Every now and then we come upon a fork in the road in strategic affairs, and the current situation in Afghanistan, where Australia maintains a sizeable military presence in Uruzgan province, certainly qualifies.
The United States is currently engaged in a major internal policy review and is drawing up a new National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan, by all reports the latest Afghan NIE will paint a "grim picture".
We stand on the precipice of a major expansion of the war in Afghanistan, with a likely increase in troop numbers in the Afghan theatre of operations, the US commander has requested three extra combat brigades, which would include an increase in the operational tempo and the level of firepower deployed.
Most ominously we have seen talk of a possible expansion of the war into Pakistan, much like the expansion of the war in Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia. It has recently been revealed that President Bush had provided authorisation for Special Forces raids into Pakistan. Barack Obama has talked tough on Pakistan.
Decisions taken now will have far reaching consequences. The time for popular intervention in the policy making process is now more urgent than ever. The war is deeply unpopular among Washington's NATO allies, now is opposed by a majority in Australia and attracts significant disquiet in America.
The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, has stated that the US is not winning in Afghanistan. The projected commander of US Central Command, General David Petraeus, has stated that things will get worse before they get better and the commander of UK forces in the region has gone so far as to state that the war is actually un-winnable.
It is assessed by some that the Taliban could have taken Kandahar during the recent prison break, is encroaching upon the outskirts of Kabul and Islamist factions may even credibly threaten Peshawar in Pakistan. Much like the city of Hue, initially captured by the National Liberation Front during the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the Taliban would not be able to hold these cities if they were to take them. We have reached something akin to a strategic stalemate.
Given this there appear to be three broad options. An expansion of the war both in Afghanistan and into Pakistan. A revival of the tribal strategy employed in Iraq to dampen the Sunni based insurgency (which saw former insurgents put on the US pay roll, a programme now under threat) as a counter-weight to the Taliban or the opening up of talks with the Taliban in order to reach an accommodation.
One of the purposes of the US-Australia Alliance for Canberra's policy making elite is that it supposedly gives Australia an important role in drawing up Western strategy on mutual areas of concern. The current Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, however revealed earlier this year that Australia, during the Howard era, was prevented from playing a role in drawing up Western grand strategy in Afghanistan.
We must look askance at any strategy for Afghanistan that is premised upon expanding the war both in Afghanistan and into Pakistan. There are two main reasons why this would be foolhardy. First, an expansion of the war would fuel the insurgency. Second, this solution is based on a false reading of the underlying causes of the insurgency in Afghanistan.
There should be little doubt that the intensity of military operations is partly fueling the insurgency. It is almost daily now that we hear of scores of civilian deaths as a result of both air strikes and ground operations in Afghanistan. Although the recent deaths of up to 90 people following a US air strike, most of them children, have put this fact into the international spot light it remains the case that this has been an on-going issue for quite some time. Hitherto Afghan lives have been considered a cheap commodity.
Quite apart from its obvious moral consequences, which should be the paramount concern, an expansion of the war will increase the civilian death toll, providing the Taliban with much needed support among the domestic population. The most astute ground commanders in Iraq following the invasion quickly came to the view that the "centre of gravity" of post-invasion operations was the attitude of the broader public. A large scale increase in the level of firepower deployed in the Afghan theatre would only further see this centre of gravity fall to the Taliban.
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