ALISON BROINOWSKI. Still losing the last Afghan war.

Aug 7, 2017

President Trump’s many current distractions did not prevent him telling his military advisers the simple truth about Afghanistan on 19 July: ‘We aren’t winning.  We are losing.’

We all know about repeating the lessons of history, yet our leaders don’t seem to have learned them. No country proves the point better or more often than Afghanistan. Blighted by being at the crossroads on a warpath of elephants ─ British, Russian, and American ─ it is inured to waiting until the latest herd gives up and goes away. Like their Syrian and Iraqi neighbours, the Afghans are profoundly sick of generations of war. The advice given to a German journalist in 2007 could be from any of them to any of us: ‘Stop attacking and humiliating us. Clear off back to your own countries. Then al-Qaeda will disappear on its own.’ (Jürgen Todenhōfer, My Journey into the Heart of Terror, Scribe 2016). This could apply as much to al-Qaeda’s successor, Islamic State, as to the Taliban, which will also disappear when their communities have no further use for them. Yet the US and NATO and Australia still fight on in Afghanistan: for what?

President Trump’s many current distractions did not prevent him telling his military advisers the simple truth about Afghanistan on 19 July: ‘We aren’t winning. We are losing.’ The US had already lost 2,386 service-people in Afghanistan (to October 2016), and two more soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack on Wednesday 2 August. Trump recently spoke with Afghanistan war veterans who apparently persuaded him that they, not the top brass, could offer him better advice on a winning strategy. Trump is reported by NBC to have complained about NATO (without mentioning the recent token commitment of new troops by the UK and Australia). As well he blamed his Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for giving him bad advice.

The problem of Afghanistan, which now extends into a third presidency, is that having gone to war, the US remains committed to winning, apparently at any cost. But this is an undeclared, barely legal war (for which a retrospective resolution of the UN Security Council covered only Bush’s post-9/11 campaign against al-Qaeda). The US supports a dysfunctional government against resilient local insurgents. Victory in such a war is not possible, no matter what strategy Trump’s generals come up with. It’s not even clear that all the Americans involved in Afghanistan want an end to the war: not those who have been exporting heroin for years, nor those in the military-security industry for whom the ‘war on terror’ anywhere  represents an unending line of credit and channel for personal advancement.

For the US, victory in Afghanistan would entail such destruction that nothing viable would be left. They would have to destroy the country in order to save it. This was just the dilemma they faced in Vietnam, and yet it seems the lesson is not remembered, particularly in government.  The ‘good vs evil’, ‘them against us’ mentality is acculturated in many ordinary Americans as it is in decision-makers who seem to have forgotten Robert McNamara’s belated explanation in 2003 about the failure of the Vietnam War. He and his colleagues, the former Secretary of Defense (1961-68) confessed, had been ignorant of history, of political schisms, and of the nature, motivations and resilience of the Vietnamese. Americans should, he said, know their enemies, and try to put themselves in their place, understand their thoughts, decisions, and actions. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is taught to many American business and military people, and says much the same. As well, says Sun Tzu, do not engage in a war you cannot win. Yet still they fight in Afghanistan, instead of leaving the Afghans to run their own affairs, while Americans get on with oil and gas business, rare earths exploitation, and ─ if they want ─ heroin importation. Or even advancement of women, which might include restoring family planning services.

For Australia, Afghanistan is a different matter. We had Afghan settlers and their camels in our early days, and we have a train named after them. Australia has no quarrel with Afghanistan, and we have welcomed later Afghan Australians. The ADF formed the same local identification with Oruzgan province until 2014 as the RAR did with Phuoc Tuy, but for the people of both those provinces, once Australian troops had left, it was up to them and of course whoever could took over. Our efforts in Afghanistan – originally aimed at al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden – have contributed to multiple Australian and Afghan deaths and injuries, and to an exodus of many Afghans, some of whom have made it to Australia, and some have not. We were and are there only because of Australia’s servile commitment to an interpretation of the ANZUS treaty that commits us to fight ‘terror’ wherever the US wants. As for the rationale that we were there to help liberate Afghan women, the results speak for themselves.

If President Trump wonders why the US is not winning in Afghanistan, and his generals are not brave enough to explain, this may be a timely opportunity for Australia’s Ambassador to live up to our claims about frankness with our ally, and tell him Australians see it as a lost cause. While he has the President’s fleeting attention, Mr Hockey might mention the dangers of over-extension in Afghanistan, which contributed to the downfall of the USSR, and ask if the US can afford victory there at any price.

Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA is a former Australian diplomat and academic. She is Vice President of Australians For War Powers Reform and of Honest History.

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