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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.
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Did we have an Honest Debate?

Do, did we have an honest debate?

What did the debate achieve?


t are your thoughts? 

Wee Weeping Wilkie

OK, so now we've had the honest debate. You fellas lost. Move on, and let the guys get back to the important job of blasting the Islamofascists to paradise from the sky in peace.

See what is wrong with this lying debate?


Developmental challenges, particularly in the area where our troops are based. Our development assistance to the Oruzgan province alone is expected to reach almost

$20 million in 2010-11. The development assistance that we have provided so far is already having an impact in the region, including: providing 1,780 primary school students with basic health and hygiene education; clearing over 132,000 square metres of land contaminated

by mines, and educating 100 local people in how to do that important task; and improving food security through the distribution of wheat, including

take-home rations for female students. Australia is working to rebuild capacity within the administration of the province while encouraging stronger links with the central government. Key elements, including supporting

the reach of the central government programs into Oruzgan, delivering basic services, and supporting the legitimacy of the Afghan government, are the focus of the development assistance in the province.


Compare that to this:





(73) Program: 4.3 Offshore Asylum Seeker Management

Senator Barnett and Senator Humphries asked:

In relation to the $327 million in administered expenses for 2010-2011, what is the

average occupancy rate, the average length of stay in detention and the average

cost of the accommodation?


The average IMA occupancy estimated for Christmas Island in 2010-11 is 1800.

The current average length of stay in detention on Christmas Island is 110 days.

The Administered and Departmental costs relating to the operation on Christmas

Island as of 30 April 2010 for the financial year 2009-10 was $146.1million. However

it should be noted that the costs for the financial year are based upon the total

occupancy of IMAs, not the average IMA occupancy rate. The average occupancy

rate does not reflect the arrival numbers of new IMAs or the departures of IMAs

having either been processed or moved onshore.

As a result, determining an accurate average cost per IMA is not appropriate given

the complexity involved in each particular set of circumstances.





(82) Program : 4.3 Offshore Asylum Seeker Management

Senator Humphries (L&C 54) asked:

In relation to the $143.8 million for capital funding for additional immigration

detention facilities, provide a breakdown for the Curtin facility.


The $143.8 million for capital funding which is reported on page 326 of Budget

Paper 2 relates to funding for increased capacity at immigration detention facilities,

the Curtin facility component is $137.69 million.

The following table provides details of the major areas of estimated expenditure for

the Curtin facility capital costs.


Staff Accommodation 17,440

IMA Accommodation 23,940

IMA Facilities (Recreational facilities/Cooking, furniture etc) 41,280

Vehicle costs 250

Site works 19,260

Administrative related (buildings etc) 8,480

Freight 6,000

IT and Communications 5,040

Security (fencing/lighting) 9,000

Cyclone shelter / multi purpose building 7,000

Total Estimated Capital Costs For Curtin 09-10 & 10-11 137,690


Look, $20 million for Afghans in Afghanistan - 500,000 of them, or $40 per person per annum. $500 million for just 2 of our prisons. They held 1823 men, 27 women, 315 boys and 21 girls from Afghanistan.

See how many Afghans we claim to have "helped" in our 9 years of doing not much.


Green Landslide here we come

Andrew Wilkie made the most important comment in the debate - he pointed out that both major parties were for a continued presence in Afghanistan even though the majority of the public believed otherwise - ie Australia was not a democracy.

With the Murray Darling river propsoals collapsing, the miners gearing up for war, and the NBN having very poor household uptake,  we are going to see a major drift away from the two major parties.

The problem for the Greens is that they appear to be an issues party rather than one that has the solid competence needed to govern across all fronts. If I were the Greens, I'd be moving to recruit solid members of the community to boost the party's credibility - For example tree changers who have left well paying city jobs to run successful small businesses respected by local communities.

This would, of course, irk long-standing members who have stuck by the Greens for decades. But the greens really have a chance to save the world, starting with Australia. Do they have the integrity it takes? 


Its seems my post of a day or two ago must have misfired in the sending.

Marilyn Shepherd is quite right in her point highlighting the absurdity of the developing world bush wars the Americans prosecute and the interrelated refugee issue.

 Even on the refugee issue they spend billions uncontested, almost exclusively on adding to rather than alleviating the problem;  let alone the cumulative trillions involved in the prosecuting of these wars.

 And that's despite all the suffering.

 And for what?

 So Halliburton, et al, can make a quick buck?

Waffle Time

We don't need a debate.

Before the invasion,  John Howard should have developed a policy assessment - what the commercial world calls a business case.

It sets out very clearly what the objectives and benefits are. It

  1.  robustly examines alternative methods of achieving these objectives;
  2. provides a cost/benefit analysis; and,
  3. provides a schedule of clear interim deliverables for monitoring progress. 
John Howard's government failed to provide such a policy assessment, Kevin Rudd's government failed to provide such a policy assessment, and Julia Gillard's government failed to provide such a policy assessment. Rather, she wishes to embark on a talk fest.
The provision of such analysis is Public Administration 101as taught in any decent policy analysis course. Why isn't it done? Because government servants can get away with not doing their job to professionalk standards because if they did so, it would embarass their political masters.
And why don't we the public hold our politicians to account? Because we prefer to watch free movies with fibre to the home rather than exercise our own governance responsibilities.
Yes, let's have a talk-fest - but after the government (and the opposition) put their cards on the table - provide a policy analysis supporting our continued invasion. That will cut through a lot of the waffle, and take the debate to the next level - that of an open, professional and factual discussion.

Jailing Afghans

For the past 15 years we have been arbitrarily jailing all Afghans who flee the so-called Talibs and come here to seek refuge.

At the moment there are nearly 400 Afghan kids who have been jailed since April based on the lie that things might get better and less will be accepted.

Except it has not happened.  Up to 8 April 99% of Afghans were being accepted, as at 11 June 84% were being accepted with 98% of those who appeal then being accepted.

$370 million on Xmas Island per year, $144 million to rebuild Curtin, $50 million for Loenora, $98 million per year to run Curtin.

Another $50 million about to be spent on Curtin.

What for?

too true

Marilyn Shepherd, the ironies afoot in all of this alone challenge the imagination. Trillions spent on these wars, then billions more trying to discourage people from getting out of the way, when the bombs begin to fall.

See ourselves as others see us.

 Another thing that gripes me concerning these sorts of situations is this bland underlying assumption of the West that is somehow so culturally and spiritually advanced against everyone else, that its role as international monitor is manifestly obvious and preordained. But the only "exceptional" thing to this attitude  is the failure by those inculcated of it, to ever examine their own preconceptions.

This a country that couldn't get hurricane Katrina and New Orleans right, yet imagines its presence is the ingredient necessary for an orderly life for others outside of its borders and jurisdiction deficient as these are a to intellect morality wisdom and sensibiliites. It conceitedly arrogates or bestows upon itself, a God like status on assumptions concerning itself and others that remain unexamined.

It is in denial as to its own motives, hence the reactive control freak response to anyone who exhibits signs of not choosing ot accepting the US's view and consequent action as to a given situation, actually derived of ignorance, self interest, and fear.

honest debate, in our parliament?

Yes, it's alright for him to talk of "complexity" rather than democracy, but its not him a jail somewhere getting his nuts kicked in by some tinpot's goons.

If tribalism is the status quo, let's just get out of the place rather than add to their miseries, ours and the yank troops won't make an iota of difference except to worsen things.

 Worse still, the article fails to mention that the USA, to whom we appear beholden, may be there for reasons other than the ones they've given; far less altruistic ones, if I am correct.

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