Australia and the Afghan quagmire
The human and material costs of the Afghan war are mounting for
Australia, but this has had no effect on the policy resolve of Prime Minister
Julia Gillard and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, to stay the course. Whilst
a majority of Australians are opposed to Australia’s participation, it is time
for the Australian Government to delve deeper in discerning the complexity of
the Afghan situation.
The Government and the Opposition insist on achieving what they call Australia’s mission, which they have so far failed to spell out clearly. When pressed hard, their explanations are couched in such broad notional terms as fighting terrorism, helping Afghanistan to be transformed into a viable state and supporting Australia’s alliance with the United States.
Yet, Australia’s troop deployment in the province of Uruzgan has made little or no contribution to fighting terrorism or stabilising Afghanistan. All it has done is to secure a 10-kilometre radius, but even this zone is not a free-movement area for Australians and their American partners. Whatever Australia’s reconstruction contributions in this zone, in view of the wider insecurity in the province; the continued local disenchantment with the government of president Hamid Karzai in Kabul and its international backers, and the Taliban’s relentless persuasive and coercive measures, Australia’s achievement has been very limited.
After nine years of US-led fighting at the cost of lives of thousands of ordinary Afghans and over 2,000 American soldiers and their NATO and non-NATO partners, not to mention the billions of dollars spent, Afghanistan’s security has deteriorated. And reconstruction has badly faltered across the country. Afghanistan has neither a sound political system nor a government with which a majority of the mosaic population of Afghanistan can identify. The government, led by Karzai but dominated by his wider family, whose members are implicated in unsavoury political and business practices, is dysfunctional and corrupt. Marred by the rigged presidential election of last year, Karzai has proved incapable of providing the necessary foundations for building a stable and secure Afghanistan. The US and its allies know this, but more importantly so do the Afghan people and the Pakistan-backed Taliban-led insurgents.
Without an effective Afghan partner, the US and its allies are seriously disadvantaged. Meanwhile, the declaration by the CIA director, Leon Panetta, that no more than 50-100 Al Qaeda operatives are left in Afghanistan undermines the argument in support of fighting terrorism. This has led US president Barack Obama to exit from what is shaping up as a quagmire, with a Vietnam-type syndrome in the making, sooner rather than later. Several of America's allies, including Britain which has the largest troop deployment after the US, want to follow suit. Washington now wants Karzai’s policy of reconciliation with the Taliban to pay dividends, but this is unlikely to happen: the Taliban believe that they have NATO on the run.
Where does this leave Australia? The Government has said that Australian military involvement could end when it has accomplished its role in training the Afghan National Army (ANA). But this objective also appears hollow. Although officially the ANA claims to have more than 130,000 troops, it has so far not been able to fight and win a single battle on its own. It is highly multi-ethnic, and suffers from extensive internal divisions, a high rate of desertion, corruption, low morale and disloyalty. Most military specialists believe that it will not be ready to replace the international forces for at least another 10 years. Even then it is doubtful that it would have the capacity to ensure Afghanistan’s security against internal and external threats.
To overcome the Afghan conflict, there is a need to focus on four objectives. The first is to change the Afghan system from a strong presidential mode to a parliamentary mode, which would be more suitable to a socially-divided society such as Afghanistan. The second is to prompt Karzai and his cohorts to widen their inner circle to include more competent people, with a capacity to provide more effective leadership. This, at the same time, should be accompanied by an acceleration of economic and educational development and provision of job opportunities to benefit a majority of the Afghan people, not just a small elite surrounding Karzai. The third is to reach a regional consensus between Afghanistan’s neighbours, most importantly Pakistan and Iran, to the effect that if a stable Afghanistan does not serve their interests it will not pose a threat in any way to them either. The fourth is to maximise pressure on Pakistan to put its own house in order and stop its powerful military intelligence (ISI) from backing the Taliban. Australia is well placed to make meaningful contributions to these objectives by de-emphasising its military operations in favour of increasing its investment in the area of political reform, bureaucratic training, and health and education. Even so, these objectives will not be achieved overnight. They will still take at least another decade.
Amin Saikal is Professor of Political Science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.