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Afghanistan: we need an honest debate
Benedict Coleridge studies History and Russian at the University of Melbourne and writes regularly for Eureka Street. First published on The Drum today, this excellent piece appears here with his permission
The recent fracas between Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard over their respective trips to Afghanistan was uninteresting and slightly pathetic.
Thankfully, however, there is a parliamentary debate looming on the horizon (it will take place next week) which at last offers the chance to properly weigh up the merits of Australia’s Afghanistan deployment.
So what would a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan need to encompass in order to actually be useful?
Firstly, the parliament needs to consider the overall long-term objectives of the NATO/ISAF mission in the country. What kind of system of governance can be established in Afghanistan? For the last nine years, Coalition governments have lauded the possibilities offered by a centralised Afghan democracy with a powerful government in Kabul. But the cultural and ethnic dynamics of Afghanistan make this a very difficult and unlikely outcome.
Afghan society is fissiparous, with multiple centres of authority. Afghanistan is home to 12 different ethnic groups, from Uzbek and Hazara in the north to the Pashtun in the southern provinces bordering Pakistan. Borders mean little, particularly for the Pashtun who refuse to recognise the existence of the Durand Line (the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) which cuts a path straight through their historic territory, severing the Pashtun nation in two. And even within tribal groups, such as the Pashtun, there are separate groupings and tensions. For example, the Pashtun in Oruzgan Province where Australian troops are operating, are separated into the Noorzai and Populzai sub-tribes. In this context it is difficult to see how a completely centralised government could command authority in the provinces and prevent violence breaking out between the different ethnic groupings.
This complex reality is slowly starting to seep through into the plans of civilian and military policy makers who are now brainstorming other models which might fit Afghanistan more surely.
In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Stephen Biddle et al. have argued that Afghanistan requires a system of ‘mixed sovereignty’ whereby the central Kabul government hands power in the provinces to regional governors or strongmen while stipulating that they accept certain conditions (i.e. not harbouring terrorists). Of course under this system a degree of corruption and anti-democratic government would be admitted. And while this would not equate with the previously aspired vision of a flourishing centralised democracy, it may be the model most fitted to the reality.
The forthcoming parliamentary debate needs to canvass this complex and challenging topic - both sides will have to be willing to move beyond the restrictive paradigm of democracy versus tyranny and be ready to engage with complexity.
Having discussed this, the second key issue for the parliament to debate is the question: why do Australian troops belong in Afghanistan at all?
It has been frequently argued that the deployment of Australian troops to Afghanistan is aimed at strengthening the US alliance and that this is a logical objective. But there is an inherent weakness in this alliance-focused argument: if the reason for Australian soldiers being in Afghanistan is to strengthen the alliance, then the actual success of the mission in Uruzgan province is irrelevant.
The mere presence of a respectable number of soldiers achieves our stated goals and it does not matter whether the final outcome is victory or defeat. But even if this rationale for Australia to stay committed was acceptable, there is in fact a further lack of logic here: strengthening the alliance requires that we actually lighten the load borne by American troops and taxpayers by committing more resources of our own, beyond the current level.
Making a token effort isn’t going to impress anyone, least of all American policy makers who are grappling with troop shortages, time limitations and ever mounting casualties.
The alternative rationale for the Australian presence in Afghanistan is that our soldiers are there to contribute to Afghanistan’s future by stabilising their area of operations and empowering local communities to live without Taliban interference. Yet if this is our objective then it also requires more troops, that is the hard fact.
Julia Gillard frequently claims that Australian military commanders, including the Chief of Defence Force Angus Houston, are not requesting any additional troops for the Afghanistan theatre. But their reluctance to do so is arguably due to a restrictive political environment rather than operational reality.
Australian troops in Uruzgan conduct counter-insurgency operations along lines articulated by counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen (the former chief counter-insurgency adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq and a former Australian Army officer). Kilcullen argues that in counter-insurgency operations, what is needed is a ‘population-centric’ strategy which focuses on securing the local population and preventing the insurgents from intimidating them or recruiting them. The population is the oxygen of an insurgency, argues Kilcullen, deny the Taliban access to it and the Taliban will wilt and die.
This is the strategy followed by Australian troops in Uruzgan province under what has been called ‘the ink-blot’ approach. According to this approach, Australian troops man patrol bases, such as the Deh Rawood patrol base on the Helmand River, from which they influence the surrounding communities. Gradually they extend the parameters of their patrolling and activity, taking in an ever greater area and population, spreading like blots of ink.
However, as one soldier interviewed by Chris Masters in his documentary on the Australians in Afghanistan said, as things currently stand, ‘sometimes the ink runs out.’ In other words, the more soldiers (or ‘ink’) on the ground, the more area can be covered, and the more effective the operation. With the current numbers of soldiers in the province, it is impossible to cover enough area and secure enough of the population. At the moment, the Gizab district of Uruzgan province, one of the most dangerous, has still not been secured by Coalition forces.
It is an undeniable reality that more can be done with more resources; a more wide-reaching and effective campaign can be waged with more men. Given this, the Australian parliament will have to decide whether Australia is making a token effort in Afghanistan, or whether we are serious about securing the population in that country and defeating the insurgency.
If we are, then history and expertise tell us that more troops are required. If we’re not, then why should more soldiers die in a mission which we are not fully committed to anyway?
Either way, we need an honest parliamentary debate which asks difficult questions, does not shy away from complexity or reach easy conclusions. Whether this is possible in the current toxic political atmosphere is yet to be seen.