Lowy Institute

Debate: Afghanistan

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Allan Behm, a former head of the International Policy and Strategy Divisions of the Department of Defence, is a risk analyst with Knowledge Pond.

Recent comments by Prime Minister Rudd and Foreign Minister Smith to the effect that the fighting in Afghanistan and the 17 July bombings in Jakarta are in some way connected because they are aspects of the 'international fight against terrorism' drew quick corrective therapy from the commentariat.

So often, as we saw with the phony 'Defence of Australia' debate a few years ago, what passes for conversation on important policy issues is more like barrackers shouting at each other, thinking different thoughts and speaking different languages. Perhaps talking past each other, rather than to each other, is an enduring Australian trait.

Professor Hugh White, as quoted by Michelle Grattan in The Age of 20 July, is quite right to claim that there is no causal connection between military operations in Afghanistan and the activities of Noordin Top. The suppression of Al Qaeda – the key objective of the Afghanistan campaign – will not of itself prevent terrorist acts in Indonesia.

As I pointed out in my paper 'What about the War on Terror?', regional terrorism, whether in southern Thailand, the southern Philippines or Indonesia, is driven by local issues (most often land tenure) with long historical antecedents. While regional terrorist groups may draw some comfort from the ideological propositions advanced by al Qaeda, their purposes are much more domestic. So, too, are their techniques.

To claim, however, that the Government is being 'intellectually dishonest' in drawing a link between events in Afghanistan and Indonesia misses the point. Read More

Its various local manifestations notwithstanding, terrorism is a global phenomenon. At the level of both strategy and policy, Australia’s approach to terrorism – like that of every other liberal democracy – must be comprehensive and generic, while the operational tools of counter-terrorism must be specific and focused. This, as I understand it, is all the government is saying. And it is right.

The anti-terrorism chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A lack of Western resolve in Afghanistan will not only encourage the adherents of al Qaeda. It will encourage the terrorist diaspora in North Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, South Asia and South East Asia.

In The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad charts the imperial temper and its total inability to comprehend the dynamics of an alien (ie. African) culture and sensibility. We need to be careful that we do not impose our taste for empiricism on those driven by altogether different cultural imperatives. For the fact is that many terrorist groups, be they in Chechnya, Palestine, Pakistan or even Indonesia draw ideological, ideational, inspirational and motivational solace from the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and the actions of al Qaeda.

At the high end of anti-terrorist strategy is the goal of denying any oxygen at all to terrorist organisations and their followers. That is why the pursuit of al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is important. Al Qaeda’s translation from Afghanistan to Pakistan suggests that the NATO coalition in Afghanistan is winning on that front, albeit slowly and painfully. And what began as a fight against the Taliban harbouring al Qaeda has morphed into a fight against a reconstituted Taliban whose purpose is to drive out the occupying forces. So the fight in Afghanistan is now conducted on two fronts. No commentator worth his salt would confuse those two dimensions of the Afghanistan campaign.

And, of course, the Taliban use the asymmetric techniques of the terrorists (IEDs and remotely controlled bombs) against the collation forces.

To walk away from a militarily unwinnable fight against the Taliban (where there are some early hopes of a political resolution if Karzai’s overtures to the Taliban are successful) would be to concede the fight against al Qaeda.  Noordin Top would derive considerable encouragement from that, even without any formal or operational links with al Qaeda.

Photo by Flickr user pusspaw, used under a Creative Commons license.

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Allan Behm ends his defence of the Afghanistan operation with the warning that Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Noordin Top 'would derive considerable encouragement' from any Western decision to 'walk away from a military unwinnable fight against the Taliban'.

But when the fight against terrorism demands the continuation of a costly and unwinnable war, just because ending it would encourage terrorists, isn't it time to question our strategy? If we saw someone we didn't like continually butting their head against a brick wall, we wouldn't be intimidated by them or admire them for their toughness; instead, we'd question their sanity and perhaps think we had the upper hand against them.

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Basing our strategy on what would 'encourage' the likes of Noordin Top is to enter a hall of mirrors. Sure, leaving Afghanistan might look like weakness, but hasn't going in there in the first place encouraged terrorists too? It has certainly exposed the West to just the kind of defeat the Soviets suffered and which so bucked Osama bin Laden.

The only good reason to be in Afghanistan is if it can make a practical contribution to reducing the risk of al Qaeda-led or inspired terrorism. That's why we invaded in the first place, but as Rory Stewart argues in this piece in the London Review of Books, the massive nation-building campaign that has been bolted on to that initial modest military ambition has transformed the Afghanistan operation into its present absurdly ambitious state. It can be wound back to a few core ambitions:

After seven years of refinement, the policy seems so buoyed by illusions, caulked in ambiguous language and encrusted with moral claims, analogies and political theories that it can seem futile to present an alternative. It is particularly difficult to argue not for a total withdrawal but for a more cautious approach. The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer – perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counter-terrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state. If the West believed it essential to exclude al-Qaida from Afghanistan, then they could do it with special forces. (They have done it successfully since 2001 and could continue indefinitely, though the result has only been to move bin Laden across the border.) At the same time the West should provide generous development assistance – not only to keep consent for the counter-terrorism operations, but as an end in itself.

A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favoured by development agencies. We should not control and cannot predict the future of Afghanistan. It may in the future become more violent, or find a decentralised equilibrium or a new national unity, but if its communities continue to want to work with us, we can, over 30 years, encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.

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Two readers have written in to comment on Sam's post on knowing our limits in Afghanistan. The first is from Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan who is the author of Running the War in Iraq. Sam is away for a few days and will, no doubt, respond on return.

Sam’s post on Afghanistan (widely quoting Rory Stewart’s almost very good article) annoyed me so much, I have now tried three times to draft an answer. It reminded me that there is a vast difference between the real world and our comfortable world of commentary and blogging.

I recently quoted Karl Weick, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Psychology at Michigan University, who said: 'Your beliefs are cause maps that you impose on the world, after which you “see” what you have already imposed. People expect their social world to be put together the way their justifications say it is put together, they act as if it is put together that way, and they selectively perceive what they see as if it were put together the way the justifications say it is.' Sam and Rory reminded me that it not only the military that does this.

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In making his point against Allan Behm’s post, Sam makes a very large number of assertions that he, or those he quotes, should in some way justify. But as I tried to answer the post, I ended up with either a list of questions that just sounded smug, or I started to repeat arguments that I have made time and again in the media or in presentations about both the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that have so far raised a storm of apathy in the Australian consciousness.

Retired British Brigadier Allan Mallinson has written a very good article in the Telegraph that was carried in the SMH. I wish that I could, but I could not put it better. And every bit applies to the Australian commitment to Uruzgan Province, except that our commitment has not yet been brought under the glare created by heavy casualties. If it is, the same questions will be asked of our government and our departmental and military leaders as are now being asked in the UK.

The second response is from Paul Winter

The article on Afghanistan is not an analysis but a defeatist rationalisation for appeasement. The problem in Afghanistan (and in Iraq) is the lack of will by NATO and the USA's belief that war can be fought on the cheap or with good deeds.

The wars against Islamofascists can and must be won, for our sakes and for the sake of the Muslim masses intimidated by savages who use religion to impose their medieval concepts of society to benefit from the corruption enjoyed by the present power holders.

Instead of withdrawing troops, more should be put into the field. Each province should be pacified one by one instead of the whole country. Villages should be given protection and radical religious elements suppressed or killed. When people see that they are safe and their oppressors are dead, they will stand up for themselves. If they are jihadis, then they must be put down. Very simply, as someone said: if you have them by their balls, their hearts and minds will follow.

The civilised world cannot afford to allow murderous, sexist savages determined to wage violent jihad against the 21st century to plot against us in peace and radicalise a whole generation to hate and fight us. And we need to realise that we are not in Vietnam; attacking the source of arms and funds of the barbarians will lead not to a world war, but to the liberating of several nations suffering under the most backward forms of Islam.

Photo by Flickr user Army.mil, used under a Creative Commons license.

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I'm sorry to have moved Jim Molan to such fury with my post about Afghanistan, but I can't find anything in the Allan Mallison article he recommends that changes my mind. As with many such articles, the arguments are mostly about what the coalition needs to do to build a functioning, self-defending Afghan democracy. But the overarching argument about whether that aim is even worthwhile is skated over very quickly.

Mallison says it's all about creating a state that won't harbour terrorists of the kind that perpetrated the 9/11 and London underground atrocities, which is fair enough as far as it goes. But if the Rory Stewart article I quoted is right, and that can be done with around 20,000 troops, why not confine the mission strictly to anti-terrorism rather than the incredibly ambitious nation-building strategy we now have?

Mallison alludes to broader strategic considerations, particularly Pakistan's nuclear status. My colleagues Michael Fullilove and Anthony Bubalo made a similar argument earlier this week in the Financial Review:

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If terrorism were all that was at stake in Afghanistan, the grounds for Australia’s involvement might be more marginal. But there are three other issues to consider. The first is the effort to achieve stability in a region that shares an ocean with Australia; contains two nuclear powers that have come close to war (and in Iran, a possible third); is close to the heart of international energy supplies; has becoming a major exporter of drugs; and lacks any viable regional security framework.

Pakistan is the best example of where the broader consequences of a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan would be felt. Pakistan has pursued a schizophrenic policy on Afghanistan, helping the West when it must, while simultaneously pursuing its own divergent interests. Islamabad is, however, now reaping a bloody harvest in the Swat valley from its actions. This has momentarily narrowed the gap between Western and Pakistani interests, but to leave Afghanistan early would only encourage Islamabad to sup once again with the devils it knows and in many cases created.

I wonder how convincing such arguments would be if we weren't in Afghanistan already. Would we now advocate an invasion and long-term occupation of Afghanistan to stabilise the Indian Ocean region, reduce the chances of nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, disrupt drug supplies, protect energy sources, substitute for the lack of a regional security framework and discourage Pakistani cooperation with the Taliban? More to the point, have any of these problems been reduced or made more manageable by the Western presence in Afghanistan? How?

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

The reasons Sam moved me to such annoyance are simple, and he mentions both of them in his riposte.

The first is the proposition that you only need 20,000 troops to do anything in Afghanistan. We did have 20,000 troops there at one stage and it did not quite work. I acknowledge that Rory Stewart might be right; there are no absolutes. What he advocates might work now when it did not work before in Afghanistan or Vietnam or Iraq or Malaya or Northern Ireland, but I doubt it, and what will Rory Stewart do if he is wrong?

The second issue that annoyed me in Sam's post is the examination of how we would approach the problem of Afghanistan if we were not there. The fact is that we are there and that presents a much greater policy problem to any government than not committing in the first place. It is much easier not to commit than it is to un-commit.

The issue in relation to Afghanistan is what to do now. The issue of why we are there and whether we should either pull out or continue is important. But given that we are there, and given that the probability of leaving seems to me to be very low, most of our brain power should be directed at how to proceed.

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Pulling out, or even reducing to 20,000 troops and only concentrating on terrorists and 'good' projects is a valid course of action. It needs to be addressed just as much as my proposal – increasing the number of troops to historically consistent effective levels to establish security and, once security is adequate, addressing governance and the economy, and so attacking terrorism.

Even if the aim is anti-terrorism only, the solution will still look something like rebuilding the country. The trick is to try solutions until one is found that works. In my view, we tried small numbers of troops and well-intentioned projects in the NATO period for the first five years of the Afghan war, and it failed spectacularly. We are now in the process of trying more troops as well as governance, economy, negotiations, US involvement, fewer bombs, new leadership, etc. I believe it has a better chance of working, or at least stopping us going backwards as fast.

In my view we still do not have enough security forces, either foreign or Afghan, to establish security, and so nothing we do will be decisive in terms of security, governance or the economy. We will not be defeated militarily, but the war will go on for a long time until we fully resource it or US resolve disappears. The rest of the world (less a few countries) refuses to resource the war and some people justify this by continually looking at other non-military ways to win, and because they are good people, they hope that such an approach might work.

The non-military ways are important, but only after security is established locally or nationally. There is experience and there are studies to indicate that the right number of security forces are needed before security can be established, and that one of the constants of war is that we start with too few security forces, then relearn the lesson. We now have US leadership, resources and a degree of resolve (which is a mighty plus compared to European leadership). Now we just need the right amount of resources.

So what should the coalition do across all of Afghanistan now, and what should Australia do in Oruzgan province? The course of action the West is pursuing in Afghanistan should be let run its course. We tried only a few troops for the first few years, and it did not work. We are now trying a few more (still too few, I believe, but a less wrong course of action), so lets see how that goes. Hopefully, if the need to put in more troops to increase the probability of success is seen to be the next course of action, the situation will be recoverable.

Photo by Flickr user startledrabbit III, used under a Creative Commons license.

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It seems Jim Molan and I have been talking past each other. In his latest post, Jim says that, 'given that the probability of leaving seems to me to be very low, most of our brain power should be directed at how to proceed.' That means Jim wants to talk mostly about questions of 'how', whereas I remain stubbornly attached to discussing the 'why'.

Jim is probably right to say that it is too late to have the 'why' debate, because the die is cast. But good arguments can change minds and eventually change policy, so here are two points that summarise my scepticism about the Afghanistan operation, one specific and another general.

First, it is a misallocation of resources. This is particularly the case if you want to argue that our presence in Afghanistan is primarily about reducing the threat of terrorism — given the variety of lawless places from which an al Qaeda attack could spring, there is little justification for expending so many resources on denying them just one. As Stephen Biddle argues in his guarded defence of the Afghanistan mission: 

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If the current Afghan government collapsed and were replaced with a neo-Taliban regime, or if the Taliban were able to secure political control over some major contiguous fraction of Afghan territory, then perhaps al-Qaeda could re-establish a real haven there. But the risk that al-Qaeda might succeed in doing this isn’t much different than the same happening in a wide range of weak states throughout the world, from Yemen to Somalia to Djibouti to Eritrea to Sudan to the Philippines to Uzbekistan, or even parts of Latin America or southern Africa. And of course Iraq and Pakistan could soon host regimes willing to put the state’s resources behind al-Qaeda if their current leaderships collapse under pressure.

Many of these countries, especially Iraq and Pakistan, could offer al-Qaeda better havens than Afghanistan ever did. Iraq and Pakistan are richer and far better connected to the outside world than technologically primitive, landlocked Afghanistan...Thus it is still important to deny al-Qaeda sanctuary on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. But the intrinsic importance of doing so is no greater than that of denying sanctuary in many other potential havens—and probably smaller than many. We clearly cannot afford to wage protracted warfare with multiple brigades of American ground forces simply to deny al-Qaeda access to every possible safe haven. We would run out of brigades long before bin Laden ran out of prospective sanctuaries.

But even if the terrorist threat from Afghanistan demands some level of continued military response, it's not clear why we have chosen this particular kind, with its heavy emphasis on nation-building and counter-insurgency. The 2001 defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda's expulsion from Afghanistan was achieved mainly with the use of air power, special forces and local proxies. If our primary aim is to deny al Qaeda and the Taliban the opportunity to restore their pre-October 2001 status in Afghanistan, why can't that be done with similar tools? 

Second, the task we have set ourselves in Afghanistan is simply too big. This is actually a broader point that goes to political philosophy rather than specific strategic considerations. NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote a piece in February about what he termed 'epistemological modesty'. He was writing about the US economy and health care reform, but his argument is equally valid here: 

The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly. There were big errors like communism, but also lesser ones, like a Vietnam War designed by the best and the brightest, urban renewal efforts that decimated neighborhoods, welfare policies that had the unintended effect of weakening families and development programs that left a string of white elephant projects across the world.

These experiences drove me toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.

If our own societies are so 'immeasurably complex', and we manage to reform them only incrementally, fitfully and with regular setbacks, what kind of hubris makes us think we can entirely rebuild the political, economic and social institutions of a country we know next to nothing about?

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Mark Corcoran is has been a journalist with ABC-TV’s Foreign Correspondent program for 13 years. From 1998-2004 he spent considerable time in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

I think much of the debate triggered by Sam's post misses a crucial issue: setting aside the 'War on Terror' rhetoric for a moment, if the US-led forces achieve a short-term military victory in Afghanistan, what happens next? Exactly who are Australia and the NATO alliance fighting for? What kind of people are going to run this New Afghanistan?

When you put those questions to US officials over the past several years you got the usual empty, non-specific rhetoric about 'nation-building'. But a key security factor ignored by many in this debate is the simple, indisputable fact that Afghanistan is a narco-state. Half of all economic activity is derived from narcotics.

Kabul April 2009. Investigating narcotics trafficking in Afghanistan, it's easy to make enemies — and not just with the Taliban. Mark Corcoran of ABC-TV's Foreign Correspondent program, with his personal protection team.

I recently spent some time back in Kabul after an absence of five years, catching up with old acquaintances in 'leadership circles', as American diplomats so quaintly put it. What surprised me was not so much the scale of the narcotics trade – Afghanistan has long supplied the bulk of the world’s opium and heroin — but that so many of Afghanistan’s potential leaders are compromised by direct involvement or corruption fuelled by this narco-economy. It felt as though large sections of the government were no longer running a country but a vast criminal enterprise.

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The narcotics industry has created an interdependence between 'legitimate' political leaders, the Taliban they claim to be fighting, and the drug barons/warlords. A few powerbrokers in Afghanistan somehow manage to fit into all three of these categories. A new book by US journalist Gretchen Peters, 'Seeds of Terror - How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban', does a brilliant job of explaining this interdependence between the 'legitimate' political class, the various insurgent groups that have been labelled with the generic Taliban brand, and of course the drug lords.

Of course, the US has known all along about these narcotics linkages, and sections of the US military and intelligence community have been prepared to turn a blind eye to the drug trafficking of favoured warlords and politicians in return for information on the Taliban and al Qaeda leadership.

This was particularly prevalent in 2002-03. There’s evidence suggesting that these US-sponsored 'blind eye' deals enabled the drug syndicates to not only survive the critical transition of power from the Taliban to the US-led occupation, but thrive under the new leadership, ultimately becoming part of the hydra-headed insurgency problem the coalition faces today. Old American Afghan hands have another term for it: blowback.

I’ve seen detailed Pentagon intelligence reporting on the issue – and broadcast excerpts in a recent Foreign Correspondent report, 'Afghanistan: The Bulldozer', broadcast in Australia in May 2009. This investigation highlighted the exploits of Washington’s favourite warlord, Nangarhar Provincial Governor, Gul Agha Sherzai. When then-Senator Barack Obama made his first visit to Afghanistan last year he bypassed President Karzai and headed straight for a briefing from 'The Bulldozer', as Governor Sherzai is known, for the way he 'bulldozes' his way through political problems.

Only now, nearly 8 years into this conflict, are the linkages between drugs, the insurgency and corruption finally being factored in by US commanders.

Earlier this year I visited the bustling US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) base near Kabul Airport. The DEA is ramping up paramilitary operations in Afghanistan to the point where now it even overshadows their presence in Colombia. When I met senior DEA agents they were preparing to change strategy from targeting poppy farmers and middle men and go for the 'kingpins'.

But some veteran DEA agents privately conceded that if they started applying the rule of law, Afghanistan wouldn’t have too many political leaders left. President Hamid Karzai is one of the very few Afghan political figures I’ve met with a reputation for standing above the bog of corruption. But even Karzai’s own brother, a leading political figure in Kandahar, is tainted by alleged links to the drugs trade.

In 2003, I spent two weeks inside the Presidential Palace in Kabul filming a profile of Karzai, attempting to get a sense of the Afghanistan he was trying to build. I accompanied him when he first flew to Islamabad to confront Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf over the initial cross-border incursions.

Unfortunately, Karzai's credibility was immediately undermined by the 'form' — to use police parlance — of some senior members of his delegation. It was difficult watching Karzai stand there in Musharraf's headquarters, attempting to read the riot act to the Pakistani leadership when everyone in the room knew that members of his own team were heavily involved in cross-border drug trafficking and moving millions of dollars around on behalf of the Taliban. Of course Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI, was also heavily implicated, but that’s another story.

Perhaps the US-led coalition can press on and achieve a costly military victory over the Taliban. But unless this recent shift in US political strategy works, once the victory parade is over, the American generals will still be handing over control of the country to a political leadership indelibly stained by the past. As Thomas Schweich, US Ambassador for Counternarcotics in Afghanistan 2007-08 told me, 'You can't look for lilywhite purity in Afghanistan; it doesn't exist by our standards'.

The tragedy for Afghanistan is that it’s taken nearly 8 years for America’s generals to acknowledge what was obvious from the first day their troops marched through the opium poppy fields — that drugs, the Taliban and the corrupt Afghan leadership are all linked.

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The Afghanistan debate between Jim Molan, myself and others (click on the 'read more in this debate' button above to see the whole thread) has drawn heavily on a London Review of Books article by Rory Stewart.

Just to reinforce a point I made in one post about distinguishing between the 'how' and the 'why' of Afghanistan policy, I can't resist quoting Stewart again, this time from an interview with the Financial Times (h/t Drum):

“I do a lot of work with policymakers, but how much effect am I having?” he asks, pronging a mussel out of its shell.

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says ...’”

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Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

In response to Sam, both the 'how' and the 'why' are important in Afghanistan – it just depends on how much effort we put into each, and which part of each we address.

If the 'why' question is focused on why we went there in the first place, we have plenty of time to consider it because it is essentially an academic exercise. To be intellectually honest, we would need to look at why went there first, then why we went back, why the Liberal Government made an initial commitment, why Labor then adopted the conflict and why its rhetoric is so much stronger than its commitment of resources, just as the Liberal Government's rhetoric was in Iraq.

We should also ask why, in any of the commitments so far, there is no alignment between objectives, tasks and resources. But we have lots of time to do that after we win or lose this war.

If the 'why' question is focused on why we should stay or leave given that we are actually there at the moment, then I think we are getting closer to immediate relevance. We should examine both courses of action, but both have consequences.

People who advocated leaving at tough times in Iraq only ever emphasised the consequences of staying. They seemed to think that if we left Iraq, there were no immediate, middle or long term consequences. It was the terrible staying, with death and destruction and unethical action, or it was leaving to play forever in the green fields beyond. We were obviously the problem and once we went then the problem and the symptoms disappeared.

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I suspect that the same applies to Afghanistan. Of course leaving is a valid option, but the full consequences of that position must be acknowledged. I understand stubborn attachment to a policy position, but I would really appreciate Sam telling me what withdrawal might look like in the immediate sense, and then in the middle and longer term. And if he, like most of us, cannot predict the future, then perhaps that is yet another reason not to leave.

Sam then makes two arguments about why he wants to consider withdrawal. He says that if our involvement is about reducing the threat of terrorism then it is inefficient — al Qaeda could go to many other countries and set up bases even if we won in Afghanistan.

Despite what presidents and prime ministers regularly say, there are many reasons for being in Afghanistan, not just anti-terrorism. Government might declare only one reason for political purposes. But they tend to make policy on the basis of the many reasons, and we see this 30 years after the event when cabinet papers are released. It is up to us contemporaries to deduce the real reasons if we are going to comment.

I think the real reasons are related to domestic politics, alliances, self interest, humanitarian and values reasons, and geo-politics.

But even if 'anti-terrorism' was the reason, then the solution to reducing terrorism in Afghanistan looks a lot like nation-building (this is not 'rebuild[ing] the political, economic and social institutions of a country we know next to nothing about'). So if there are many reasons, but for domestic political impact the government is stating only one (anti-terror), nation-building in Afghanistan still has some logic.

I think Sam misreads what happened at the start of the Afghan war when he says, 'The 2001 defeat of the Taliban and al Qaeda's expulsion from Afghanistan was achieved mainly with the use of air power, special forces and local proxies. If our primary aim is to deny al Qaeda and the Taliban the opportunity to restore their pre-October 2001 status in Afghanistan, why can't that be done with similar tools?'

This is the kind of error that Rumsfeld made in Iraq, thinking that there is no difference between the invasion of a country and a counter-insurgency. If he had not made this error, then perhaps Iraq would have been a one year wonder. They are different types of wars, and we have learnt something from our previous conflicts. The comparison is totally invalid.

Sam then goes on the state: 'Second, the task we have set ourselves in Afghanistan is simply too big'. I agree that it is big; it is in fact bloody big, but only time will tell if it is too big (that is, impossible).

And it really depends on what task we have set ourselves. If the task is to change Afghanistan into a Christian liberal democracy, then it is 'too big'. Military or political leader I associated with have never spoken in absolutes. If you have to do things, you tend to be pragmatic. I happen to think that Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan (February 2009) is a practical strategy. It is clouded in 'Defence White Paper 2009'-style bizarre language, but that is politics. It is the same as the previous NATO strategy, and incorporates what we have learnt from Iraq. It does not guarantee that we will win.

The allocation of appropriate resources to the strategy only increases the probability of winning. And I have confidence (only because I know the people and you have to trust someone sometime) that the application of the strategy on the ground in comprehensive counterinsurgency terms will be practical. Not perfect, not pretty, not without cost, but practical.

I suggest that it is not possible for Sam to say that the task in Afghanistan is too big if by that he means it is impossible. It is all about probabilities. If you have a sound strategy, if you then resources that strategy, if you apply the resources in the framework of the strategy for an appropriate period, you increase the probability of winning.

I am not saying that we are doing this yet, but we may do it in the future, and we are not yet past a tipping point in Afghanistan. I was once whining to my boss in Iraq about how imperfect everything was because we had such a pathetic amount of resources, and he said that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly!

In a separate post, Sam makes an analogy (quoting Rory Stewart) between current Afghanistan policy and driving a car over a cliff while asking if it might be a good idea to fasten the seat belts. It is a great debating point and I promise to misuse it regularly. It is not a good analogy for Afghanistan. We may not be successful in Afghanistan, especially if we do not resource the strategy. At the moment the biggest problem in Afghanistan is that there is no tie up between the overall strategy, the comprehensive military and non-military tasks that fall out of the strategy, and the resources, military and non-military, that are allocated to the tasks. That is why I concentrate so much on the 'how' of Afghanistan.

If something is worth doing, and you cannot regularly achieve perfection, then it might still be worth doing. We are (as my Iraq boss would have said) doing it 'badly' at the moment. I would just like to see it done well for a period, then if that fails, we should look at leaving.

Photo by Flickr user US Army Korea - IMCOM, used under a Creative Commons license.

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I'll respond to Jim Molan's recent Afghanistan post soon, but first I wanted to share some of the Afghanistan reading I've discovered in the blogosphere and media lately. This list is weighted toward the sceptical view of the Afghanistan operation that I support, though I did link to a couple of pro-war arguments on Tuesday, and there's an Anthony Cordesman article on this list too:

  • James Joyner at New Atlanticist has lots of links about the increasing scope of the Afghanistan mission, and the likelihood of further troop commitments.
  • The Washington Independent asks whether America's Afghanistan debate is changing.
  • Does defeating al Qaeda mean nation-building?
  • Anthony Cordesman, whose longer reports on Afghanistan you can read here, has an op-ed summing up the challenges and making recommendations for victory. He never gets around to saying why the mission is important.
  • Jari Lindholm disagrees with me and argues the coalition presence in Afghanstan has reduced the chances of nuclear war between India and Pakistan.
  • The New York Times is asking tough questions about the merits of the Afghanistan mission.
  • Abu Muquwama, one of the most influential blogs in the counter-insurgency debate, wonders whether Andrew Bacevich, who recently wrote this, might have a point.
  • And finally, from a post by Foreign Policy's Marc Lynch, one of the most widely quoted passages of late in this debate:

Suppose the U.S. succeeded beyond all its wildest expectations, and turned Afghanistan into Nirvana on Earth, an orderly, high GDP nirvana with universal health care and a robust wireless network (and even suppose that it did this without the expense depriving Americans of the same things). So what? Al-Qaeda (or what we call al-Qaeda) could easily migrate to Somalia, to Yemen, deeper into Pakistan, into the Caucasus, into Africa --- into a near infinite potential pool of ungoverned or semi-governed spaces with potentially supportive environments. Are we to commit the United States to bringing effective governance and free wireless to the entire world? On whose budget?

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Well, this is reassuring. The speaker is US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke:

Asked about how to measure success and progress in Afghanistan, Holbrooke remarked, "In the simplest sense...We'll know it when we see it."

To be fair, the NY Times reports that the National Security Adviser is working on a document setting out nine objectives for the mission, but they seem to reflect the worryingly expansive terms in which the Obama Administration now sees the Afghanistan operation: building the Afghan Army, decreasing corruption, increasing local cooperation with police and coalition forces, improving election processes. Marc Lynch takes the words out of my mouth:

...what happened between President Obama's March 27 declaration of a limited set of objectives --"I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future"  -- and the expansive goals of "armed state building" which appear to now define the mission?

According to Jim Molan, 'the solution to reducing terrorism in Afghanistan looks a lot like nation-building', though he insists this is not equivalent to rebuilding the political, economic and social institutions of the country. So what is it equivalent to? And if counter-terrorism demands nation-building, then is Jim also in favour of nation-building missions in Yemen, Somalia, the southern Phillipines and half a dozen other lawless places around the world where al Qaeda could lodge itself?

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I'm assured, though, that the anti-terrorism mission is not the only reason we are in Afghanistan. Jim says 'the real reasons are related to domestic politics, alliances, self interest, humanitarian and values reasons, and geo-politics.' My colleagues Anthony Bubalo and Michael Fullilove had their own list of reasons, which I questioned here and which brought a response from blogger Jari Lindholm, who states with no supporting evidence that 'the Western presence in Afghanistan and the simultaneous diplomatic efforts have indeed reduced the chances of an atomic war between India and Pakistan'.

If anything, the Afghanistan operation may have increased the nuclear danger. The Times of India notes an American report which says that there have been three jihadi attacks on Pakistan's nuclear weapons infrastructure over the last two years. These facilities are positioned far away from Indian territory to protect them from Indian attack, but as the full report says, 'The concern...is that most of Pakistan’s nuclear sites are close to or even within areas dominated by Pakistani Taliban militants and home to al-Qa`ida.' That domination can only have increased since the Taliban and al Qaeda were driven out of Afghanistan in 2001.

It's all a reminder that the real danger (nuclear terrorism) is in Pakistan, and although there's no obvious solution anyone can offer to that country's problems, that does not excuse the fact that we are throwing so many resources at the wrong problem.

It's said that when a drunk drops his keys, he looks for them under the lamp-post, because that's where the light is better. Time to sober up.

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