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A blank cheque

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 27 June 2011


Somewhat guardedly, the outgoing US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, announced on 20 June that the United States and "others" were engaged in talks with the Taliban. No further details were provided except, when pressed, Gates hesitatingly said that the talks had been going on for about two weeks.

Less guardedly the US President, Barack Obama, announced on 23 June a withdrawal of 10,000 US troops by December 2011. They are said to be part of the 'surge' of 33,000 troops deployed into Afghanistan over the past thirty months. The remaining 23,000 will be withdrawn next year.

Obama claims they are being withdrawn because of the military success against the Taliban and the increasing capability of the Afghan army to carry the load. Neither of which is true.

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The Australian Prime Minister, in a predictable statement, said Australia welcomed the announcement but that Australian troops would remain in Uruzgan province until at least 2014, when the Afghan people take over their own security.

There have been rumours of talks with the Taliban for over a year. It was said that the Dutch engaged in a dialogue prior to their departure from Afghanistan. From time to time reports have appeared of both the British and Americans having contact with representatives of the Taliban and officials from Pakistan have maintained contact with the Taliban throughout the war. The Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence organisation (ISI) has provided training and supplies including arms to elements of the Taliban.

Gates said that he doubted the Taliban would engage in serious discussion until they suffered further military setbacks, he put the time for these discussions toward the end of the year.

Gates appears to have been pushed into his announcement by a precipitate statement from the Afghan President, Hamid Karzi, on the 19 June, claiming that the US and the Taliban were engaged in talks.

Talks only began in earnest between the North Vietnamese and the US, when America realised the war was unwinnable and wanted out. The US economy is stagnant, with few signs of recovery and with Obama seeking Congressional approval to extend the national debt to $US21 Trillion from $US14 Trillion, it is fair to assume that the Administration wants out. Obama said when announcing the troop withdrawals, "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home."

The war is unwinnable, Senator John McCain thinks differently but not so Republican Presidential candidates.

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The US is talking to the Taliban and perhaps has been doing so for some time, but who are they talking to? The Taliban are an alliance, a loose alliance, that will likely disintegrate and turn upon itself when the US and NATO leave Afghanistan. Who is the US talking to with confidence that their interlocutors can deliver?

Both major parties in Australia have few doubts about the need to stay the course in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has said we are there for the long haul and the Leader of the Opposition agrees on the basis that Afghanistan must be turned into a state that will never again harbour terrorists. Is another three years a long haul. Gillard had been talking about another ten years, at least until 2020. When did 2014 become an end point? Will Australian troops be amongst the last to leave? At what point does their security become critical in light of American withdrawals? Who is providing Gillard, Smith and Rudd with advice on Afghanistan?

Was the Australian government aware that its US ally was engaged in talks or soundings with representatives of the Taliban? Has Australia been involved as one of the "other" countries?

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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