Increased ADF commitment to the Afghanistan War

New commitment to Afghanistan reflects the dynamic situation, as does the exit strategy for Iraq.

The decision to increase Australia’s 190-strong Special Forces Task Group in Afghanistan with another 110 troops and two Chinook helicopters has met with little criticism, mainly because most Australians can see the sense of it. Our efforts there are in Australia’s direct strategic and domestic security interests and this is widely recognised

Assisting the new democratically elected Afghan government consolidate its overthrow of the Taliban’s alternative of theocratic medievalism also generally resonates with the gut commonsense and moral outlook of most Australians.

The deployment has bipartisan political support – as it should. Indeed Labor is still reaping some strategic credibility from its earlier criticism of the government for not offering consistent military assistance to Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001.

That we lacked sufficient forces to do so is quietly understood on both sides of politics. That both are to blame after decades of insufficient defence investment should be more widely known.

The SAS and commando strength in Afghanistan is to increase only marginally. The main reason is this capability’s limited numbers overall.

After all if we had lots of them they would not be as special.

It also results from other operational requirements, especially defence force counter-terrorist support to the police for major events such as the Commonwealth Games.

There is, predictably, less apparent bipartisan political support for our commitment to Iraq. But all is not necessarily as it seems here.

The real differences between the Government and Opposition on Iraq are actually far fewer than the areas of broad agreement. This truth is often obscured by party-political jousting for domestic audiences.

While Foreign Minister Downer and Opposition Leader Beazley can snipe at each other about when to withdraw the Al Muthanna Task Group, both the Coalition and Labor essentially agree on Australia’s exit strategy from Iraq.

The real squabbling is over the timings and even then there are broadly shared understandings underlying their ostensible disagreement.

If an adult-led (post-Latham) Labor Government had been in power since the last election it would have had to cope with the same sobering strategic pressures and alliance management imperatives as the current Coalition government.

It might just as well have been Kevin Rudd consulting with Condoleezza Rice in Washington in mid January for all the actual difference it would have made in the real world, as opposed to the arena of domestic political point scoring and attempts to create marketing differentiation between the Coalition and Labor parties.

Australia’s exit strategy from Iraq (as with all the allies) depends on building up sufficient and effective Iraqi security forces and then handing over to them as swiftly as possible.

Everyone agrees that the presence of foreign forces fuels at least part of the insurgency.

Just as importantly it shields Iraqis from really confronting the realities of a Post-Baathist Iraq – where elections and consensus need to replace repression by an entrenched and privileged minority.

But this exit strategy bestrides the fine line of withdrawing too early or too late.

Too early and Iraq descends into a bloody and typical Middle Eastern civil war unconstrained by the international community. This risks the intervention of Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Iranian Shiite neighbours to support ‘their Iraqis’ respectively.

It also risks Turkey, probably with tacit support from Iran, invading to forestall an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

This would also risk world-wide economic chaos, or worse, through disruption of Middle East oil supplies.

Too late a withdrawal of international troops encourages paralysis of the political and cross-communal compromises required for a viable and hopefully (at least by Middle Eastern standards) democratic Iraq.

It also means serious operational exhaustion of the tightly stretched US Army and Marine Corps, and risks a war-weary American public forcing a similar fate to a precipitate withdrawal.

With a bit of luck we should be out of Al Muthanna Province later this year but Afghanistan will be a longer haul.

All wars, however, are inherently dynamic phenomena.

It is just plain silly to rigidly hold any government to initial or ongoing assessments about the duration, nature and scale of overseas military deployments.

Contingents will necessarily fluctuate in strength up and down depending on operational and strategic need. Their composition will necessarily vary in order to handle the tactical situation and best achieve the strategic end-state sought.

The time needed to complete tactical, operational and strategic-level tasks is also likely to keep changing because of the continual dynamism of conflict situations.

Australia has been very (and unusually) fortunate so far in the very low number of ADF casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hopefully this will not change but it could at any time.

This would not change the strategic and operational fundamentals involved in either theatre but it would increase emotional inputs into Australian political debate.

Finally, many uses of the term ‘exit strategy’ are made by people who would not be able to recognise one if they fell over it.

A similar degree of glib ignorance surrounds cries for strict deadlines to be stated for ‘bringing the troops home’.

In the final analysis all wars are contests of will.

Calls to adhere to strict deadlines or inflexible exit strategies are anathema to military and strategic professionals. They understand the many tactical dangers and the strategic blunder involved in letting your enemies know if, when or how you will stop fighting them.

The operational security, morale and welfare of Australian forces deployed overseas should be first and foremost in the minds of all those seeking to debate such international commitments.

Our troops should never be endangered by thoughtless comments or ill-informed speculation during domestic public debate.

Those fighting our forces are not likely to have a nuanced understanding of Australian politics but they can easily learn of comments in Australia via the world-wide web and satellite television.

Thoughtless comments here, especially concerning supposed timings or conditions for withdrawing our troops, therefore risk increasing the threat to such troops because those attacking them may come to believe, incorrectly, that such attacks would lead to a withdrawal of Australian forces.