Troops back to Afghanistan

I have mixed feelings about the imminent decision by the Government to send some Australian troops back to Afghanistan.

As a matter of principle, I don’t believe any Australian troops should be deployed to a new theatre overseas without a vote of Parliament, except in cases of extreme emergency. I’ve had a Private Senators Bill in the Parliament to this effect for some years, as have many other Democrats stretching back to the days of Don Chipp and Colin Mason in the early 1980s. However, neither of the larger parties support it, so it has never been adopted. Whilst Afghanistan is not exactly a new area of deployment, this does involve a decision to send troops to a country where we don’t have them at the moment, so I think formal Parliamentary endorsement is desirable.

However, I do support, with some apprehension, the provision of military assistance to Afghanistan. Indeed, I called for this support to be provided over 12 months ago, following requests for assistance from the Afghan government. That request was ignored and things have been allowed to deteriorate since. It is simply ridiculous that Australia left Afghanistan to basically fend for itself so soon after the toppling of the Taliban. Whilst I am always apprehensive that more troops in a situation can end up hindering rather helping achieve peace, I think in this case there is sufficient need and sufficient justification. Afghanistan has another crucial election coming up later this year and that needs to go well to give the country the best chance of stabilising in the future.

So on balance, I support sending troops back to Afghanistan. I noticed the Greens put out a statement saying they oppose sending troops. Whilst they rightly make the point that any deployment should be debated in Parliament first, their opposition to the actual deployment seems to be because George Bush has also asked for it, rather than just Afghani President Hamid Kharzai. Whilst that is a cause for cynicism, I don’t see that it should mean the deployment should not be supported, particularly given that the Afghan Government also clearly still wants extra support. I also think the Greens’ view that “this situation in Afghanistan would not exist had the invasion of Iraq and consequent heightening of terrorism not occurred” is stretching it a bit. I’m sure illegally invading Iraq hasn’t helped reduce terrorism anywhere, but whilst the situation would be different in some ways, there’s no reason to suggest it would be much better (except for the fact that it would have meant resources staying in Afghanistan longer, rather than being diverted to support the invasion of Iraq.)

However, risking the lives of Australian troops by sending them overseas should always be a matter of major debate. It is not an abstract intellectual exercise; there are lives and families literally being put in the firing line. There are legitimate arguments for and against deploying troops, but what I find very frustrating is that the public reporting of the possibility of re-deploying troops is once again wrapped in the usual bluster about fighting the war on terrorism, protecting democracy and generally wrappping ourselves in the flag. If all that is true, why did the Government pull troops out of Afghanistan so early (or “cut and run” to use their jargon) and why were they not labelled ‘soft on terror’ by all their cheerleaders in the media who supported the invasion of Iraq? Today’s Daily Telegraph has an article headlined “Back to finish the job”. One would think this begs the question of why the Government left the “job” unfinished in the first place, but the article simply gives some “Boy’s Own” style quotes from the Prime Minister and the Treasurer while they practice their impression of steel jawed resolve (while sending other people to face the landmines, bombs and bullets).

However, all of that is more a criticism of how dismal the level of public debate on these issues is, rather than a criticism of the decision to send the troops back. Whilst I do support the redeployment of troops and remain critical of the previous withdrawal, I repeat my view that we need a reconsideration of how we are approaching the so-called ‘war on terror’. Military support can play a part in this, but it can only ever be one part, and even that has to be judicious in its use.

UPDATE: As was widely anticipated, the Government has announced it will send some troops back into Afghanistan. There’s seems to be little comment about whether they should have been withdrawn in the first place.

I also find I’m agreeing with Malcolm Fraser again. An article by him in today’s Age expresses support for deployment in Afghanistan, opposition to the invasion of Iraq and calls for different strategies in the ‘war on terror’, including the importance of strong adherence to the rule of law.

There’s also a good piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by Christopher Kremmer. “There is simply no comparison between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One was a justified, legal military action to root out a terrorist network that had taken over a whole country and declared war on another; the other, a foolish and possibly illegal invasion which served vested interests and made a bad situation worse.”

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21 Comments

  1. I had mixed feelings about them going there in the first place. It all just seems so senseless. I understand our duties to allies and the such and that “the war on terror” is everybody’s responsibility but still…
    I dont know.. i wish there was an easy black or white view point in this

  2. There is actually a link between Iraq and Afghanistan. Ackerman recently highlighted the impact the “class of 05” effect is having on the country:
    . If such “self-activation” is, as terrorism experts believe, the next step of jihadist progress, it raises the disturbing prospect that future attacks against the West will be carried out by those who have gained a wealth of experience fighting U.S. forces in Iraq’s western, Sunni-dominated Anbar province–the premier location for on-the-job terrorist training on the planet. The CIA calls this the “class of ’05 problem.” Such future attacks may very well make yesterday’s carnage seem amateurish in scale.
    Already, according to Knight Ridder, tactics used by insurgents in Iraq are showing up in places like Afghanistan, where there has been a recent upsurge in Al Qaeda and Taliban attacks. It may only be a matter of time before they show up in Europe–and, eventually, here in the United States.
    (not that I agree with the Green’s position on this)

  3. It’s interesting to compare the arguments that are being made about Iraq and Afghanistan to East Timor. I can’t remember anyone calling for debate over the East Timor deployment, let alone a parliamentary vote or referendum.
    Australian troops were in East Timor for 6 years, yet no one called it a quagmire or made demands for an exit strategy.
    Given that many of the arguments that are now being made were absent from the East Timor deployment, one can only conclude that the critics are simply being opportunistic.

  4. Mike
    (a) the public support for the East Timor deployment was as close to universal as you are going to get – the public debate was about getting the troops in sooner, not about whether we should go. However, the appropriateness of having a Parl vote for deployment was made then as well – that does not equate to opposing deployment. Indeed, I would argue a Parl vote gives much greater validation for the troops themselves.
    (b) the reason no one called East Timor a quagmire is because it wasn’t and isn’t. It was clear why we were there and clear what needed to be done. Indeed, I recall concern being expressed that we were pulling too many people out too soon. As far as I’m concerned, we can be in a country for decades in a peacekeeping role if there is a clear purpose and legitimate, achievable goal to our presence and activity.
    (c) Our presence in East Timor undeniably made things better. It was clear what we were doing there and that it was achieving good results. The same cannot be said for Iraq and it is not easy to see if that will change for the better in the short or medium term – hence quagmire is a reasonable description for Iraq, but not for East Timor. As for Afghanistan – well we basically bailed out of there before we had much chance to make a difference either way (although I don’t dismiss the commitment and courage of the small number of Australians who helped with mine clearing and the like, and we should never forget that one Austrailan was killed in Afghanistan – by a land mine).
    The reason the arguments being made now weren’t applied to East Timor is because they weren’t valid arguments to that situation, and they are valid for current situations.
    Rosa – there is always easy black and white view on every issue, it’s just not likely to be right (although it will get you a run in the media and maybe get you votes too)

  5. I largely agree with you here Andrew (and am a Greens member). I can assure you there is much debate within the greens about our position on these matters.
    That said, what concerns me is that an increasing number of countries’ International Relations policies are largely based on fixing up the mess the US has left behind. I saw an interview the the German foreign minister (who I believe is a Green) a few months back who effective said as much.
    Afghanistan clearly needs our help (and I’m pretty sure we should give it) but only because the US has made such a mess of it.

  6. Afghanistan clearly needs our help (and I’m pretty sure we should give it) but only because the US has made such a mess of it.
    I hope you aren’t saying the US made a mess of the country by removing the Taliban?

  7. That’s a fair enough point Hammy – although wars will always be messy (which is why one should always be apprehensive about getting invovled in them, even when the arguments seem good). I wouldn’t just blame the US – I supported the initial attack that overthrew the Taliban, but the trouble was while the action may have been right, too much of the politics driving it seemed to be about as shallow as a cowboy movie, so there was not enough thought (and resources and political will) given to how to rebuild everything. That is not just the fault of the USA, it is muc of the international community.
    Afghanistan is also not the only messy conflict which has been hard to ‘fix up’. Kosovo is one that springs to mind, where it was agreed to send in troops to stop the Serbs, who were widely seen as the ‘bad guys’, only to find the ethnic Albanian ‘good guys’ were just as proficient at killing, torching churches, etc. How you fix that I don’t know – you shouldn’t just stand back and let people be slaughtered, but I really can’t see how that one will be resolved – so troops have to stay in there to try to stop things descending into all out war again.
    Having said all that, if you’re going to support military action, you reallty should support staying on and helping put things back on an even keel (which doesn’t necessarily involve troops staying there), which can be very expensive and take a long time.
    (and yes the German Foreign Minister is a Green (and if the Australian Greens were more like the German Greens I’d be more comfortable being a member of them))

  8. A mate went to Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago to work with a UN agricultural body to set up a small wheat farm in the midst of hectares of warlord-controlled poppy fields. He’s coming back ASAP because despite all the assurances that the warlords support their work and there’s been ‘no problems’ in the four years they’ve been there, he just does not feel safe (and he’s bunkered down in a UN compound). Pity the poor buggers who have to live there.
    As with the Russians being there, Afghanistan seems to be a place where there’s a bit of publicity early and then a protracted, costly and perhaps only half-hearted effort to effectively resolve the situation for the betterment of the citizens. Can’t see any post-WWII German/Japanese boom on the Afghan horizon any time soon.
    And then there’s Africa … and Central America …

  9. Also meant to add my support for Parliament approval for troop deployment. Especially in times when Senate isn’t Govt controlled, it is an essential check against unfettered Govt power, as envisaged by the founders of the Constitution.
    The Lib/Lab alliance will never let it through because it diminishes their power as they take turns in government.

  10. We need to be careful not to confuse an accurate assessment of Afghanistan (failed state, lots of militants, lawlessness, etc) with the response deemed axiomatic by the powers that be (deploying troops will help).
    The situation in Afghanistan has not fundamentally changed since the Taliban were ousted. If anything, it has probably become worst. There is nothing to suggest sending more troops will make things any better. What Afghanistan requires is real, positive engagement with the outside world.
    There is literally billions of dollars in Afghanistan, all tied in with warlords (bribed by the US to fight wars for them) and the thriving black market. Yet public institutions and infrastructures remain underfunded.
    The governments of foreign forces in Afghanistan have the capacity to develop the country. Unfortunately their interest in Afghanistan is sourced in short term expediency and little else (the one long term exception I can think of, and it is exceptional, is the plans to develop a pipeline from energy reserves in Central Asia down through Afghanistan).

  11. Since the President of Afghanistan thinks foreign troops are necessary to keep his country safe, I presume he’s cancelling the MOU with Australia which arranges for Afghani asylum seekers to be returned? I assume the Australian government has done the same.

  12. too little too late and only for a year. Also it is appalling if it is the case that our military is overstreched when only 3000-5000 troops are overseas. We need to get our arse into gear.

  13. Benno, The military has a high teeth to tail ratio. There are about seven people supporting every trigger puller. The ASPI have advocated adding a brigade to the Australian Army because of the current expeditionary mindset of the government putting pressure on existing troop numbers.
    It is surprising how cheap it is to do add more soldiers. The problem with expeditionary deployments is the “here and now” cost. Which the US is discovering as their “here and now” costs are over the $200 billion mark. That is money which doesnt work its way through the legislature as part of the budget, and gets lost in the accountability stakes.
    The other problem is that the military is for taking out other militaries. They are for quickly bringing capability to bear in over-whelming force on an opponents capability. What we have them doing now is police work. The US Army is going to see a drop in its capability, simply because their once dominant Army, is no longer doing Army things. It is being forced to do civil police work and administration.
    The ASPI is a government funded think-tank, but not so long ago they changed over to charging for their PDF reports. I was about the only Australian blogger that went through them in detail, but as a hobbyist, I am not paying $5-$20 each time they release a new report.
    I emailed ASPI, requesting they send me the reports for free, since I help spread their message, but they were adamant that they had to charge for them.
    Drongos.

  14. Cameron, I agree. It’s intensely annoying that that material is for-fee only now…but I wonder whether my university has a subscription to it… :)

  15. Our family totally opposes to any Aussie troops being involved with these type of operations where the Americans only have their own interests at heart, e.g spreading US foreign policy for their greedy monetary gain and political influence. This decision SHOULD have been considered in Parliment as well.

  16. Benno, When you see Australia’s WWI casualty rate being so high (64% IIRC) incomparison to other nations, it is because our tail was so small. Britain supplied much of the tail for the AEF.
    US military hegemony does include aerospace, blue water and technological dominance, but the basis of its ongoing success is the size and efficiency of the US military tail. As Iraq is showing, the US logistical train is capable of maintaining a large force, at high tempo, for indefinite periods.
    The main limitation thus far has been the over-extending of the Army and National Guard; and the exceptionally bad civil leadership.

  17. Macedon St
    You could well be right about what the self-interest of the USA, but I don’t think decisions like this should be made through the prism of distrust/cynicism about US motives. It should be about what our obligatoins are to Afghanistan and of course what our own national interest is. The case for having some military involvement in Afghanistan has always been far stronger than that of Iraq (mind you the case for doing just about anything would be stonger than the case for invading Iraq), although as Cameron’s comments demonstrate, what the military actually does there is important.
    I accept the concerns that Iqbal expresses, but I don’t think it is as black and white as that. Australia’s military has a reasonably good reputation and ability at peacekeeping and other ‘stabilising’ type roles. I think we can play arole in halping Afghanistan have more effective ‘positive engagement with the outside world’. Our troops were part of making this happen in East Timor and arguably in the Solomons – Afghanistan is very different, and we are a smaller player, but I think we can make a positive difference. The fact that the Afghan Government wants us there (and has done ever since we initially pulled out ) is not irrelevant.

  18. “(b) the reason no one called East Timor a quagmire is because it wasn’t and isn’t.” Nice piffly statement with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight Andrew. You never know the outcome of war and if we were bogged down in ET now with a guerilla war your statement of justification here would be as asinine as the justification for sending troops to Afghanistan now that things aren’t looking so good.
    “It’s interesting to compare the arguments that are being made about Iraq and Afghanistan to East Timor. I can’t remember anyone calling for debate over the East Timor deployment, let alone a parliamentary vote or referendum.”
    Neither can I or anyone else and that’s the problem for Andrew really. Basically he doesn’t mind sending troops into possible quagmires as long as it’s with UN sanction. You know, that august debating society of tyrants and apologists for terror. If they say it’s OK then Andrew does too. Basically he doesn’t like Coalitions of Willing nations taking out tyranny without the tyrant’s body approval. Then it’s all OK with Andrew and he can rationalise like wars as being somehow ‘different’. The only thing different about them is tyrants haven’t given the US and UK their imprimatur, irrespective of the possibilities of quagmires. Andrew always knew Afghanistan wasn’t really the notorious graveyard of empires everyone said it was, just like he knew about ET. Move over Cosgrove, here comes your obvious successor.

  19. observa. Yes 20-20 hindsight is a good thing – which makes it all the more unfortunate that even with hindsight your vision doesn’t seemed to be much good. East Timor could easily have been a lot messier than it was – it is something to be thankful for that it didn’t turn out that way, but in my view that possibility at the time was not sufficient reason to have opposed the deployment.
    As I stated in my post, Australia shouldn’t have withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan in the first place, and if the USA had followed up its words about targetting terror with action and kept its focus helping there instead of going off on an illegal invasion of Iraq, then things would be a lot better in Afghanistan than they are now.
    If you seriously want to propose that every tyrannical regime should now be invaded regardless of the wider circumstances, then do so – otherwise spare us the selective moral posturing. I know you feel a need to villify the UN at every opportunity, even when it is irrelevant to the issues being raised, but the point with sending our troops to East Timor was that it was close to universally supported by the Australian public – nothing to do with what’s right or wrong with the UN. I still think it would have been better to have the deployment ratified by Parliament, but as it wasn’t a publicly contentious deployment, people were less vocal in calling for it and less attention was paid to those who were raising it.

  20. Andrew, In Afghanistan we had SAS and other special forces assets before we withdrew. We are now sending back the SAS. They are the very tip of our land based spear. They arent being sent over there to do police work or ensure civil order. They are probably going over there to either kill something/someone or to hunt down something/someone.
    If we are sending the SAS back to Afghanistan it is either because Iraq is spiraling so far out of control that US Special Forces are having to be transferred there and we are making up for the US Special Forces no longer in Afghanistan. Or, Afghanistan is spiralling out of control and we are sending more Australian special forces there to put a lid on the insurgents/Al-Queda in Afghanistan.
    Either way I dont think this bodes well for either Afghanistan or Iraq.

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