Memo to Kevin Rudd: Why are we in Afghanistan?

Memo to Kevin Rudd: Why are we in Afghanistan?

Defence policy did not receive much attention during the 2007 election campaign. Four commitments made by Kevin Rudd will determine the shape of Labor government Defence policy under Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon. The first is the commitment to maintain the Howard government’s high rate of defence spending increases: at least three per cent  a year through to 2016 – more than one billion dollars extra each year. The second is the commitment to withdraw some troops from Iraq, while maintaining the larger deployment in Afghanistan, as well substantial deployments in East Timor and Solomon Islands. The third is the commitment to a review of defence strategic thinking in a new Defence White Paper, and the last is a strong and highly public reaffirmation of commitment to the American alliance. Unless there is substantial pressure on the government to review these commitments, Australia will largely continue on the path of foreign policy militarisation commenced under the Howard government, with all of the evident moral and strategically counter-productive consequences.

Rudd’s most concrete policy commitment was to withdraw troops from Iraq. At the same time he strongly supported the even larger Afghanistan deployment, reflecting his “bad war Iraq, good war Afghanistan” position. Yet as the war in Afghanistan costs even more lives and generates ever more counter-productive consequences, both a realistic accounting of Australian interests and the wider human interest lead to an argument for withdrawal from Afghanistan, not escalation.

Rudd is best understood as Tony Blair, with many of the same skills, dispositions and weaknesses – though without Blair’s capacity for bravura inspirational speeches calling the party faithful to the flag. All Labor prime ministers have supported the Australia-US [A(NZ)US] alliance – that’s de rigueur in Australian politics. But Rudd is probably the most vocal supporter of the US alliance amongst post-war Labor prime ministers, and somewhat shocked many ALP supporters by declaring his loyalty to that alliance in his victory speech on election night. Rudd will be working closely with Bush to minimize the impact of the Iraq withdrawal commitment.

Consequently it is likely that the Iraq withdrawal will be limited to combat troops, and they in turn will be used to bolster the increasingly beleaguered, but unscrutinised, Afghanistan deployment. Australia has forces in Iraq and the Persian Gulf in a number of different capacities, and it is unlikely that all will be withdrawn. Australia’s main Iraq deployment, the Overwatch Battle Group in Dhi Qar province, will be withdrawn. Some other ADF elements will be retained because of American pressure and others because the ADF prefers to keep a foothold in US-centred command and intelligence systems. Training groups will probably be reinforced to mollify the US and keep up the illusion of “transferring security to the Iraqis”. The naval and air deployments in the Persian Gulf will be probably be retained. It is not clear what will happen to the Australian components in the Multi National Command centres in Baghdad and Basra. The latter will most likely be removed with the withdrawal of the battle group, but some elements will stay in the Baghdad headquarters at Camp Victory. Others will most likely transfer to Afghanistan.

Any decision to withdraw combat troops from Iraq will not be  taken in isolation from the Afghanistan deployment, either in military terms or in terms of the US alliance. Kevin Rudd is very much persuaded of the “bad war, Iraq; good war, Afghanistan” position. Australia now has 1,000 troops in Afghanistan, and the two theatres are closely connected in terms of command structures and logistics. There will be a redeployment of combat and support forces from the Iraq theatre to Afghanistan.

Australian troops in Afghanistan are now taking more casualties, though still nothing like US or Canadian levels. But ADF soldiers in both of Australia’s main Army deployments, the Special Operations Task Group and the Reconstruction Task Force have been killed recently in Afghanistan, and this trend will continue. In April this year the Special Operations Task Group  was somewhat hurriedly deployed back to Uruzgan province less than nine months after it was withdrawn. The re-deployment of elite combat troops was intended to bolster International Security Assistance Force offensive operations against surging resistance forces. Pulling the components of the Overwatch Battle Group out of Iraq would allow some parts of the Afghan  deployment to be rotated more easily. The ADF as a whole, and especially combat-ready elements, are under strain because of simultaneous deployments in East Timor and Solomon Islands. These have both shrunk from their peak numbers, but still make substantial demands on the ADF’s limited capacities to deploy abroad, and the ADF retains a requirement for surge capacity in both countries in case of renewed crisis.

The longstanding concern inside parts of the ADF about running the large Afghanistan operation from Baghdad through the Australian National Headquarters – Middle East Area of Operations will result in shifting most Afghanistan headquarters functions and personnel to the presently junior National Command Element in Kabul.

If there is likely to be at least a partial Iraq withdrawal, focussing on the Afghanistan war is now important. Why are we still in Afghanistan, six years after the al-Qaeda training camps used for the September 11 attacks were destroyed? Rudd holds the widespread view that Iraq is the bad war, a war that is lost, but that Afghanistan is the good war, a war that is both winnable and desirable. Neither is true. US and Australian political and military elites have learned a lesson in Iraq, but have yet to learn the lesson in Afghanistan.

There are several reasons for this. We actually know much less about what is really happening in Afghanistan than we do in Iraq. There are far fewer journalists, and much less access from the outside. Despite the fact that the ADF is involved in much more serous fighting than anywhere else, there are no journalists “embedded” with Australian forces in Afghanistan. With almost the solitary exception of Tom Hyland of the Sunday Age, no Australian journalist is using the substantial Dutch, UN and regional Afghani and Pakistani sources to monitor justly controversial  activities of both the Reconstruction Task Force or the Special Operations Task Group. This has allowed both ongoing activities of Australian forces and the fundamental rationale for their deployment to escape scrutiny under the assumed banner of “the good war” against an uncivilized foe.

In fact Australian troops are engaged in serious fighting and suffering casualties at a time when the Afghani Parliament has called for the withdrawal of American troops. This followed US Air Force bombings resulting in large numbers of “collateral” civilian casualties. There has been a breakout of local truces, and peace initiatives in both the Pakistani border region and southern provinces, indicating that substantial groupings notionally on the government side see at least some possibility of dialogue with a clearly disparate opposition. The insurgency is much more than just “the Taliban”, and the Taliban is itself no longer a single, integrated body. There will be no military solution in Afghanistan. Whatever solution is going to come will have to be, in some form or another, political. Following the death of yet another Australian, and the deaths of some 70 Canadians and many Dutch, American and British soldiers, to say nothing of tens of thousands of Afghanis, the question of how the Afghanistan war is going to end has to be addressed by the incoming Australian government.

Leaving aside elementary issues of morality in war and foreign policy, what strategic interest does Australia have in Afghanistan that could possibly justify the deaths of so many? What are the goals of that war? In the past year the Howard government has listed three rationales: preventing a fall of Afghani democracy; preventing the establishment of a narco-state; and preventing a return of terrorism. None of these are defensible as justifications for an Australian military presence. The Afghan government is a very mixed affair, with many elements no better than their notional Taliban opponents. Moreover, sooner or later, as in Iraq, democratic rule will have to be based on some kind of political accommodation between very diverse but persisting political forces. Afghanistan is already a narco-state by most criteria, and the war has been spectacularly counter-productive by strengthening international narcotics networks. The rebuilding of terrorist bases would be a matter of legitimate international concern, but unless the country is driven to even worse extremes by the devastation and desperation of war, the international community will have many points of intervention, positive and negative, to discourage whatever state emerges from a political accommodation from tolerating such camps. At present, the worst such sources of terrorism have emerged under the aegis of the west’s principal regional ally, Pakistan.

All that remains is paying the price of an alliance insurance policy by using our troop deployment to legitimate a brutal and counter-productive war led by an ally over whom Australia has no influence on matters of substance. The most important defence policy question now facing the Rudd government is simple: why are we in Afghanistan?