Is Australia too small to matter in this' Only if we continue to think small, to eschew responsibility, and to imagine that what we do has no substantive or symbolic impact. Uruzgan, where we are based, is not an unimportant part of the strategically vital south. The Dutch went there with a strategy and as this report suggests, they had a positive impact both in Uruzgan and on what would become the more commonsense elements of the COIN strategy.

There are non-military things Australia can do too. Australia has a reasonably good diplomatic relationship with Afghanistan's neighbours, without any of the colonial or Cold War baggage. While we train Afghans to defend their sovereignty, we should be helping to forge a regional agreement to ensure that Afghanistan's neighbours respect it as well.  In this way we help out not just the Afghans, but help ourselves out of Afghanistan in a sustainable and responsible manner.

Photo by Flickr user ussocom_ru, used under a Creative Commons license.