Regardless of what actually happens on the ground in that landlocked country, the need is to involve Pakistan in working towards fixing the situation.
Otherwise, as their column seeks to point out, failure is guaranteed . . .
We've lost this battle already
The two outposts were perched high up on a bare, rocky knoll on the ridge. A goat-track, stretching just slightly below the crest, provided access to the collection of small, rough stone sangars that had been thrown together on the barren ground by Pakistani soldiers. From these they had good observation, during the day, of the area for miles around.
But it was late at night when two American AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, together with an AC 130 gunship, screamed in to blast the little shell-scrapes apart. By morning, 24 of the 40 soldiers manning the small outposts had died. Most of the others were badly wounded.
According to Pakistan maps the area was clearly on their side of the Duran line – but that doesn’t really mean anything in the freezing mountain air. This is the arbitrary border drawn with a red pencil on the map by a British official back in 1893. The tribal people living in the region treat the line as if it's imaginary. They come and go as they choose. And so do the insurgents. As recently as four years ago Kabul knocked back a plan to build a fence along one section of 150 kilometres the Taliban has used as an infiltration route.
Somehow, in the early hours of the morning, shots were exchanged between the forces. Perhaps there was a third group, the Taliban, out there on the mountains as well. It really doesn’t matter, now. No matter which side of the border the bunkers were on, their destruction has signalled the effective end of cooperation between two already uneasy “allies”.
Islamabad has already cut off land supplies to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. Worse is to come.
Australia is at war. As you read this, our soldiers are patrolling the barren rocky hillsides in Orüzgan where they’ve been sent to fight the Taliban. But back at the ALP’s National Conference at Darling Harbour it’s not until 2:15 on the 3rd day (squeezed in before a discussion on “open and accountable government") that anyone will have the chance to discuss “Australia's place in a changing world". That’s as close as our government wants to go towards admitting we’re in a war. One we’ve got no idea how to win; no idea how to escape.
‘Labor elders’ like John Faulkner and Bob Carr have come up with some quaint ideas in their attempt to reinvigorate the party. They believe it’s on life-support but that an injection of reform can restore life to the moribund frameworks that are atrophying the strong policy veins that once pulsated through the corpus. Back in the Vietnam era, people were galvanised over vital issues of international policy. But events like war are off the policy agenda, today. No one’s displaying even the slightest agitation over Julia Gillard’s unilateral decision to bind ourselves tightly to Washington’s embrace, rather than considering Australia’s own needs.
Take, for example, Gillard’s successful hi-jacking of the party’s nuclear policy. She believes uranium sales to India should be allowed. We do desperately need to improve our relationship with this cultural and economic powerhouse, but there’s more to it than just this one issue. And she also needs to explain, carefully, exactly why she won’t sell the nuclear fuel to Pakistan. What moral framework is at work here? Or is it just to do Washington’s bidding.
Gillard is locking Australia into an embrace with US foreign and military policy so tight that it is smothering the voice of intelligent dissent – whether from Left or Right. She was correct when she proclaimed, “foreign policy is not my passion”. What has not been apparent until now is that, instead of a simple absence of interest, her failure to grasp the realities of power is her Achilles heel. Critical failings are on prominent display.
This policy failure has become entrenched in our struggling, half-hearted commitment to Afghanistan. The key to unravelling this is the necessity of engaging with Pakistan. But this isn’t happening. People on the streets of Lahore are now taking things into their own hands. Politicians, like Imran Khan, are increasing the frenzy. And, as this column warned last week could happen, the military relationship with the US, previously under intense strain, has now snapped.
Pakistan has closed its border with Afghanistan. If it moved to close the air routes as well the result would be disastrous. It’s that serious.
“People all over Pakistan are united; they are up in arms over this", insists one highly placed analyst. “Let America keep its crumbs", says another, referring to the military-aid package that bolsters Islamabad's budget. “China is ready to help us." A top-level diplomatic source warns; “You can't whack a people to the negotiating table. The US no longer appears to respect the alliance. How would you feel if more than 4,200 of your people had been killed by US bombs dropping unannounced from the skies in the last couple of years?” Anger is palpable; the emotions are raw.
Operationally, our troops are achieving real successes. Unfortunately their success in removing insurgents from the fight in Orüzgan is rendered strategically pointless by both a corrupt regime in Kabul and the failure to recognise that Pakistan must be involved in finding a solution. Defence Chief General David Hurley, who was in Islamabad last week, issued a statement unequivocally regretting the killing of the soldiers. By contrast, American commanders appear unable to understand they will never obtain victory through using force. They are so occupied in the attempt to achieve tactical victory that they abandon strategy. Even if it was concluded successfully, the engagement on the border couldn’t possibly have been worth the diplomatic and political cost.
It appears impossible to understand what was motivating the commander who authorised the airstrike. Perhaps he is so caught up in the moment that each successive second bears no relationship to the preceding one. Tactical genius becomes strategic stupidity of the worst order.
The West’s decisive technical advantages are irrelevant in this particular conflict, because the vital terrain is in the mind. It cannot be destroyed by a bomb or occupied by soldiers. Keeping the 177 million people of a nuclear-armed Pakistan aligned to the West is far more important than prosecuting an insurgency propping-up a corrupt government in a country of 29 million.
In the past the ALP’s National Conference was marked by vibrant foreign policy stoushes. How sad if no-one is interested enough to be energised by these issues any more.