The West Can Win in Afghanistan

The death of Private Benjamin Ranaudo north of Tarin Kowt a week ago led to a rash of stories about the ‘unwinnable’ war in Afghanistan.

Our colleague at the Lowy Institute, Professor Hugh White, was the tip of the analytical spear. ‘The Government cannot justify committing troops unless there is a reasonable chance they can succeed… I don’t believe there is a reasonable chance they can succeed. I do not think the Government is persuaded that there is a significant chance of success in Afghanistan.’

Increasing attacks by insurgents, growing civilian and military casualties, and falling popular support, in both Afghanistan and the West, all seem to reaffirm the great verity of Afghanistan as the graveyard of foreign armies. Against this, however, one also has to weigh the evidence that what afflicts the West in Afghanistan is less history than its own frugal down payments in political will, analysis, strategy, tactics and, above all, resources, dating back to 2001.

The diversion of US effort from Afghanistan to Iraq is certainly one strong proof in this regard. It is an old story, but a recent Congressional Research Service report has put the imbalance of relative effort into starkly quantitative terms. In eight years America’s total civilian and military effort in Afghanistan has amounted to $189 billion; by contrast in six years US spending in Iraq has been $642 billion.

Washington hoped that its allies would fill the gap, and some did. But in many cases expediency, incompetence and corruption was the rule – hence the military trainers who failed to accompany their Afghan charges into battle, the NATO bases with pizzerias and multimillion euro hospitals that treated few locals, and development projects that enriched western aid contractors more than the lives of Afghans.

Perversely, in the West’s failures there is, however, some hope. The Obama administration is now picking up the pieces with increased resources, changes in strategy and tactics, and a sharper eye to what, precisely, it is that the West should be trying to achieve in Afghanistan. One does not have to be a Pollyanna to believe that this new approach deserves a chance.

The juxtaposition of Private Ranaudo’s death and the hotel bombings in Jakarta made it awkward for the Australian government to justify its continuing involvement in Afghanistan. Critics lampooned its attempts to do so by reminding Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that ‘Jakarta is not in Afghanistan’. In fact, we did not hear the government arguing anything other than the fact that jihadists in Afghanistan once passed their narrative, techniques, training and money to counterparts in Indonesia, and that we should be wary of this happening again.

The al-Qaeda narrative is still a potent factor in the terror threat faced in Indonesia, distinguishing the likely perpetrator of these most recent attacks, Noordin Top, from the rump of Jemaah Islamiyyah, whose focus has become much more localised. Jakarta is not in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan has helped formed the mind of Noordin Top.

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.

Second, it would be a damaging blow to the multilateral system which is held dear by many opponents of the Afghanistan war on the left. Unlike the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan was undertaken in accordance with international law. It has been approved by United Nations Security Council resolutions and legitimised by countless declarations by world leaders.

Finally, our interest in coalition success in Afghanistan flows not only from our membership of the international community and our support for the United Nations but from our alliance with the United States. We chose to invoke the ANZUS Treaty after 9/11 and it would be strange to withdraw our participation at the very moment that the US-led coalition is finally giving itself a chance of success.