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Calls for Aussie troops out of Afghanistan

October 12, 2009

The Canberra Times : What are we doing there?
12 October 2009, Bruce Haigh

The United States Administration is said to be giving close consideration to its role in Afghanistan. The US military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is calling for an extra 40,000 troops, while President Obama considers his options, a process that is said will take several weeks.

There are NATO and Australian troops in Afghanistan. There has been no mention of a joint planning meeting, so presumably these allies will be informed of the eventual US decision and will be required to put up or shut up.

Presumably if the United States decides to pull out, all the allies will pull out and if the United States decides to increase troop numbers and stay the allies will stay.

The lack of input and involvement with the weighty policy issues the US is grappling with throws into stark relief the role of the allies as the Emperors fig leaf.

Naturally the US military will argue for increased troop numbers in order to tame the Taliban, they are not the most imaginative think tank in the Western World. Their solution was the same in Vietnam and in any case it seems like the best face saving device around, in fact the only face saving device.

When occupying and attempting to pacify the trouble-some tribes of Afghanistan in the 1980’s, the Russians came up with the same solution, that is, until it all became too much and they left the Afghan Army to do the job and they left Afghanistan. And that seemed like a good idea except that the Afghan Army sold itself off in bits and pieces to various war lords.

The British had a very British solution, they drew a line on a map and along that line they built forts and all those Pathans on the Afghan side were bad and those on the Indian side were unruly but damned good fighters with the right leadership and not bad at polo either.

Afghan friends say the occupying troops are increasingly being viewed in the same light as the Russians, there continued presence is counter-productive and assists recruitment for the war lords and Taliban.

The US military rigid, conventional and closed wish to see Afghanistan in isolation; crush the Taliban and Afghanistan will have a good chance to build infrastructure and democracy. If only the dynamics of Afghanistan were so simple.

The dominant Pathans live on both sides of a porous colonial border. They have no interest in having an equal relationship with the Hazara, Tadzhik and Uzbek peoples, all of whom the Pathans or Pashtuns regard as having been put in Afghanistan to work for them. Conflict will form part of the fabric of Afghanistan for as long as these racial tensions remain unresolved.

Then there is poverty, opium, religious ideology, family feuds, village feuds, tribal feuds, and neighbours interfering for strategic, economic and religious reasons.

Nothing can be resolved in Afghanistan without changing the nature and role of the Pakistan Army and the intelligence services. In other words Afghanistan extends deep inside Pakistan and the United States and its allies have to date demonstrated few workable strategies to deal with this.

Vice President Joe Biden has called for a ‘Pakistan First’ policy to take some heat off the President who, in the few indications he has given, has demonstrated unease at the prospect of increasing US troop numbers in Afghanistan. Biden proposes to attack, what he terms, al Qaida targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas with drones and Special Forces, while backing Pakistan’s efforts to curb and control the Taliban. In the meantime attacks on the Taliban in Afghanistan would be put on the back burner.

It is a proposal which has no place in the real world. For the US to step up attacks into Pakistan’s tribal areas would be to substantially boost recruits for the Taliban, particularly if women and children were to be killed as they have been in Afghanistan. The proposal also ignores national sensitivities.

Pakistan’s recent military incursion into Swat in pursuit of the Taliban was for US and Western consumption. If they were serious they would clean up Karachi and the unholy alliances and arrangements between the Taliban and drug barons and levels of corruption that see officials and politicians drawn into the web.

The US would also need to infiltrate and undermine the agenda of the ISI and other intelligence agencies which conduct programs they see as being in the national interest, some of which involve support for the Taliban.

Senior Republicans argue that the US must crush the Taliban in order to deny safe haven to al Qaeda but there is little evidence to suggest that al Qaeda still has a major presence in Afghanistan and with many friends around the world including within Pakistan, Osama bin Laden could be anywhere from a five star hotel in Dubai to a compound in Spain.

The United States is chasing its tail. It should first seriously address some fundamental issues such as applying real pressure on Israel over settlements, thoughtful and caring support for the Palestinians, a reappraisal of support for the corrupt and chauvinistic Saudi Royal Family and a lessening of pressure on Iran which might further help undermine the grip of the mullahs. Barak Obama has shown encouraging signs of going down that path.

These issues are at the heart of opposition to the United States and most recently led to the arrest of a home grown terrorist cell in the US.

Policy makers in Australia need to ask, what is it that they hope to achieve from the Australian military presence in Afghanistan? Is it just support for the US/Australia alliance or is Australia seriously engaged in a fight against international terrorism? If it is the latter then it needs to be explained how this commitment is achieving that and in what way does it impact positively in the short and long term on the lives of Australians? And this is not intended to goad the AFP into conjuring up confected baddies from the ranks of the misguided and dispossessed.

Are US objectives realistic? Can they be achieved? At what cost and over what period of time? Is the Australian commitment making a positive contribution? Are we getting value for money? Is it vital to our national interest to be putting the lives of young Australians on the line over Afghanistan?

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and former diplomat who served in Iran, Saudi Arabia and twice in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

02 6373 3455

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