Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 05:27 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 05:27 | SYDNEY

White vs Bolt: A pox on both their houses


Anthony Bubalo

14 March 2008 12:38

Andrew Bolt’s description of Hugh White as defeatist on Afghanistan is a glib and unhelpful retort to Hugh’s proposition that the coalition’s effort in Afghanistan is likely to fail. Neither ‘avoiding defeatism’ nor ‘staying the course’ are sound bases for policy decisions that put Australian lives and treasure at considerable risk. 

I think Hugh is wrong, though, for other reasons.

Firstly, Australia can legitimately ask the Europeans to do more without facing any pressure for an increase in our commitment, because of where and how we operate. Doing more does not primarily mean getting more troops in Afghanistan (though this would help); it means getting those that are already there to operate without the restrictive caveats that make their bigger numbers actually less effective than Australia’s contribution in the south.

The best example of the way these caveats are counterproductive is the way German troops train their Afghan counterparts but are then not allowed to accompany them into combat situations. Accompanying Afghan troops into battle has become a highly effective feature of the training model. 

Secondly, as Hugh knows, there is a danger we will start to get a reputation for being a bit too selective in the things we will or will  not do. Sound risk management, sure, but there is also a point when it starts to impinge on alliance management. I am not sure, therefore, that a symbolic presence in Afghanistan would serve our alliance interests, even if this was the only prism through which you viewed our commitment there.

In fact, the reason why so much of NATO’s commitment is ineffective is precisely because many of the contributors see it precisely in alliance terms.  It is not about doing what is needed in Afghanistan; it is about doing the bare minimum to keep NATO afloat. And if that is all this is really about, then Hugh is dead right, and we should all just pack up and leave.

But this brings me to one final point. Our alliance commitment is not the only prism through which we should view our involvement in Afghanistan. Australia – along with the international community in general — has very real interests in the stability of a region containing two nuclear powers (one a known proliferator), and potentially one on the way, through which passes most of the world’s energy and a lot of its trade. Afghanistan, where many of this region’s conflicts have been and continue to be played out, is central to that stability. And I can say all that without mentioning the T-word.

We may not be getting it right in Afghanistan, but we have a lot of reasons to be thinking very hard about how to start getting it right, and they have nothing to do with ‘defeatism’.