On the eve of the Labor’s first budget, Professor Hugh White, the head of the Strategic and Defence Studies at the Australian National University (ANU), has called on Labor to review its commitment to Afghanistan. White said today the Rudd government has adopted the policies of the Howard government without examining what it is doing there and what the most cost-effective way of achieving it is. In an era of a so-called “open ended” commitment, White’s question is a valid one. The Afghanistan engagement is costing the Australian taxpayer almost half a billion dollars a year.
With Wayne Swan about to bring down the budget on Tuesday week, the government are not giving away how much Defence will be impacted by the activities of the almost mythical “razor gang”. Defence policy did not get much of a look-in during the election campaign but Kevin Rudd has made two commitments he must look after during his first term in office that will blow out defence spending.
The first of these directly affects the budget: During the high-stakes poker of the election campaign, Rudd matched Howard’s promises of at least three per cent increases in defence spending annually until 2016. With both sides keen to convince us we live in dangerous times, that means putting more than one billion dollars extra each year into Defence coffers.
The second commitment involves troop deployment. Rudd will withdraw some troops from Iraq, but with increase numbers in Afghanistan. The government has said it will withdraw troops from Timor Leste but with Jose Ramos-Horta’s attempted killers still on the loose, the situation could quickly worsen without Australian support. Labor has also committed to continued to support in RAMSI.
Australia will keep some troops in Iraq. The US has pressurised Australia to keep some symbolic presence in the multi-national command centres in Baghdad and Basra. Australia will also keep up naval and air deployments in the Gulf. Those that will be leaving are a thousand combat troops from the Overwatch Battle Group in Dhi Qar to be withdrawn and re-deployed to Afghanistan.
They will be joining an increasingly sticky situation. After an initial dream run of lack of casualties for several years, the Australian death count has been slowly rising in the last 12 months. Last week, Lance Corporal Jason Marks was the fifth Australian to die, killed by gunfire during a shootout with Taliban forces in Uruzgan.
The political commitment for Afghanistan appears to be there for the long haul. Since the election victory, Kevin Rudd has successfully kept up the unchallenged fiction of his “Iraq war bad, Afghanistan war good” argument. Given the sorry state of both countries in the wake of their invasions by the US this century, there seems little a western military force can do except exacerbate hatreds and delay the inevitable political transitions to hardline Islamist states. There is a consensus that without political dialogue only a long, hard war lies ahead. Yet as a puzzled Andrew Bartlett remarked earlier this year, there is very little public debate about it.
The war in Afghanistan is now almost seven years old. When asked why Australia is still there, Rudd responds in terms of the vague need to contain “threats of terrorism”. This argument fails to understand that the genie is well and truly out of that bottle. The London bombers were home-grown and more likely to have visited a Bora Bora disco in Ibiza than a Tora Bora cave in Nangarhar. Terrorism can no more be contained within Afghanistan’s borders than its copious opium crop.
The war itself has largely escaped without scrutiny in the Australian media as has the fact that President Hamid Karzai is these days little more than the mayor of Kabul. Reliant on the dubious support of various warlords, Karzai is also a marked man and cannot even trust the support of his own police and armed forces as last week’s assassination attempt revealed.
Tom Hyland in the Sunday Age has been one of the few Australian journalists on the ground to try and tell a more complete story. Yesterday, he wrote how prisoners captured by Australian and Dutch troops were tortured after they were handed over to Afghanistan. Australia has no facilities to hold prisoners and the Dutch camp is limited so they handed them over to the National Directorate of Security (NDS). The world knows about the problem because a Dutch journalist obtained documents under FOI that had testimony of prisoner ill-treatment at the hands of the NDS.
Such considered verdicts of what is occurring on the ground in Afghanistan are rare. For most it merely expedient to demonise the “Taliban” as an enemy that must be defeated. The fact that the “Taliban” no longer exists as one single, integrated body is not considered. The John Howard argument (inherited fully by Rudd) was that our troops were helping to save democracy, prevent the setting up of a narco-state and stop terrorism. It has failed on all three objectives.
The Afghan government and their laws are no better than the enemy they fight. Kabul residents are already seeing gradual returns to the Islamic law that they endured in the 1990s. The war, meanwhile has increased Afghanistan’s prominence as a drug exporter. And as for sponsoring terrorism, Afghanistan plays second fiddle to neighbour and supposed-ally Pakistan.
The total casualty figure for the war in Afghanistan is not known but likely to be in the hundreds of thousands. The central objective of Operating Enduring Freedom has not been met. Osama Bin Laden was never located. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has been involved from the outset with bi-partisan support from the main political parties. With a nod and a wink to cricket analogies, the Australian mission is known as “Operation Slipper”.
As of April this year, the ADF has 1,025 personnel in Afghanistan’s slips cordon. Those forces included a national command centre in Kabul, a liaison group at International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters, two task forces in Uruzgan, RAAF surveillance at Kandahar airport and a helicopter group also in Kandahar. There is a small artillery contingent embedded with the British in Helmand. Australia also has federal police and a Secret Intelligence Service station on the ground.
But that is not enough for some politicians. According to then defence minister Brendan Nelson, the 2007 budget handed down an additional $1.3 billion over five years to support the ADF. That massive amount did not include Afghanistan for which another hefty $703 million was found over four years.
Unsurprisingly the Liberals are saying Nelson's replacement Joel Fitzgibbon must protect their defence patch from this year’s cuts. For now Swan has refused to rule out the multi-billion dollar defence budget from being quarantined from the spending reductions. But Rudd's election promise means the Afghan war will be spared the razor.