RICHARD BUTLER. Afghanistan: Early Warning.

May 10, 2017

The US is planning to increase its forces in Afghanistan. It is bound to ask us to do the same. In the light of his performance in New York, our Prime Minister seems certain to accede, and do so without prior public or parliamentary discussion. 

US mainstream media have reported that senior advisors to President Trump are proposing that the US expand its military role in Afghanistan, increasing its military presence by at least 3,000. Some 8,400 are currently there.

Commander in Chief Trump hasn’t yet had anything to say or tweet on this. It is understood, that this new strategy would leave it to the Pentagon to set troop numbers, tasks and, modus operandi.

These deliberations are said to be occurring in response to recent  progress, by the Taliban, in its fight with the Government of Afghanistan.

Clearly however, wider factors are in play, including: the US’ wish to protect what it considers to be its key base in Afghanistan; the engagement and interest there on the part of Pakistan and Iran; and, increasingly, Russia.

The reports indicate that Trump will most likely decide on the plan in time for the NATO summit, to be held in Brussels on 25th May. The plan is apparently being promoted by two of Trump’s leading advisors; H.R. Mc Master, now his National Security  Advisor, and J. Mattis, now Secretary of Defense.

Credible Afghanistan analysts have already issued the predictable caution about yet further interventions within Afghanistan, not simply drawing on the historic failure of all such interventions into Afghanistan’s complex, tribal make-up.

In the modern period these have seen the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in  1988, and the US, when in 2011, Obama cancelled the US surge, which had then utilized 100,000 troops.

Speaking of surges, General McMaster was an architect of President G. W. Bush’s surge in Iraq.

In more distant periods, the Afghan tribes successfully resisted Alexander the Great, and later the British. In fact, no one has succeeded in owning them

The assessment of the current situation by the experts is that the conflict in Afghanistan is best seen as a civil war and we now have extravagant contemporary examples, a little to the north of Afghanistan, in Iraq, Syria and Libya, of the devastating impact of foreign intervention.

The toxicity of such action is magnified when the intervention is joined by a multiplicity actors, overtly and covertly, who are there for reasons which are not rooted in the welfare of Afghanistan, but rather in competition between those external powers. This now appears to the case, increasingly, in Afghanistan. The Syrian contest is moving, South East.

So, what can we expect from our own government?

Late last week, in New York, our Prime Minister pledged, publicy to the US and its President,that we would always stand with them, go with them. Australian troops are already in Afghanistan. Indeed, our Prime Minister surprised them with an Anzac Day visit.

If Trump signs-off on this mooted proposal, clearly the US will ask us to increase our numbers in Afghanistan. In the light of his recent pirouette aboard the USS Intrepid, now retired and serving as a museum, our Malcolm’s only response is bound to be “ how many do you want?’

Indeed, given that the relevant defense/security and Alliance tasked officials in both Washington and Canberra are professionals, they are bound to have already been in discussion on the plan.

What has almost certainly not been discussed is the giving of the Australian Parliament and people the opportunity to discuss, think about and debate the plan, before an increase in our forces is announced. This is the procedure envisaged in our Constitution, which has now been routinely abused, from John Howard onwards.

Any such laying–out of the issue publicly, were it to be honest, should include the fact that the President of the United States is not himself much interested in the detail, but is leaving it to what he described earlier as “his great generals”. So, they would decide on the fate and disposition  of our troops. Haven’t we seen this movie?

Stay calm, fake history is being written. Donald Trump said when sitting with Malcolm Turnbull last week, seen, of course on television, that the we and the US together have always won. In the same breath he mentioned Vietnam, as an example, and Malcolm seemed to agree.

We are duly warned.

Richard Butler AC  former Ambassador to the United Nations, and Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.

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