Afghanistan mission a total failure
THIS year the Australian Defence Force will pull out of Afghanistan's Oruzgan Province without having achieved the objectives for which it was sent. That means Australia's military operation in Afghanistan has failed. It is important to face this uncomfortable fact and learn from it what we can.
Do not expect this from government, the opposition or the ADF. They will all keep saying our soldiers are coming home because their mission has been successfully achieved. That is simply false and they all know it to be false.
We can understand why they keep claiming success nonetheless. There is the usual reluctance to pay the political price of admitting that any policy has failed. But admitting that this policy has failed is especially hard because it has cost, so far, the lives of 39 Australians, and terrible injuries to many more.
Our military failure in Afghanistan is complex because our reasons for sending forces to Oruzgan have been complex. The simplest reason has been to deny Afghanistan to al-Qaeda, but this never made sense. Al-Qaeda was out of Afghanistan and sprouting elsewhere long before we went to Oruzgan. The more sophisticated reason was to make sure al-Qaeda didn't come back by defeating the Taliban insurgency and fostering a government in Kabul that was effective, stable, just and pro-Western.
Instead, we leave Afghanistan with a deeply corrupt and incompetent government exercising little authority over most of the country and people it is supposed to govern, and no serious prospect that a better government will emerge. Meanwhile, the Taliban seems as strong as ever, and as we withdraw it could soon take back at least a share of the grip on the government in Kabul that it lost in the last weeks of 2001.
There was never any reason to expect a better result. It was always a fantasy that Western military intervention could fundamentally transform Afghanistan's political and social fabric, which is what our objective presupposed.
The fantasy was called Counterinsurgency, or COIN. Its advocates said that our forces could turn Afghanistan into the country we wanted it to be by fanning out among the people, winning their hearts and minds and building support for the regime in Kabul by providing security and aid programs.
The formula has been tried in many places since the Western empires collapsed, and it has always failed, just as it has failed again now. Even 200,000 Western troops were far too few to make it work in Afghanistan, and even three times that number could do nothing to make the government in Kabul look good to the Afghan people.
Yet again, COIN has stumbled on the inherent contradiction that lies at its heart. Any government that is too weak to win a counterinsurgency without massive outside help is too weak to be worth supporting.
After this became clear a few years ago, the Western governments intervening in Afghanistan changed their story again. They stopped saying their aim was to transform the country themselves, and talked instead about training the Afghan army and police so that they could provide the security needed for the Afghans to build their country.
The government was soon telling us that this was now the key mission for Australia's forces in Oruzgan, and also our exit pass. Once the Afghan forces in our province were trained enough to provide security, they argued, the ADF could leave. And this is the job they now say has been done successfully.
This is nonsense. Despite years of hard and dangerous work, the Afghan security forces remain what they have always been: undermotivated, undertrained, underequipped and underfunded. Above all they are woefully led - especially at the higher levels.
And how could it be otherwise? Even if we had succeeded in building strong Afghan forces, what would have been the point when there is no credible government for them to serve and support? The forces we are leaving behind in Oruzgan will do nothing to prevent the province sliding even deeper into the abyss once we are gone.
Of course none of these failures are Australia's alone, because we have been part of an American-led coalition.
And as many people understand, this is the real reason the government sent our forces to Afghanistan and have kept them there - to support our ally. And the real reason we are leaving is that they are leaving.
But they are leaving not just because they are sick of the war and no longer believe it can be ''won''. They are leaving because they have new strategic priorities - especially in Asia. And here is the final source of our failure in Afghanistan. We sent forces there to bolster our alliance with the US, just as we have been sending them to every American conflict in the Middle East for decades. We did that because when Asia was at peace this was what America expected of us.
But now all that is changing. America no longer cares much what we have done in Afghanistan, because it now sees China as its biggest strategic challenge. Today it judges Australia's worth as an ally by the support we provide it against China - politically as the two giants jockey for influence, and militarily if they come to blows. The depth of our failure in Afghanistan is that our service and sacrifice there has already become irrelevant to the alliance it was supposed to support. Even tougher tests lie ahead.
Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.