Why Are We There Again?


Kevin Rudd’s trip to Washington – Presidential salutes aside – was another public relations triumph for a Prime Minister at ease in the foreign policy milieu.

As I reported last week, while Rudd was giving a series of speeches laying out his commitment to "creative middle power diplomacy", Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon was in Bucharest, Romania for the NATO Summit on Afghanistan. There Australia lobbied for greater troop commitments from NATO member countries, and better coordination of the overall Afghanistan war and reconstruction effort.

Australia remains heavily engaged in Afghanistan, where our troops are stationed in the Orūzgān province as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in cooperation with troops from the Netherlands, under the ultimate command of NATO. To quote Kevin Rudd about Australia’s commitment there, "we’re in Afghanistan for the long haul."

Image thanks to Lukas.


Is this necessarily a good thing? How bad is it in Afghanistan? And is the situation likely to get any better any time soon? The answer is: probably not. According to candid assessments by allied generals and security experts, NATO and the US are clearly not winning the war.

The background of the Afghanistan conflict is long and dispiriting. Invaded by Soviet troops in 1979, Afghanistan suffered through a 10-year insurgency against the USSR followed by another decade and a half of civil war in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal, which eventually led to victory for the Taliban in 1996.

US intervention in October 2001 quickly routed the Taliban government and its al-Qaeda-associated foreign mercenaries, pushing them back into a few strongholds along Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan and in the nation’s south. But although Kabul and large parts of the north were quickly secured, little progress was made in the Taliban’s heartland – the Pashtun tribal areas of the south. Here the Taliban retains significant territory and popular support, particularly in the province of Helmand. The Taliban is also believed to be supported by funds and weapons from neighbouring Pakistan and further afield.

The situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating since at least 2006. A recent and comprehensive report by the Afghanistan Study Group observed that "2007 has been the deadliest for American and international troops in Afghanistan since US-led coalition forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001". The Taliban, though heavily defeated in open combat against NATO and US forces, continues to mount an effective and resourceful guerrilla war in terrain which makes their suppression extremely difficult. The situation is aggravated by troop numbers that on-the-ground commanders argue are too low.

Nor are ambitious targets for more international aid reaching the necessary levels for effectiveness. A recent report by the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief paints a stark picture of the problems facing the Afghan National Government. A historically underdeveloped country ravaged by decades of war, the Afghan Government collects relatively little tax revenue: foreign aid makes up 90 per cent of its budget.

As the report makes clear, there is still not enough money being invested in Afghanistan: "In the two years following international intervention, Afghanistan received $57 per capita … Bosnia and East Timor received $679 and $233 per capita respectively." In fact, international donors have not fulfilled their pledged commitments to Afghanistan under the Afghanistan Compact, which has left a $US10 billion aid shortfall.

Apart from the obvious security challenges, aid effectiveness in Afghanistan suffers from most of the same problems faced by many other foreign aid programs. Far too much aid money is spent on security-related programs, and far too little on civil and social infrastructure. Aid programs are not transparently managed or delivered. Nearly 40 per cent of them are "tied" programs which require services to be purchased from contractors native to the aid donor’s home country. Kabul is favoured over rural areas. Technical assistance to the Afghan Government is favoured over localised programs to improve health, education and agriculture. Vast sums are paid to foreign contractors in a country where local workers earn just a few dollars a day.

Despite the strength and persistence of Taliban insurgency operations, the long-term strategy and on-the-ground tactics of the Allied forces in Afghanistan are disorganised. There is a dual-command structure whereby US forces operate alongside NATO forces with differing mandates and command structures. The US, Canada and Britain are doing the brunt of the fighting along the Pakistan border and in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

Meanwhile, key members of the NATO coalition are beginning to set exit dates: Stephen Harper recently convinced the Canadian Parliament to continue Canada’s commitment until 2011, but after that all bets are off.

The guerrilla war against the Taliban in Afghanistan will continue for many years. It is a war that NATO, the US and Australia run a high risk of losing. Given the strength of the Taliban forces and the dynamics of current Allied commitments, it seems inevitable that Australia will at some stage be asked to increase its commitment of troops.

The question Kevin Rudd, Joel Fitzgibbon and the Australian people must ask is this: as in Iraq, just what is the national security justification for Australia remaining in Afghanistan? So far, Kevin Rudd has yet to explain this to the nation. As Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan blows out beyond a decade, he may soon have to.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.