Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 04:15 | SYDNEY
Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 04:15 | SYDNEY

The wisdom of preventive self-defence in Afghanistan

17 March 2009 14:05

Jaroslav Petrik is a PhD candidate at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, and Macquarie University in Sydney. He has published widely on terrorism and foreign aid.

It is taken for granted that the primary reason for the war in Afghanistan is self-defence, but we’re far beyond that. Self-defence was the immediate response, ending when the Taliban was toppled for sheltering al Qaeda and refusing to hand it over. But the nation-building effort that followed is much more pro-active and preventive than reactive and defensive.

That is not to say this action is wrong (the Taliban would almost surely come back if we let them – in fact, they never really left), but it has some implications. Most importantly, it is a strategy aiming to disrupt an environment which allowed al Qaeda to operate.

It doesn’t attempt to destroy al Qaeda as such (they’re no longer there, as Clive Williams pointed out) or undermine their motivation or global support (which will, if Robert Pape is right, be stronger the longer we continue the occupation).

So instead of targeting the terrorists’ reasons to attack, we’re targeting their weapons. I’m afraid this goal is not achievable: taking such a strategy seriously would mean occupying many more countries than just Afghanistan, and it is beyond the capabilities of any coalition to bring all territories in the world under control of their respective governments. Even if we could do so, it doesn’t guarantee that the terrorist threat will be eliminated: IRA, ETA or 7/7 bombings are but a few examples to remind us that territorial control is not all that it takes.

Moreover, the vision of a peaceful, economically prosperous and fully democratic society in Afghanistan after couple of decades of military occupation is quite naïve.

The US tends use Afghanistan to gauge its allies’ commitment. Although the years of 'with us or against us' are over, the years of 'team A and team B' have come. Other countries can have quite different views of how counterterrorism should be done effectively (Australia’s engagement in Indonesia is an example of this). Yet it seems that such opinions are not fully tolerated in Washington. I do not want to weigh in on whether taking the lead in Uruzgan to strengthen Australian-US relations is worth its price, and I certainly wouldn’t like to be in the shoes of those who do.

All that said, I do not argue that the US and its allies should give up. That would certainly be a disaster for the standing of the West but more importantly for Afghanistan and the region. But the coalition should reconsider its objectives in Afghanistan and abandon the vision of teaching the Afghans to play their games according to our rules.