Following the takeover of the war by US commanders and the recent surge of US troops and funding, ISAF now has more than a fair chance of success in Afghanistan. Success for interventionist forces is the provision of breathing space to develop governance, economy and security forces that will enable Afghans to win their war years or decades after foreign forces have left. Recent progress, especially compared to the situation one year ago, and a succeeding model in Iraq, shows that these types of wars can be won. Pakistan is still the real regional challenge but a stable Afghanistan will contribute greatly to the Pakistan government’s stabilisation of its own nation.
With roughly adequate US troops on the ground and an aggressive security attitude at least by several members of the 48 nation coalition, 2011 will be an important year in the security line of operations. Not only did the US put in its 30,000 surge troops but it has now also put in tanks to complement Danish and Canadian tanks, and deployed even more Marines recently to prepare for a Taliban ‘counter offensive’ once the weather is better. Of particular note is the combined Special Forces, including a significant Australian component, who have achieved much by killing or capturing the Taliban leadership and the facilitators, particularly around Kandahar.
From an Australian military point of view, several comments can be made with a 2014 exit in mind.
Australian political leaders should have learned much about the effective use of military forces in the period since East Timor, and that will be of great use as we face the next 20 years of strategic challenges in our region. What they may not have learned is that there is a limit to the number of times that Australia can talk big as an ally (in public and in private) yet not assist in a war to the full extent demanded by the tactical situation or by our military capacity. This has relevance to the current debate on China and the US attitude to its allies pulling their weight. It may be hard to break away from an Australian minimalist military strategy when we need to.
The best militaries are those that fight regularly because they are reminded of what is really important. The Australian army has already gained much in attitude and equipment from its involvement in Afghanistan. It is in Australia’s interests to have a military that is not just well equipped but can also conduct effective military operations, including combat. The Australian Army is better than it has ever been in terms of experience and attitude since the Vietnam era, at least at the lowest tactical level. This may not apply to the bulk of the Air Force or the Navy who, except for small elements, have not been in combat for years. Most of the popular Australian commentary seems to concentrate on materiel and budgetary matters, and it is dangerous to not put equal if not more effort into how operations are conducted. This is too important to be left to the military, as President Bush found by 2007 in Iraq.
What is working against a total military capability bonus for the ADF out if its experience in Afghanistan relates essentially to ADF leadership.
The last three governments have run a minimalist military strategy where talk is big and force commitment is small. The US military and taxpayers must be awfully sick of this from all their allies. The current approach to our commitment in Uruzgan Province is to not have a policy that takes full responsibility for an outcome, but to have a narrow task (train the 4th Brigade) and a set number of troops (1550). When this is questioned governments fall back on the advice of the Chief of the Defence Force, who is effectively unchallengeable. Many ADF members question this because they can see that the counter-insurgency task in Afghanistan needs a more balanced approach across all lines of operations with adequate civilian and military resources, as the UK Army now acknowledges it did not do, to its great regret, in Iraq. It would be dangerous for the ADF to leave Afghanistan, even if successful, with the rank and file thinking that its leadership was condoning an ineffective strategy directed by politicians which should be justified by politicians, not by the military.
Like the UK surge in Northern Ireland in the early seventies, the first and second US surges in Iraq in 2004 and 2007, and the failure of the UK to surge in 2008 which led to its failure in southern Iraq, the causal relationship between adequate resources and success in military campaigns is once again established for those who are willing to listen. Next time, let’s surge first, as the ‘Powell Doctrine’ suggests where every available resource and tool is used to achieve decisive results, and let’s honestly support allies.
* These are the author’s personal views.