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Just what are we fighting for in Afghanistan?

By Gary Brown - posted Friday, 9 October 2009

Longer term readers of On Line Opinion will know that while I consistently opposed George W. Bush's fraud-based war in Iraq, I equally consistently supported the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and its terrorist allies. Indeed, one reason - though not the main one - for my opposition to the Iraq adventure was that it was sucking up resources which should have been available for Afghanistan. The present situation there is in part the result of American preoccupation with the shambles Bush's Iraqi adventure created.

That Afghanistan, and of course parts of neighbouring Pakistan, harbour the core of the extreme Islamist terrorist movement, including Osama bin Laden himself, is the principal reason for supporting intervention. Success in Afghanistan would not destroy this movement, but would deprive it of a major recruiting and training ground, of a safe haven and of the large revenues it gets from opium growing, heroin production and export. In my view this was - and still is - a goal worth seeking.

But the most recent revelations, which are of impeccable credibility, of huge fraud in the recent Afghan presidential "election" - an exercise our taxpayers helped fund, by the way - conclusively demonstrates that the regime of Hamid Karzai, which we are supporting, has no credibility. None.


Karzai and his major supporters are clearly guilty of perpetrating this fraud, and now we learn as well that the senior United Nations official responsible for monitoring the poll, Mr Kai Eide, tried to suppress the evidence. This went so far as the sacking of his immediate subordinate, Mr Peter Galbraith, who naively thought that his job was to help run a free and fair poll and to identify any significant vote rigging. We're fortunate that Galbraith had the courage and goodwill to blow the whistle on the farce, something the UN should have done itself.

The whole affair shows us two very important things: first, that Coalition (including Australian) troops are risking their lives, dying or suffering war wounds on behalf a regime that is obviously unworthy of support. This is all too reminiscent to me of the ineffectual, brutal and corrupt regime that used to "govern" the former South Vietnam, and we all know what happened there in the end.

Fighting a war in support of such a regime is an obvious waste of lives and resources because, by its very nature, it can never hope to garner any significant degree of genuine popular support. Nor can it hope to retain domestic support for efforts on its behalf in countries that contribute troops and treasure to the war effort.

This sordid business begs the question: just what are we fighting for in Afghanistan? The Karzai regime? Clearly that's now out of the question. If all we are trying to do is prop up this collection of spivs, crooks and out-and-out criminals, it's time to bail out. Put another way, if the Coalition is to stay, Karzai and his gang have to go, and that soon.

In Washington at present, President Barack Obama is weighing up all his options. He has made it very clear that an increased US deployment is by no means a done deal, despite strong and credible military advice to that effect. "Strategy first; then deployment decisions" is the present Obama line, and it is indeed a wise position to take because any strategy that supports the Karzai regime is obviously unworkable. I do not believe that the citizens of real democracies, like our own, will much longer tolerate war for this sick joke of a government in Kabul.

I still think that the goal of kneecapping the Islamist extremists in their Afghan (and Pakistani) bolt-holes is a necessary strategic objective. To leave them undisturbed would not only be a major strategic victory for extremist terrorism, it will facilitate escalation of major terrorism in future, and many innocents will die as a result. But we need to find a new route to that goal. That is the challenge facing Obama. In all candour, I'm glad that the buck stops on his desk and not mine.


I'm tempted to recommend that Karzai simply be deposed and arrested, and his regime replaced by some form of externally-controlled transitional authority. However, I very much doubt that such would be politically feasible in Afghanistan itself, let alone elsewhere. Nevertheless, it's now obvious that any feasible strategy for this war must include a workable alternative to the Karzai regime.

This sad business raises a second important issue: the credibility of the United Nations itself. That the organisation is inefficient, poorly accountable and sometimes corrupt has been obvious for a long time; the Afghanistan election affair demonstrates that it is willing to connive in the most outrageous kinds of public fraud as well.

One could write a book on the need for UN reform, but in the present context one has to say that a viable Afghan strategy should exclude the UN as well - at least until such time as it can be shown that it will conduct itself in conformity with at least minimal standards of public integrity.

President Obama faces some very tough challenges on Afghanistan. If he does not believe that a workable strategy, beyond brute force (which will only produce more losses) is possible, he may be forced to the conclusion that - given the mess he inherited from Bush - a bail-out is the only alternative. For reasons already explained, I would regret that, but neither could I continue to support our Defence Force personnel taking losses in support of the regime in Kabul.

The present situation is simply untenable; the alternatives are a brand new strategic, military and political approach or withdrawal as soon as possible. People in the Coalition countries will be making this very clear to their governments in the weeks to come.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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