Soldier X is a special operations soldier who has served in Afghanistan, and who has featured previously in Interpreter debates. He returns to discuss Australia's Afghanistan policy:
In asking 'what is our policy?', Soldier Z and former Chief of the Army Peter Leahy point to a larger problem. Australia does not have a grand strategy. What we have is a series of independent policies formulated by different factions within the Government. These policies can be broadly summarised as a hedging strategy aimed at political survival.
There is a disconnect between Australia's national interest — the fundamental goals towards which Australia comports itself in its foreign policy — and its strategy to achieve that interest. This stems, in part, from a distinct lack of leadership in Australia; a problem that needs to be rectified.
A principal concern in Australian foreign policy has been how we are to balance the relationship with our primary strategic alliance (the US) and our largest economic partner (China). Balance requires engagement, and Afghanistan is where the US needs our engagement. As a result, to support our alliance with the US we have chosen to participate in the Afghan counterinsurgency, a conflict that bears no real existential threat to Australia.
This involvement in Afghanistan is in Australia’s interest based on the notion of a forward defence strategy. This strategy aims to deploy forces into conflict zones dislocated from the Australian continent in support of our allies and does so under the assumption that, should Australia come under threat, these allies will in turn support us. Indeed, in 2001 former Prime Minister Howard stood before the United States Congress and invoked the ANZUS alliance.
The act of a head of state standing to address a foreign government, pledging troops and support for whatever war was to follow, displays all the hallmarks of a nation committing itself to total war. Yet we deployed fewer than 2000 troops, a number smaller than most suburban high schools.
The subsequent government was no better. Despite all its campaign grandeur, there are still less than 2000 troops deployed. Former Prime Minister Rudd even went so far as to ask President Obama not to request greater Australian involvement so as to avoid the public embarrassment of a formal decline. Essentially, the extent of our contribution does not live up to the rhetoric used to describe it.
Currently, the Government's policy is political survival disguised as an apathetic forward defence strategy. As soldier Z noted, Australia's policy is to look good, not do good. I fear my colleague is too kind. Our lackluster support to the alliance does more harm than good. It is patronising to our allies. Bar a few exceptions, the US has been too polite to call us on this. The British, however, are all too happy to voice their criticism. If forward defence is to be our strategy, then when our ally asks for support, we should provide it. If we do not have the capability, then we should develop it.
We are soldiers, and we are asking to be led. We have chosen this life, and when directed, we shall go willingly to war. We recognise that every time we enter combat we may not be valiantly defending Australian soil. But if we are to stand in the dust; if we are to take life and have it taken from us; and if we are to bury our friends; then all we ask is that our government articulate its strategy and lead us.
Australians have not elected mirrors of public opinion. We elect leaders to craft strategy and exercise judgement in pursuit of our collective national interest. Such leadership should direct, inform, correct, and occasionally, disregard the majority opinion of the public for whom it serves.
If ever there has been a time for such leadership, it is now. We are in a turbulent era characterised by an economic downturn, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and a looming great power transition. In such a era, we can passively react to these vicissitudes and persist in hedging our bets. Or, we can direct our course.
But to do so, we must be led.