Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 15:05 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 15:05 | SYDNEY

As we head for the exits, are the Afghans ready?

19 April 2012 14:45

Peter Leahy, a former Chief of Army, is Director of the University of Canberra's National Security Institute.

The Prime Minister has announced the details of the transition of Australian troops from Afghanistan. It is a plausible and workable plan dependent on two assumptions. First, that the Afghans are ready to assume security responsibility. Second, that aid and development efforts continue.

Australia has been in Afghanistan to punish al Qaeda, honour its alliance commitments to the US and to secure its national interests, primary among these to ensure that terrorists cannot launch an attack against Australia. 

Since 2009 the strategy has seen a counter-insurgency campaign with a focus on training and mentoring the Afghan security forces. Their level of skill and resolve is Australia's exit strategy. President Karzai and ISAF have already begun declaring that areas of the country are ready to be secured by Afghan security forces. It is expected that Oruzgan will follow soon.

It might be tempting to smell a fix regarding the proficiency of the Afghan security forces. The Australian Army in Oruzgan is not making an Afghan Army in its own image; there are limits to what can be achieved and there will be many qualifications about just how ready and capable the Afghans are. But there is clear advice coming from Australian commanders on the ground that the Afghans are ready for transition. President Karzai is also keen to assume responsibility. Our commanders are honourable men who would not be swayed by political pressure. 

The primary aim of any counter-insurgency campaign is to deliver both security and development. This builds trust and legitimacy for the local government. There are clear signs of development in Afghanistan and life has improved for many people. The issue is how sustainable and extensive these improvements will be. If development does not continue, it is unlikely the Afghan Government will survive. If the security situation worsens it is hard to imagine Western development agencies remaining in the country. It is already difficult for them even when protected by soldiers from ISAF. 

Also at question is whether the funds for future development work will be available. No doubt there will be pledges aplenty but given current global economic conditions it is hard to imagine that they will all be forthcoming.

Clausewitz said that war is the extension of politics by other means. His dictum highlights the mismatch between war aims and political aims in Afghanistan. Many would say that there is much more to be done in Afghanistan before it can be declared secure. 

They are right but Afghanistan will never be perfect and there are other imperatives. Around 60% of Australians and 69% of Americans are opposed to the war. The decision to return Australian troops to Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006 was largely driven by the proximity of elections in both America and Australia. At this time Afghanistan became the 'good war' and Iraq became the 'bad war' — out of Iraq and into Afghanistan. Afghanistan has now become the bad war as elections loom again in America and Australia. 

Going to Afghanistan was a way of winning electoral favour in both countries. Leaving Afghanistan will serve the same purpose, and there is just enough evidence to say that the Afghans can look after their own security. Time will tell. A more cautious approach would see ISAF forces staying longer but the political imperatives are stronger.

Australia went to Afghanistan with the Americans and will now leave with them. As US troop numbers are drawn down, American commanders will re-prioritise their effort and deployments around the country. They will need to concentrate on the major population centres and transport nodes.  This does not include Oruzgan Province. Without American enabling capabilities such as helicopters, intelligence and medical support, the Australian presence in Oruzgan will be untenable. The Afghans will find it even more difficult to operate without this support in the future.

What has been achieved? Except for a few fighters, al Qaeda is a spent force in Afghanistan. It has moved to places like Pakistan and Yemen, where it will have to be hunted down and destroyed. This will be more difficult to do than in Afghanistan. This bit of the war on terror is not yet over.

The Taliban has been removed but it continues to lurk in the background. Any form of settlement in Afghanistan will have to involve some form of dialogue and political compromise with the Taliban. It is weakened but will re-emerge as a force in Afghan political life. The West is unlikely to fully agree with the nature of the society that emerges in Afghanistan but there will be little choice but to tolerate it.

There is much more development work required to make Afghanistan a functioning and secure society. But this was never really one of the war aims. It was a nice thing to do but was never a central part of the campaign. A lack of development may yet be the downfall of Afghanistan.

In her speech, the Prime Minister welcomed a public debate on Australia's future commitment to Afghanistan. This is at odds to the purpose of the speech, which was to explain the decisions the Government will take to two upcoming international conferences on Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Carr is attending an ISAF conference in Brussels this week and the Prime Minister is scheduled to attend a NATO summit in Chicago on 21 May. It is apparent from the Prime Minister's speech that the decisions have already been made. This leaves little room for debate.

Australia seems ready to declare 'mission accomplished' in Afghanistan. Are the Afghans ready to win?

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.