Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:30 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:30 | SYDNEY

Why I remain an Afghanistan pessimist


Hugh White

20 March 2008 09:44

Jeremy Shapiro’s elegant post cogently challenges my pessimism about the chances of success in Afghanistan. I agree with much that he says, but I find I still draw rather different conclusions.

First, Jeremy is right to say that no enemy can force the West to leave Afghanistan, but such outright military defeat is not the only kind of failure we need to consider. We can fail in Afghanistan without being defeated on the battlefield. Think Vietnam. 

Second, he is right, up to a point, to say that the West has the resources in soldiers, material and money to indefinitely sustain the current level of effort in Afghanistan, and even increase it significantly, and that doing so would help to make Afghanistan more peaceful than it would otherwise be. Whether that is true depends on what else we want to do with our armed forces and other nation-building assets. In Australia’s case, an indefinite commitment of 1000 military personnel from our small pool of deployable forces carries high opportunity costs. But more fundamentally, Jeremy seems to suggest that we should regard an indefinite garrison role in Afghanistan as a credible policy option. I don't believe it is. In sheer financial terms, we can perhaps afford it, but as a matter of policy, do our interests in Afghanistan warrant that scale of investment? And do they warrant the non-financial costs, especially the toll in casualties? I don't think so.

Third, Jeremy suggests that in fact we may not need to contemplate an indefinite effort, because we know how to succeed and then get out. I’m not nearly so optimistic about this. He says ‘as an international community we have more than enough experience and expertise…to know, broadly, what must be done’. I think the evidence is all the other way. Where in the world has the international community managed to build a stable, secure and well-governed state in circumstances in any way comparable to Afghanistan’s? My sad conclusion is that the international community has no idea how to do this. I would love to be persuaded otherwise.

But until I am, I fear that the defacto basis of our policy in Afghanistan is to garrison the country indefinitely. That policy cannot and should not be sustained, and sooner or later – maybe a few years, maybe a decade from now — the West will recognize its futility and leave. If that is where we are headed, better to acknowledge it and leave now. That is an uneasy conclusion to reach. It has been called defeatist. Jeremy himself seems to suggest that the most important interest at stake is not in fact the future of Afghanistan but the credibility of ‘the West’ as a force in global affairs.  But we need to be wary of such arguments, which are common enough in the annals of military history. Those who seek to salvage their prestige by persisting in failed policies simply in order to avoid admitting mistakes seldom succeed.