Monday, February 13, 2012


The Mission in Afghanistan has changed. It is no longer to defeat the Taliban. Now we're concentrating on Al Quaeda.

This is because we can't defeat the Taliban . . . but that's another story.

This article was published in the Canberra Times on the weekend . . .


Some people just aren't paying attention. An extraordinary article in America's Armed Forces Journal by a serving Lieutenant Colonel, who's just returned from Afghanistan, makes the point. In a scathing indictment of the war he recites a litany of instances that incontrovertibly prove soldiers in the Afghan army aren't prepared to die for the regime that were supporting.

After four combat deployments including two to Afghanistan, the armoured officer now insists he has “witnessed the absence of success at every level". Things have gone from bad to abysmal. He claims the US is effectively “spinning the road to victory" and failing to convey the reality of a disastrous war that is being lost.

As you read the article it becomes apparent the colonel is suffering from culture shock. He can't get over the fact that this is a war America can't “win". He also, far more unforgivably, hasn't paid attention to his mission. The article is all about defeating the Taliban, because that's exactly what the politicians insisted we were going to do, way back in 2001. Because the regime in Kabul was harbouring Al Qaeda, it was targeted for destruction and the well-spoken and neatly attired Hamid Karzai was installed on a newly-constructed throne before everyone went away to invade another country.

It was about five years later that it became apparent that although Karzai possessed a cool range of tribal hats and robes, he didn't have the ability to run the country and what is (laughingly) referred to as “government" was actually an extortion racket run on a national scale. That's when the West returned waving a new counter-insurgency manual. Its actual title is FM 3-24, but it's really just a grab bag of theoretical principles. Since then the commanders on the ground have been learning how to turn it from speculative doctrine into a concrete plan to win. When the conjecture slammed into reality, something had to give.

The first thing to go was some of the confident assumptions about the “right" way to fight. Version 1 was all about building schools and mosques in the hope that hearts and minds would follow. When that failed, Version 2 was supposedly population-centric, protecting the people within a zone of security. As it became evident the Taliban were already inside the bubble the commanders moved through various permutations of versions 3 and 4 until today. Version 5-4. The mission is redefined; we’re into targeted killing of the enemy, training the Afghan army and negotiating with the ‘enemy’.

And that's where the American colonel has made his basic, critical and unforgivable mistake – he doesn't understand his “mission". He is, in fact, sadly confused and has made one up. Imbued with the idea that the US is still the dominant power in the world, he apparently thinks it dictate the peace it wants. Many other people make the same mistake. They're wrong. The American Empire remains powerful but, as the last decade has proved, it can no longer dictate the way the world will work.

The mission today has nothing to do with beating the Taliban. It's all about Al Qaeda. All we want to do is get out as quickly as we can while hoping that the corrupt, dysfunctional regime in Kabul collapses with as little dust as possible.

And we’re beginning to achieve this drastically lowered objective. Strategist Claude Rakisits from Deakin University gave a lecture to the Australian Institute of International Affairs where he insisted the “military offensives have significantly decreased the insurgent space.” But Rakisits makes another critical point. “There won’t be a military answer in Afghanistan. Negotiations are vital, he says, “and this means including all the players. Pakistan, in particular, is crucial and must be engaged as a full and ongoing partner in the peace process. We went into Afghanistan to destroy Al Quaeda and now we’ve ended up fighting the Taliban.”

Not everyone understands this. That's why a couple of months ago we had the idiocy of US airstrikes on the border. Or the lunacy of firefights between undeclared CIA agents in Karachi who felt free to blast away at Pakistani agents in a busy street. The weird gullibility of the Americans groping to make contact with ‘moderates’ in the hope of doing a deal that somehow excludes the insurgents who are actually fighting this war.

Whatever results from bringing the killing to a stop won't be pretty. But it will be better than the way things are today.

Those who object to cutting a deal, like the US military officers who want to continue the fight, are living in a la-la world of make-believe. For a start, there's virtually nothing worth defending in the corrupt regime that supposedly administers Afghanistan. Secondly, although Pakistan’s hands aren't clean and there are highly objectionable elements within that country that are supporting the insurgency, we need to find peace. Islamabad wants peace as well. It's time for pragmatism. This means it's time to make a deal.

China has adopted this approach and it’s now locking in important resources contracts with people in Afghanistan. Everything has its price. Even the local warlords are for hire; it's just a matter of bargaining to get an agreed fare. It simply requires the right mindset.

The frustrated US colonel discovered – it seems to have come as a surprise to him – that Afghan soldiers don't want to die. He thought they should be motivated enough to charge the enemy. They aren't. No Afghan is going to sacrifice their life to achieve American objectives. It's difficult to see why Australians should die while Washington gropes its way towards negotiations. A peace has to be brokered – the sooner the better.

No one, you notice, is talking about winning. Apart from a few deluded people who don't, or won't understand the reality on the ground. While we were cycling through the different versions of counterinsurgency campaigning it became obvious that the cost of victory is too great. Let's put this war to bed.

Our politicians aren't dealing with the truth. Julia Gillard proclaims we'll be there till 2020 while Tony Abbott spends his time dressing up and running round in bomb-disposal uniforms so that no one can ask him hard questions that he knows he can't answer. The reality is Australia's strategy is to wait until America finds a way out.

1 comment:

  1. Nick its long been a thought that in addition to your undoubted journalistic skills (and former military career leading a troop of APCs) you would have made a formidable foreign affairs/defence ministerial adviser. A lot more sense in your column than all the media conferences held by the current Federal Government on this topic.