An ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan is one of the few policy areas where both major Australian parties are in step. Only the inconvenient matter of the growing Australian death toll is making it an item of public debate (dead Afghans don't count - and aren't counted in the west). There has been bi-partisan support for the mission since John Howard invoked the Anzus Treaty for the first time ever three days after 9/11. Australian troops were in the invasion force in October 2001 and have been part of the International Security Assistance Force since it was founded in December 2001. (photo: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images)
After a year of fighting, Australian efforts switched to reconstruction in November 2002. Special forces were withdrawn as the focus switched to Iraq in 2003. But the war against Saddam hid the fact the Taliban had never been eliminated and the Iraqi distraction was a huge boost to their morale. Meanwhile a second group known as the Pakistani Taliban - unaffiliated with the Afghan version - were becoming increasingly important and operated with impunity on their side of what was a fairly lawless border at the best of times.
Despite denials, it is well known the Pakistani ISI have provided military and logistical support to both Talibans making a difficult task almost impossible. While Iraq hogged the headlines, Australia continued to have a tiny presence in Afghanistan until 2005 when the US asked Howard to deploy a force of 150 personnel for 12 months to undertake security tasks similar to those of 2001-02.
The war escalated in 2006 as insurgents began to use improvised explosives and suicide bombers. The Australian presence slowly rose in Uruzgan Province during the Howard and Rudd Government eras, gradually replacing the Dutch who ended their mission last year. In April 2009, the Rudd Government increased the Australian commitment by 450 to 1,550 troops. The ADF is currently mentoring the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan, and Special Forces are also there.
According to the ADF’s 2009 white paper Force 2030, success in Afghanistan is dependent on ensuring “the local population is protected and separated from the insurgents, economic and social reconstruction occurs, indigenous security capacity is strengthened, insurgent networks are disrupted and the prospects for a long-term political solution are enhanced.” It foresaw significant international support for at least 10 years. Afghanistan was a source of instability because of its potential as a terrorist base and its narcotics trade. Crucially, the paper acknowledged any solution would need to address “insurgent safe-havens located in Pakistan, and there will need to be found a comprehensive solution to the problems of cross-border movement between Afghanistan and Pakistan by al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban insurgents.”
As the Afpak situation becomes increasingly murky, public unease has grown. Neither major party has been able to clearly articulate a vision for Australian action in the region outside the murky goal of defeating “international terrorism”. The official ALP policy on Afghanistan is buried in a “Labor Plan for Defence” fact sheet: “Federal Labor has maintained Australia’s commitment to the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force operation in Afghanistan, in recognition of the fundamental importance to Australia’s security interests that terrorists be denied a safe haven in that country.”
According to the policy, the Gillard Government will not keep Australian troops in Afghanistan “any longer than necessary”. But Labor remains committed to our troops being there as long as the mission requires. Neither the withdrawal nor the commitment are expressed in any clear terms of objectives or critical success factors. The policy says Defence expects to complete the Uruzgan training, transition security responsibility, and move into a supporting role “within two to four years”.
Recent Liberal policy on Afghanistan is harder still to find. It doesn’t appear in either its Foreign Affairs or Defence policies. The only references to Afghanistan found on the Liberal Party website are in press releases such as after the latest death which says Australian troops are in Afghanistan “fighting in defence of our values of liberty and democracy, wearing our uniform, serving under our flag, against the world's most dangerous enemy.”
The last policy statement was issued in April 2009 which supported the Labor move to deploy the additional troops. Shadow Minister for Defence Senator David Johnston said boosting troop numbers “sent the right message to our allies that we are in for the long haul in terms of rebuilding Afghanistan so it was no longer a safe-haven and training ground for terrorists.” Senator Johnston said Australians should never forget the terrorists that perpetrated the Bali bombings were trained in Afghanistan. “It is dangerous to be there but it is even more dangerous for us not to be,” he said.
The link between the Bali bombers and Afghanistan is undeniable though a little disingenuous. Indonesian police said bombing “field commander” Imam Samudra went to Afghanistan in 1991 and learned how to make bombs there. The attack’s overall co-ordinator Mukhlas also worked with the mujahidin in the 1990s as did fellow planner Ali Imron. Nevertheless, these were all there well before the Taliban were installed in power. Initially the mujahidin were supported by the West who wanted to overthrow the Communist Najibullah regime. Although that objective succeeded in 1992, fighting continued throughout the mid 1990s as many of the mujahidin forces began to fight each other for control of Kabul. The war continued until the Pakistan-backed Mullah Omar took control with his Taliban forces in 1996.
The point is that Afghanistan has always been a volatile training ground for jihadists, sometimes with western support. The terrorists had training there not because it was a “haven” but simply because it is a war-torn country where the norms of law and order don’t have much standing. Fighting this fire with fire does not seem like a way to solve the problem. Not only that, but the long war there is seriously undermining Afghanistan and Pakistan’s ability to function as democratic states. In his acceptance speech today for the Sydney Peace Prize, Noam Chomsky said no-one wanted Afghanistan to be run by the Taliban or the US-backed warlords. “There are very significant Afghan peace forces, pro-democracy forces, but if you check with them, they regularly regard themselves as facing three enemies: the Taliban, the US-backed warlords, and NATO forces," he said. In a world where politicians and media prefer to keep messages black and white, there are too many shades of gray in this Afghanistan war to sustain it for much longer.