Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 15:20 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 15:20 | SYDNEY

Whose fault is our Afghanistan failure?


Hugh White

24 April 2012 11:39

Nick Bryant makes a fair and important point. Some good things have been achieved in Afghanistan, and some of them may even last once ISAF has gone. But for those of us interested in the decisions that governments make about the use of armed force, the fact that something has been achieved is not enough. The question that must be asked is whether the achievements have been worth the cost. 

I respect Nick's sense that this is not a question he feels qualified to answer, as far as Australia is concerned. But it is a question that we Australians cannot afford to duck.

Despite the PM's brave words to ASPI last week, it seems very unlikely that the lasting achievements of our military operation in recent years will justify the costs, especially the cost in lives. The mission will have failed to achieve its strategic objectives, and the decision to commit Australian forces to the operation must be accounted a costly failure of strategic policy. We should be asking some searching questions about how precisely that happened.

On Four Corners on 16 April, John Cantwell took a bold step towards doing that. He posed a central question: could the deaths of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan have been justified by the strategic benefit to Australia of the operation, even had it succeeded? These are his remarks as they were broadcast:

JOHN CANTWELL, MAJOR GENERAL, RETIRED: At its heart it's about supporting an alliance with the United States. That's what got us into this when the ANZUS Treaty was invoked. Is it worth it? I as a Commander asked myself that question many times. And I really really struggle with it. The only way I can see through this, so that I can sleep at night, is to differentiate - to say it's not worth it for the lives that you lose. You could never look at any soldier, sailor or airman and say, your life's forfeit for some political purpose. That's just unacceptable. But at the highest level of strategy, and in the dirty ugly world of international relationships, where it's you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, that those lives become less important. And taking that longer term view, that hardnosed, realpolitik view, that politicians do, and must, it's worth it. But not at the human level.

Cantwell clearly believes that Australian decisions on troop commitments to Afghanistan constitute not just a policy failure but a moral failure. I agree, and I think his willingness to acknowledge this and explore the issues that arise from it deserves real credit. 

But I think his analysis presupposes a view of strategic decision-making, and of the responsibilities of those involved in it, which I'm not sure is right. I hope he will agree that the issue is important enough for it to be worth exploring a bit further.

Cantwell's remarks suggest that the thinks the decisions – including the moral decisions — to commit soldiers to combat are made at two different levels. There is the operational level, where the decisions are military, and the strategic level, where they are, to use his word, 'political'. (I'm going to use the more neutral word 'policy' instead of 'politics'; I think in this context they mean the same thing.) He seems to argue the standards of morality at the two levels are different. At the strategic level the standards are lower, and 'lives are less important'.

I think his conclusion about Afghanistan is that, by the moral standards that apply at the operational level, the decisions to commit forces to combat could not be justified, but that at the strategic level they could be justified because the moral standards there are lower.

I do not think this is right. The strategic and operational levels are not separate realms, either practically or morally. Military operations always have policy objectives. Decisions to use armed force by their nature connect – or try to connect – those policy objectives with military means that might achieve them, so there is a seamless continuum between them.

That is so because strategic-level leaders (ministers) rely on advice from the operational level (military officers) about what military operations are likely to achieve, and what they are likely to cost. Only on the basis of that advice can ministers make informed decisions about whether the costs and risks of military action are justified by the policy outcomes they will produce.

These are morally weighty judgments, because the costs include soldiers' lives. Everyone involved in such a decision has a responsibility to exercise exceptional diligence in contributing to it. All of them must meet the same moral standard: have they been sufficiently careful in ensuring that the potential cost in lives is justified by the potential policy benefits?

I believe Australian strategic decisions about Afghanistan failed to meet this standard. Soldiers were committed to dangerous operations when there was little prospect that those operations would achieve their policy objectives, and the policy objectives themselves were confused and tangential to Australian interests. And these things are not just clear in hindsight.

Apportioning responsibility for this failure is a distasteful business, but sweeping it under the carpet would be worse. It would increase the chances that we will make the same mistakes again. So here goes.

I think there were failures at every level. Ministers have a grave responsibility to be perfectly clear what policy objectives a military operation is intended to serve, and to be perfectly clear how important they are. They must then test and contest the advice they receive from their military advisers about whether the operations will deliver the objectives, and what they will cost, to make sure it is sound. I think the evidence suggests that ministers failed to meet this responsibility.

Senior military officers have an equally grave responsibility to exercise due diligence in reaching a professional judgment about how much an operation is likely to cost and how likely it is to succeed in achieving its policy objectives, and to convey their judgments to ministers very frankly.

We cannot know how well the ADF's senior leadership fulfilled this responsibility, because we do not know what private advice they gave ministers about operations in Afghanistan. But if what some of them said publicly from time to time reflects the advice they gave privately, they might not have fulfilled it as well as they should have. They seem to have been too willing to assure ministers that the operations were on track and the objectives were within reach.

If that is true, then they too carry responsibility for the failure of the policy and the costs in lives wasted. It would be bad for everyone, including the ADF itself, if the accepted version of this sad story within the ADF becomes that it was all the politicians' fault. If ministers are to be better advised next time, the ADF's senior leadership need to recognise where they failed this time.

Moreover, responsibility for advising ministers on these questions does not fall on senior military officers alone. Civilian public servants share some important parts of this responsibility, and it is equally unclear that those responsibilities were diligently discharged.

And what about the rest of us? As I have written before, the Australian public has been notably unconcerned as the numbers of killed and wounded mounted up. Many people complained that the Government had not made the case for the war persuasively. And yet the Government was under no pressure to reconsider the commitment. Frankly, we should have made a bigger fuss.

Military service in a society like ours is based on an implicit agreement. Soldiers agree to follow orders; to go where they're sent and fight who they're told, even at risk to their lives. In return, we – their senior officers, their ministers and ultimately the public – promise that we will not order them into danger unless really critical national interests are at stake, and the operations they are committed to have a reasonable chance of success. In Afghanistan I'm not sure we have lived up to our side of that deal.

Photo by Flickr user Aust Defence Force.