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Stuck in the mud

It’s the United States’ longest-running war and has been called Australia’s second Vietnam. Three military experts offer their insights on the war in Afghanistan, why Australia joined in and what the future may hold for the war-torn state. By JAMES GIGGACHER.

No sooner had the dust from New York’s crumbling Twin Towers settled than it was kicked up again, this time on the other side of the world. The shock of the 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, the first assault on US soil since Pearl Harbor, mobilised President George W Bush to take the fight to Afghanistan and the Taliban – who he accused of harbouring al-Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden. A month after the attack, the US military  descended on the Central Asian state with backing from the United Kingdom and Australia. And so the ‘War on Terror’ began.

Almost 11 years later, the war has shifted from fighting terror to ousting the Taliban and building a democratic state. Bin Laden is dead and the war has spilled over into neighbouring Pakistan’s tribal belt. US President Barack Obama has announced the withdrawal of the majority of US forces by the end of 2012, with Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard making similar promises; our 1,500 troops will be out by mid-2013. But, as the sounds of violence quieten down and the dust settles once more, crucial questions remain: why were we there and what have we achieved?

For Dr John Blaxland, a Senior Fellow and military historian at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre with 30 years’ experience with the Australian Army, Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan comes down largely to its military alliance with the US.

“At the time of 9/11, the then Prime Minister John Howard was in Washington. The attacks really affected him. He invoked the ANzUS Treaty for the first time and committed Australian forces to go to war,” he says.

“But Australia was very careful not to overcommit in Afghanistan. Our experiences in the Vietnam War and the reluctance on both sides of politics and in the population to lose Australian lives meant that we wanted to make a contribution without taking too many casualties.”

Paul Lushenko, a captain and intelligence officer in the US Army who has been deployed to Afghanistan twice, agrees that Australia’s presence in Afghanistan highlights the importance of the US alliance.

“In my view – and in no way does it reflect the view of the US Department of the Army or the Department of Defense and Government – the alliance is going to be even more important in the near future,” says Lushenko, who recently graduated with dual masters degrees in diplomacy and international relations from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

“This is because of the rise of China and the burgeoning Asia Pacific century and the massive shifts in global order that this entails.

“But Australian forces have also played a really important role in Afghanistan which goes beyond the mentoring, training and reconstruction work they are currently doing there. They have played a pivotal role in disrupting the Taliban and denying sanctuary to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. And by being in Afghanistan during a time of change in global order, Australia is working with the US to help build order and security in the Asia Pacific region.”

But while the US and Australia are playing a role in building regional peace and security, have they done the same in Afghanistan? Military studies and counterinsurgency expert Professor Daniel Marston says that there has been some success for the mission in Afghanistan, but not what the Western allies would consider a win.

“I think that part of the problem regarding this issue of whether the mission can be called a success or not, is that the narrative on the war has shifted over the last 11 years. The initial mission statements have shifted to where we are now,” says Marston, who is based at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and is Head of the ANU military studies program.

“The reality on the ground is that there is progress being made, but progress in the eyes of the local community, which would not necessarily be seen as success in Canberra or Washington  DC or the wider population in those countries. Western mindsets are a hindrance in this campaign.

“And you do see that in the Pashtun belt where there have been a lot of things that have happened in the last two years that nobody could have forecast; there has been actual progress. But it’s not progress in the sense of a top-down governance from Kabul, that’s not what it looks like, and that’s not Afghan reality or history.

“So there’s definite stability, and local stability. But this idea that we can tell what the future of Afghanistan will look like was never going to be there. So I think we have to be careful as of 2012 in saying whether we have been successful or unsuccessful, as the goal posts have been shifted many times since 2001.”

Lushenko agrees. “We have to be very careful about how we define success. If we mean success to be a capable, legitimate state, then I would have to say that we have not been successful. You can point to several indicators: a lack of transparency in the government, and the fact that we now have tribal leaders who are moving more towards the Afghan Taliban because they provide a sense of public good in terms of security and justice.

“On the other hand, if you define success in terms of disrupting the Taliban, denying sanctuary to al-Qaeda and others, and insulating the Afghan Government, then we’ve been cautiously or moderately successful.”

Blaxland adds that the mission’s overall success directly ties in to the grand strategic issues at stake in the war and why forces were sent to that part of the world in the first place.

“There’s one dimension which I think the Australian Government is not realty wanting to talk about and this is the potential Balkanisation or fragmentation of Pakistan,” says Blaxland. “It’s important that whatever happens in Afghanistan is not allowed to just go completely to seed, because the knock-on consequences for Pakistan, with a large concentration of Afghanistan’s Pashtun population  living there, are huge. This is a country with lots of hot spots and lots of areas which could potentially break away. It’s a nuclear-armed state and it has qualities that are worrying to many of its neighbours. Australia’s engaged there, we’ve got a defence cooperation program, so Australia’s invested; it’s invested in Afghanistan, it’s invested in Pakistan and we can only hope that they manage to muddle through and hold it together.”

Marston agrees that the question of Pakistan and its relationship with Afghanistan as well as with India is critical to future stability. But peace will also be reliant on building up locally recruited Afghan forces.

“But we need to do this without looking at it through the prism of Western mindsets,” says Marston. “We are still looking at the situation from the prism of our own armies when assessing the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police or other forces. At the end of the day, this is a force that needs to be capable of internal security in its own state in its own way. And they will probably be able to provide that at different levels as long as the power arrangements are set up above them.”

For Lushenko, who will redeploy to Afghanistan with the US Army in the next few months, it all comes back to the original reason the US and its allies went to war in Afghanistan.

“I would identify three things which make our efforts in Afghanistan important. First, in terms of terrorism it is certainly very important to be in Afghanistan to stem the tide of things that took place before 9/11. Second, if we consider Afghanistan  is in Central Asia and the regional- global nexus which is unfolding before us, I think it is important that we are there to stem the type of threats and vulnerabilities that could come from Afghanistan, whether that’s the flow of people and refugees or the terrorist sanctuary Afghanistan could become. And finally, I think that, particularly for America, the mission in Afghanistan begs serious questions about standing and legitimacy. So I think it’s important that we see the mission through and achieve ‘success’, however we define that, in order to build the type of legitimacy required to operate effectively in the Asia Pacific region.

“But at the end of the day, it’s for the Afghan people. We have a moral duty to provide a better existence for them.”

And even though the dust is settling, it may be a few years yet before that line in the sand can be drawn.

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