The most salient feature of the ISAF strategy in Afghanistan is the transition to an Afghan Government lead by the end of 2014, whilst sustaining an enduring partnership well beyond that date. The process requires Afghan institutions to assume responsibility for security, and the associated domains of governance and development, on a province by-province basis, with a concomitant drawdown of foreign combat forces. But there are many factors that can affect the pace and intensity of transition, and may militate against prospects for success. Our forum contributors each in their turn have examined the most significant of those variables as they relate to Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan.
Jim Molan notes ISAF finally has the right inputs for its military strategy to succeed in Afghanistan. He claims that as a result of our engagement in Afghanistan, Australia now has a better equipped and more experienced army at the tactical level, which will help us cope better with future contingencies in our region and beyond. However, at the strategic level and above there remains a real reluctance in this country to commit to supporting the United States more fulsomely in this endeavour?a reluctance which he believes diminishes us in the estimation of our ANZUS partner. The alliance is not a trivial issue here—indeed, it has been one of the key reasons for Australian engagement in Afghanistan.
William Maley identifies two fundamental elements affecting long-term stability in Afghanistan over which the international coalition has least control. Those are Pakistan’s ongoing assistance to insurgent groups that enjoy a safe haven in that state, and the fundamentally flawed Afghan constitution which establishes an overly centralised political system that encourages electoral malfeasance and widespread official corruption. He argues that there is little constituency to alter the status quo among Afghan elites who benefit materially through patronage networks. His contribution sounds an ominous note about Afghanistan’s future almost regardless of when we might leave.
Nell Kennon applauds the Australian Government’s pursuit of a genuinely comprehensive approach in Afghanistan through an expanded civilian presence. However, she warns that focusing too heavily on military-led development objectives may be counter-productive in Uruzgan?a province that in any case has a very limited capacity to absorb additional funding. Instead, aid must be targeted at the national level if we desire equitable distribution of Australian assistance in Afghanistan.
Andrew Phillips recognises that transition to a more self-reliant Afghanistan requires patience, but time is in critical supply in Western polities. Those polities constitute the external centre of gravity of the Afghan campaign. He questions the official reasons for remaining in Afghanistan and suggests that in order to sustain public opinion in Australia the government should develop a narrative that explains our real strategic rationale for being involved in the war. That rationale turns upon our desire to stabilise a volatile and nuclearised South Asian sub-region with one of its principal states—Pakistan?struggling to cope with multiple challenges; not the least being a rising tide of Islamist radicalisation.
Finally, Rod Lyon expresses a deep pessimism about the West’s ability to bring about far reaching change in Afghan society given the reality of the country’s history of ethnic and tribal discord and its difficult regional milieu. He fears Afghanistan will simply revert to type after coalition forces transition out. Success therefore must be judged in terms of the ‘Long War’ outcome and its core goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating terrorist networks with strategic reach: the reason we intervened in Afghanistan in the first place.
Each of the contributors has approached the topic from a different angle, and ASPI is grateful for their input. Not surprising, each has chosen to focus upon different variables—the strategic dilemma of Afghanistan is a broad prism. But between them, the contributions constitute a cautionary warning of just how strategically important it will be for the Australian Government to get its exit strategy right. We don’t want to send the wrong message to our major ally. Neither do we want to give carte blanche to local actors to seize the high ground as we vacate it. Nor, ideally, do we want to throw away the development gains that we have helped to achieve in Afghanistan over the years. And we have long-term interests at play here, both inside the region and beyond it. Like all foreign commitments, getting in is often a lot easier than getting out. The Australian Government will have to grit its teeth for some difficult decisions ahead.
* These are the author’s personal views.