Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 19:58 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 19:58 | SYDNEY

Why Afghanistan?


Sam Roggeveen


12 March 2009 11:20

Clive Williams (in today's Age) is absolutely right. If, as expected, the Government decides to commit more Australian troops to Afghanistan, it needs to do a much better job of explaining to the public why we are there at all. And Williams himself demonstrates what the Government is up against in this regard.

He says that if the Government wants to make the case that the Afghanistan mission is essential to keeping Australia safe from terrorism, it must convince us that al Qaeda in Afghanistan is still the same organisation it was before the 9/11 attacks — that is, the head office of a global terrorist franchise operation.

But, Williams argues, al Qaeda only barely functions this way any more. It is less a head office now and more a 'brand' that loosely-affiliated groups draw legitimacy and inspiration from. That means the fate of al Qaeda in Afghanistan has fewer implications for the broader Islamist terrorist threat.

The Government doesn't necessarily have to reject Williams' assessment about al Qaeda to make its case for the importance of the Afghanistan mission. It could argue that the troops are there to help stop Afghanistan from reverting to the Taliban-sponsored al Qaeda protectorate it used to be. That's the argument James Joyner makes on the Atlantic Council's blog.

Joyner admits this is potentially a decades-long effort. But what makes him think even a best-case outcome will be worth it? Clearly a return to power by the Taliban in Afghanistan would be a humiliation for the US and its allies, and a humanitarian catastrophe, but there are other such catastrophes around the world, and the West doesn't intervene in all of them.

So the case for this mission must always come back to a form of pre-emptive protection against terrorism: we're there so that we need never again experience another 9/11. What I'd like to see is a specific argument that this hugely expensive mission is the best way to achieve that aim. My suspicion, however, is that such arguments don't really stack up, and that the case for beefing up the Afghanistan mission is based largely on the sunk costs fallacy.