Raspal Khosa has given us a good overview of the proposed endgame in Afghanistan. But endgames are notoriously difficult—Brian Bond’s classic study, The Pursuit of Victory, cautions that victory on the battlefield, even where it can be gained, frequently cannot be translated into meaningful political outcomes. Ironically, war is the pursuit of politics by other means, but the pursuit and the politics often prove to be misaligned in the end. In all endgames we have to be realistic about what is achievable and what isn’t. And that means we should focus not on mission statements and good intentions, but on outcomes. I think, sadly, that we can achieve only modest outcomes in Afghanistan: we can’t ensure good governance; can’t redesign Afghan society; can’t eradicate the Taliban; and can’t protect the population.
ISAF’s limits in the broad are also our limits in relation to the more specific objectives that we might hope to achieve in Uruzgan. While the Gillard government remains loyally committed to the ISAF project—not least because it’s a commitment that we undertook under the rubric of the ANZUS treaty—Australia can't build in Uruzgan something that goes against the broader trend; Uruzgan is not an independent strategic entity, it's just a province. Further, Afghanistan lives in a troubled, fractious part of the world, and is only a small player in its own region. The country as a whole might not even be master of its own destiny. Realists in international relations are wont to speak of countries as billiard balls—but even some billiard balls end up knocked into the side pocket.
Australia remains committed to the transition project—eventually transitioning out of an Afghanistan that is ‘good enough’, and handing over responsibility to a functioning Afghan government. But Afghanistan faces formidable challenges in making that transition work. The tradition of a strong central state is weak in Afghanistan. The National Security Forces are, in the long term, likely to prove more faithful to regional, local, tribal, familial and ethnic loyalties than they are to the state. It is extremely unlikely that the Taliban can be irreversibly marginalised on their home ground. And even in the near term, it’s likely that 2011, despite the surge, will show coalition fatalities continuing at 2010 levels or above. (Coalition fatalities have increased every year since 2003, so it would be no surprise if the 2011 figures were to be higher than those of 2010.)
In the medium term, say over the next five to ten years, it is more than likely that Afghanistan will go back to being Afghanistan. That means it will probably betray the grander aspirations that some in the West hold for its future. It is unlikely that sufficient ‘development’ can be generated by international aid to provide the core of a new Afghan economy. And a degree of primitivism—including the occasional stoning and disfigurement of women—seems likely to blur, at least in the perception of Western publics, the overall value of the coalition’s intervention. In short, Afghanistan will continue to be shaped more by local and regional forces than by global ones. Pakistan will continue to see Afghanistan as providing strategic depth for itself. And consequential groups within Pakistan will want to exploit opportunities that a fractious Afghanistan will provide.
Does this mean that the entire Afghanistan intervention was fruitless and wasteful? No. But we should remember why we went into Afghanistan in the first place. We went in because of the direct linkage of the 9/11 attacks to Afghanistan. So we should judge ‘success’ there in terms of the Long War on al-Qaeda and its affiliates: an al-Qaeda put to flight, a chastened Taliban; a reluctance on the part of the Taliban leadership to re empower AQ; a diminution in the number of Afghan-centred terrorist plots against the West. Afghanistan never was strategically important in and of itself. It might be those 'successes' don't hold—in which case international intervention might again be necessary. In the Long War, we will need to be just as agile and manoeuvrable as the adversaries we are fighting.
How should we think about the endgame in Afghanistan? By keeping it in context. And that means accepting that there can be no quick endgame for the broader conflict within which the intervention in Afghanistan first had, and still has, meaning.
* These are the author’s personal views.