Solving our Afghanistan dilemmas by understanding them

The operations and prospects of the current coalition campaign in Afghanistan are often mistakenly compared to the 1978-1988 Soviet occupation or to various 19th Century British-led invasions and punitive expeditions. Such simplistic thinking ignores that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is supporting an Afghan government that, however imperfect, was originally elected democratically under UN auspices amid very challenging conditions. ISAF has extensive authorisation by several UN Security Council Resolutions and is in Afghanistan with the authority of the Afghan government. It is certainly not an "occupying army" as some simplistically or polemically claim. More generally, the strength of opinion in Australia about our participation in the current war in Afghanistan is often inversely proportional to real knowledge of the country, its actual history, and the various political and strategic challenges involved.

In the 1970s Australia had only a handful of Afghanistan experts and one was Dr Beverley Male, who taught political science at UNSW's Faculty of Military Studies at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. When the relatively moderate Afghan monarchy was overthrown in mid 1973, Dr Male noted that the country’s many fractious pressures tended to encourage warfare rather than co-operation with any government in Kabul that sought to impose centralisation and/or radical change. 

As the new republic subsequently gave way to a communist dictatorship and then two even more violent changes of rule between communist factions – the last involving a full Soviet invasion – Dr Male kept reminding her students of Afghanistan’s long traditions in this regard. 

Following the Soviet withdrawal in early 1989, and once the unifying effect of a hated common enemy was removed, traditional Afghan disunity became turbo-charged. 

Much of the country’s surviving physical, civic and intellectual infrastructure was destroyed in a decade of vicious civil war. The destruction of Afghan civil society above village or clan level became almost complete in much of the country. Those Afghans most needed to rebuild the country – members of the professions and the educated middle class – were heavily over-represented in refugee flows and particularly among those who permanently resettled in distant countries (including Australia). 

Afghan society collapsed so badly that many initially welcomed the rise of Taliban control because it brought peace – albeit that of the graveyard and at the cost of a retreat to medievalist theocracy, neo-Luddite socio-economics and pervasive political and cultural repression. Some ethnic groups and outlying provinces never accepted the Taliban and civil war continued at some level across much of the country. 

Over three decades of war and disruption has resulted in a near-total collapse of national sovereignty and national morale. Afghanistan’s civil society base is extensively damaged. The physical, cultural and demographic terrain for counter-insurgency campaigning is therefore quite complex. The insurgents are at least partly sustained by a politico-religious fervour separate from, but interwoven with, the Afghan conflict itself. What socio-economic infrastructure that does exist in many highly contested areas is effectively that of a narco-state. 

The new parliament is the most representative ever, but not yet effective in converting broad representation into unified effort. The government is outwardly democratic in form and intent but the president’s nickname is “the mayor of Kabul” and his writ is limited. The government has few resources and is inefficient, riddled with corruption at national, provincial and local level, and often lacks grassroots support in terms of confidence, hope or relevance. Finally, there is a physically, ethnically and politically porous border with Pakistan that provides significant insurgent sanctuaries – and Pakistan has serious domestic and strategic vulnerabilities of its own that destabilise Afghanistan, the region and potentially global stability. 

Helping rebuild Afghanistan as functioning society, polity and country will therefore be a long-term, complex and expensive task. So maybe we should just give up now say some. This begs the question that the doomsayers usually prefer to duck – what are the likely alternatives and what is the risk that they would be worse versus the chance they might be better? 

Do we just leave the Afghans to it, as largely occurred with such spectacular lack of success after the Soviets were forced out? Is this option viable even if we ignore any moral consequences or responsibilities? Given the sanctuaries the Taliban gave Islamist terrorism throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, can we risk that happening again? 

Can we actually quit? Or do we, as one of the participants in the UN-endorsed, US-led coalition intervention in 2001, have legal and moral responsibilities to stick it out? What might happen in Pakistan if we quit Afghanistan and what could happen there if we stay? 

Whether we stay or go, there remains a real risk that it would cost more blood and treasure in the long run if we quit now but subsequently have to return and help fix an even bigger mess? 

These are all valid questions, often with interlocking dilemmas and nuanced, uncertain or unknowable answers. At the end of the day all wars are contests of will and end when one side gives up. It may be that faltering will among key European NATO members eventually takes the decision out of our hands. 

But we do not live in Europe. The ideologies that brew and feed in Afghanistan impact on Australia differently, and generally more directly – as has been shown by the Bali and Jakarta bombings, and Islamist terrorism throughout southeast Asia generally. 

Part of deciding our policy on Afghanistan is to grasp the timescales involved. Counter-insurgency warfare on this scale is not a matter of instant or quick results and Afghanistan will be more difficult than most. The campaign against communist insurgents in Malaya ran for around 15 years with the last remnants not surrendering for another 15. Defeating the IRA in Northern Ireland took over 30 years. Our active counter-insurgency involvement in South Vietnam lasted a decade (with that war later ending by conventional invasion from North Vietnam). 

Our military, economic and development efforts in Afghanistan are also likely to grow, not shrink, in the near to mid term if we are to win. But at the same time, there is little point emphasising this now, and thereby further bailing out those Western European countries who are still treating their NATO commitments in Afghanistan as a peacekeeping mission and not a war. 

Finally, there are the humanitarian considerations both altruistic and those stemming from strategic self-interest. The people of Afghanistan need our help to make or keep the bootstraps that they can then use to haul their country up by. 

The day will come when we are not needed to help. The day may come sooner than we expect when the Afghans choose to finish the job without foreign assistance. The day may come when we need to wean them from dependence on outside help. But none of these days seem likely in the next half-decade or even decade at least.