ANDREW FARRAN.  More troops to Afghanistan: at best a patch job; at worst perpetuating futility

May 17, 2017

Whereas economic globalisation might seem for a time to be on the wane, in the military sphere globalisation is on the rise. Regional alliances are being transformed into global alliances. ANZUS has been merged de facto into NATO, and where NATO is persuaded to go so shall we.  Australia has been involved in Middle East conflicts – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – and is now under pressure to expand its Afghanistan commitment. We should be clear about the purpose and  intended outcomes of such commitments. 

It is understood that Australia has been asked to provide further troops to the Resolute Support Mission under NATO in Afghanistan. It is not clear whether this request has come from the US Administration or NATO itself. There are some 13,500 NATO troops in Afghanistan and the US is likely to provide another 1,500 shortly. The Australian troops there now are engaged in training Afghan defence and police forces, not in a combat role.

No number of additional troops has been given but if a similar request to the UK is a guide it is unlikely to exceed 100. The Australian Prime Minister has indicated that the government is open to this approach.

While this augmentation might appear very modest, like the mission creep in Iraq and Syria it is another piece in a mosaic of commitments which defy any appearance of a pattern other than going along with whatever the US might go along with. Now, with President Trump in charge in the US, where that might lead to is anyone’s guess.

There are pointers, like entrails in the desert, from which we can glimpse that direction. Whereas economic globalisation might seem for a time to be on the wane, in the military sphere globalisation is on the rise. Regional alliances are being transformed into global alliances. ANZUS has been merged de facto into NATO, and where NATO is persuaded to go so shall we.

Post-World War 2 security alliances were formed to defend against threats and attacks by one nation against another. While these alliances remain alive and well there have been no international (state to state) military conflicts engaging them for decades. US, Australian and NATO forces have been involved over that time in civil wars and putting down irregular forces, mostly in domestic  tussles for political power. We should ask why we would involve ourselves in those conflicts which do not and have not directly threaten Australia? If we were really threatened we would call upon our alliances, as well as the United Nations, when a threat to international peace was present, under Chapters 6 and 7 of the Charter; or exercise our right of self-defence under Article 2. The Charter does not authorise our use of external force to support one side or another in a civil war or domestic dispute.

Threats to international peace and security now derive essentially, it is said, from terrorist groups and irregular forces. But as the saying goes, one person’s terrorist is another’s patriot. This was the case in Vietnam, and unfortunately is the case also in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – and indeed Libya and other such places.

The trouble is that these conflicts do not stay local and the national interests of other states become engaged. What other way can the ‘sectarianization’ of the conflicts in the Middle East be viewed given their impact on Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan, Pakistan, India, and of course Russia and the US. These have become international conflicts by whatever name. Some involvements are ubiquitous as is the case with Saudi Arabia with the support of the US. But why is the US prepared to support a questionable regime, with such poor humanitarian credentials, when it seriously compromises the US’s capacity to deal effectively with the other regional governments whose policies could contain or constrain conflict in the region? Lately there is the conflict in the Yemen, with untold (literally) consequences of death and destruction, abetted by arms deals with the US, the UK and Australia? This is why the conflicts in the Middle East are becoming endless and irresoluble. If the issue for the US was once oil, that was last century, not a vital US national interest today.

So what starts in the Middle East doesn’t stay in the Middle East. This apparently is the justification for Australia remaining there and holding the ring with others in the Coalition. But having stirred the pot it is not surprising that when it boils over someone gets burnt. That could be us. The invasion of Iraq engendered ISIS and extended the conflict globally. While ISIS is identified as the common enemy it is actually being used in cross-conflict situations in ways that blur that easy perception. The devil himself could not have dreamt up such scenarios. But what is this to Australia?

Coming back to Afghanistan, we have been involved in armed combat in that blighted country since 2001, our longest ever military campaign already lasting  16 years with no end in sight. The Taliban controls more territory there now than they did before the Coalition’s intervention in 2001. So Mr Turnbull, what will further increments of troops, whether as combat soldiers or trainers, achieve that hasn’t been achieved, other than sporadically, in all that time?

If we are to involve ourselves in armed conflict abroad let it be to defend ourselves against direct threats, whether to territory or national assets, with a clear purpose and defined outcome. In any event, let any such deployments or commitments be debated and decided first in Parliament. We have not had that debate in relation to these deployments – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – to this day. Bombing first and talking later, and being secretive about it, is not a sound strategy in today’s complex and vulnerable world.

A personal postscript:  I visited Afghanistan twice in 1964, first as a humble Third Secretary from the Australian High Commission, then in Karachi, to attend a first ever UN meeting in Afghanistan, as deputy to one John R. Kerr, QC.; and next to invite the Afghan government to nominate two students to study in Australia under the Colombo Plan (our first ever contribution to them under the Plan). Afghanistan was then a peaceful and relatively secular country. It is now what it is, shattered and tormented, thanks largely to American and the Russian actions over the following decades.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser, and former senior academic in public and international law

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