October 2009



By Hugh White
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

When soldiers die, our political leaders speak of the nation’s shared grief. In the big wars of the last century, when so many soldiers died and so many families grieved, that may have carried some truth. But when soldiers die in small wars, the grief is not shared in any meaningful way, and it is dishonest to say otherwise. In reality, the awful price is paid by just a few – the dead soldier’s family and friends. How do we weigh their grief in the cost-benefit calculations of strategic policy, when the rest of us do not and cannot share it?

Few of us are pacifists, so most of us accept that these strategic decisions must sometimes be made. But, in Australia, we have not faced them for a long time. Not since Vietnam have Australian leaders, and Australian voters, had to take responsibility for deliberately committing fellow citizens to military operations in which we expect some of them will be killed. Today, we do face that responsibility. As I write, 11 members of the ADF have been killed in action in Afghanistan. As this toll has mounted, something important has changed in the nature of Australia’s engagement in this war. Their deaths are no longer exceptional and unexpected. They have become the normal and expected consequence of the government’s policy choices.

Of course, 11 is not many compared with our losses in the wars of the last century. Nor is it many compared with the losses of some of our military partners in Afghanistan: Canada has lost more than 120. But 11 is enough, surely, to count in the balance as we consider the future of Australia’s commitment, and to bring into focus wider questions about this war and the choices we are making. In coming months, the Rudd government will be pressed by Washington to send more troops to Afghanistan and to assign them more dangerous roles. Saying ‘yes’ will virtually ensure that more Australians will be killed. Ministers will have to decide whether to impose an unbearable burden of grief on a few families, as the price of achieving the purposes for which the war is being fought.

What are those purposes, again? We hear four different reasons why Afghanistan’s future matters so much to Australia. One is a sense of obligation to the Afghans: those who toppled the Taliban should help clean up the resulting mess. Fair enough, perhaps; but such obligations have limits and surely we have passed them. We cannot be obliged to persist indefinitely in a costly, hopeless effort to do for the Afghan people what, in the end, only they can do for themselves.

The second reason to stay in Afghanistan – the one most often cited by our leaders – is that denying the Taliban control over Afghanistan helps protect Western countries from terrorist attack. September 11 and the Bali bombings were nurtured in Afghanistan, they say, and that could happen again if the West withdrew. But minimising bases of power in Afghanistan will not significantly reduce the risk of terrorism in the future, because terrorists can easily find bases elsewhere – they already have. What happens in Afghanistan is therefore incidental to future terrorist threat: success there would not make us safe, failure would not increase the risk much, if at all.

The third reason we are given is that success in Afghanistan is essential to fixing the problems in Pakistan. Pakistan – where Islamist extremism, weak government and nuclear weapons mix – poses much greater danger than Afghanistan. Arguably, success in Afghanistan is necessary for progress in Pakistan, but it is far from being sufficient. With or without peace in Afghanistan, we have no solution to Pakistan’s problems. Indeed, the argument might better run the other way: the fact that we find it so hard to fix Afghanistan suggests that we have absolutely no chance of fixing Pakistan, which has more than five times as many people.

Finally, of course, there is the alliance. Everyone in Canberra knows that this is what Afghanistan is really about for Australia. It is an old story. Since Vietnam, Australia has proved its value as an ally by offering small, essentially symbolic contingents to support US military operations in and around the Gulf. This has worked well for us. The occasional small, low-cost deployment has been a very cost-effective way of maintaining our reputation as a close and reliable ally.

But does it still work? In the War on Terror, the kind of safe little commitments we made in the 1980s and 1990s don’t cut much ice. In fact, there is a real risk that Australia’s token efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have battered rather than burnished our standing in Washington. The gap between gung-ho rhetoric and timid reality has become too plain. John Howard’s personal rapport with Bush limited the damage on his watch, but Kevin Rudd has no special friend in the Oval Office. Obama will judge Australia unsentimentally, on its actions, and that judgement is unlikely to be glowing.

This suggests that, if the alliance is the real reason we are in Afghanistan, it is time to move beyond tokenism. We should send more troops and commit them to the more dangerous jobs that the Americans would like us to take on. But that raises two deeper questions. Firstly, does helping the US so far from home still make sense when it requires bigger, longer and morehigh-risk deployments? Interestingly, the government’s new Defence White Paper suggests it doesn’t. In an intriguing passage, it says, “We must never put ourselves in the position where the price of our own security is a requirement to put Australian troops at risk in distant theatres of war where we have no direct interests at stake.” Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

 Secondly, does this whole approach to alliance management match contemporary strategic circumstances? Deployments to distant places, such as the Gulf and Afghanistan, have been central to Australia’s alliance with the US because, as long as Asia enjoyed uncontested American strategic primacy, there was nothing for a loyal ally like Australia to do closer to home. But that era may well be passing. The new Defence White Paper suggests that American strategic primacy in Asia faces a fundamental challenge from China. If so, Australia’s alliance with the US will rapidly return its focus to Asia, as Washington looks for our support in meeting Beijing’s challenge. Whether we agree to provide that support will have profound implications for the alliance. If we do, any failings in Afghanistan will soon be forgotten. If we decline, nothing we have done in Afghanistan will save the alliance. Either way, as Asia becomes more contested, what we do in Afghanistan matters less and less to the way we are seen in Washington.

It would seem there is little reason, then, for Rudd to send more Australians into danger in Afghanistan. But these considerations prompt a further question too: why stay at all? Where do we think it is going, and how will it end? Right now, it does not look good. The election in August has done nothing to restore either the legitimacy of President Karzai or the credibility of the political system which has been sponsored by the Coalition over the past eight years. The hope has faded that the Taliban can quickly be defeated by the application of the counter-insurgency tactics that apparently helped pacify parts of Iraq. The Taliban seem to grow stronger and more capable. Coalition commanders keep asking for still more troops. And the number of soldiers being killed grows.

No one can be sure that the intervention will fail. But seriously,does anyone in policy circles in Canberra really expect that it will succeed? And do any of them believe that it matters much whether it does? By far the most likely outcome, therefore, is that one day – after spending billions more dollars and who knows how many more lives – Australia will leave Afghanistan pretty much as we found it. So why not quit now, if the interests at stake are illusory and the chances of success are so low?

The answer, of course, is politics. Kevin Rudd’s approach to Afghanistan, like Barack Obama’s, began with a political calculation rather than a strategic imperative. There is no evidence that, as they campaigned for office, either Rudd or Obama thought deeply about Afghanistan itself, or weighed the balance of risks, costs and benefits of the intervention before committing themselves, if elected, to persevere with it. What they did consider was the need to show their national-security credentials by offsetting plans to withdraw from Iraq with strong commitment to another, less unpopular, war.

Now, as that war also becomes unpopular, they find themselves in a fix. Western voters dislike long, costly and unsuccessful foreign wars, especially when there is no strong and clear national interest at stake. But they also hate military failure and they punish politicians who seem not to have the stomach for a tough fight, even when they see that the fight is probably both pointless and hopeless. Kevin Rudd, like Obama, therefore finds himself squeezed between the voters’ growing dislike of the war and their perennial predisposition to punish a quitter. Strangely enough, this vice squeezes harder as casualties climb, because, while voters dislike casualties, they also dislike leaders who lack the guts to keep going when the coffins start coming home.

Rudd’s approach to this dilemma is simple enough: he will do as little as possible. He will maintain the commitment, but try to keep it as small and safe and short as possible. He will try to keep our troop numbers down, keep them away from more risky operations and offer the hope that we can leave before Afghanistan as a whole is fixed (once we have trained up local forces in Uruzgan). The problem is that this will achieve none of our supposed objectives, either in the transformation of Afghanistan or the maintenance of our alliance. And it will still impose – on the families and friends of those who die – terrible costs.

Hugh White

Hugh White is an emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

Cover: October 2009
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