Reading Raspal Khosa’s insightful contribution to this forum, I was reminded of a quote from legendary football coach Vince Lombardi about his beloved Green Bay Packers: ‘They never lost a game. They simply ran out of time.’ This quote seems particularly apposite in light of Prime Minister Gillard’s recent declaration that Australian military and civilian personnel may be in Afghanistan for at least another decade, and NATO’s similarly expansive commitment to forming a strategic partnership with Afghanistan to extend beyond 2014. Both Gillard’s statement and the Lisbon Declaration reflect a growing awareness of the need for a long-term international commitment to Afghanistan even following the anticipated withdrawal of ISAF combat troops from the country by 2014. With the early failure of a ‘light footprint’ nation-building strategy now obvious to all, the official recognition that Afghanistan’s reconstruction will be a protracted process initially seems reassuring. Upon further consideration, however, such statements reveal a critical vulnerability in ISAF’s strategy, namely its dependence on Western publics’ continued willingness to support a mission that will soon be stretching into its second decade. This vulnerability is particularly acute in Australia, where our politicians have manifestly failed to educate the electorate about the vital strategic interests that are at stake in our mission to Afghanistan, and where public resolve in favour of any further extension of our commitment to the country is therefore unlikely to be forthcoming.
Last year’s parliamentary debate saw both government and opposition justify our involvement in Afghanistan principally on two grounds. The first stressed the mission’s counter-terrorism dimension, while the second invoked the mission’s importance in upholding our alliance with America. Neither of these rationales—considered either individually or in concert—are persuasive. While al-Qaeda maintains a persistent presence in the Af/Pak region, the relative success of counter-sanctuary missions in places such as Yemen, Somalia and the southern Philippines indicates that large-scale foreign troop presences are not necessary to contain the jihadist menace. Appeals to alliance solidarity as a rationale for our Afghan commitment are equally unconvincing, with Canada’s decision to withdraw combat troops from the conflict thus far failing to sour its relations with Washington.
Instead, the most compelling short-term reason for us to stay in Afghanistan remains the need to help prevent the country from descending into civil war and thereby further destabilising a region that is vitally significant to Australian interests. While battered from recent American offensives in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban remains a resilient adversary, and would no doubt seize the opportunity presented by a precipitate Western withdrawal to renew its bid for total power. The resulting conflict would replicate the humanitarian disaster that engulfed Afghanistan and its neighbours in the early 1990s, but it would do so in a far more volatile regional context, in which jihadist radicalism has now sunk deep roots into the Pakistani body politic, and in which relations between the region’s now officially nuclear armed great rivals are more fraught and febrile than ever.
In the longer term, Australia shares with its ISAF allies an interest in nurturing an Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbours, for such an outcome remains a critical pre-condition for attaining the broader regional peace upon which Australia’s continued security and prosperity ultimately depends. Australia’s independent capacity to promote a durable political settlement—both within Afghanistan and between Kabul and its neighbours—is small. But the strategic interest we have in such an outcome eventuating is huge. And our local contribution in building a sustainable security order in Uruzgan to support this process remains significant. Unfortunately, however, while the real strategic motivation for our involvement in Afghanistan remains opaque to most voters, public support for the mission will remain soft, and will moreover be difficult to sustain for the length of time necessary to establish effective governance throughout the country.
Afghanistan’s reconstruction remains a vital interest for Australia, and Prime Minister Gillard’s acknowledgement that this may entail Australian involvement in that country beyond the projected withdrawal of our combat troops is welcome news. But our elected leaders’ resolve to prosecute the mission to its successful conclusion rests ultimately on the public’s continued patience. And that patience in turn can only be sustained when voters are adequately informed of the interests that are being served through Australia’s presence in Afghanistan, and are consequently equipped with good reasons for toughing out the uncertainty that will inevitably attend Afghanistan’s slow path towards recovery. Recent improvements in Afghan security and governance indicators since the Obama ‘surge’ appear to vindicate those who claim that Western forces have never been better at counter-insurgency than they are right now. But being the best team on the field will do ISAF little good if they end up running out of time.
* These are the author’s personal views.