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Australia has no business in Afghanistan

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 5 January 2009

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald of December 19-21, “Turn the tables on Afghanistan”, retired Australian General, Jim Molan, claims that the success achieved against terrorists in Iraq can be translated to Afghanistan and he calls for an increase of up to 6,000 Australian troops.

I think Molan premature when he talks in terms of Iraq being a success. The destabilising effect of the invasion will, in my opinion, be felt within Iraq and the region for another decade at least.

He talks of the Afghan people, when in fact there is no such entity. The majority are Pushtuns who dominate and mistreat minority groups including the Hazaras, Tadjiks and Turkmen.


Molan ignores the divisive influence of topography on both military activity and nation building and posses the blind optimism not seen in Australian military and diplomatic analysis since Vietnam.

Molan claims that, “Our great weapons are our morality and openness to scrutiny … Our information must be truth”, which, unfortunately, does not apply to reporting on the war in Afghanistan, David Hicks, Mohamed Haneef, Guantanamo Bay and the treatment of refugees including Children Overboard.

The hope and ideologically driven wishful thinking put forward by Molan as fact will not substitute for hard analysis.

The mistake for the West is not to see the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan as a line on a colonial map. People on both sides of the line are related, they share a common language, culture, religion and economic hardship. On the Pakistan side of the border the area comprises two of Pakistan’s four provinces, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province. The British did not establish a presence and neither have the Punjabi’s who make up the bulk of Pakistan’s army and public service.

US bombing of villages and homes, only serves to weaken the tenuous influence that Islamabad exercises. The US has learnt none of the lessons of Vietnam. The US and NATO presence conveys a sense of being occupied, the destruction of property and homes and the deaths of innocents, translates into recruits prepared to fight for a war lord, the Taliban or whoever else will arm and feed them.

The Russians found in Afghanistan that they were fighting a number of different warlords, all with a different agenda. And so it is now for the US and its allies. Increasingly much of the opposition is focused on getting rid of the Western foreigners as much as it is around ideology and religion.


The policy driving the war and the manner in which it is being prosecuted makes the war in Afghanistan unwinnable. Terrorism is founded in belief, ideology and emotion. Does anyone in the western alliance seriously believe that they can blast, kill and maim their way to a victory in which no known terrorist is left standing in Afghanistan?

The economic crises impacting on America will likely determine the level of its future commitment to Afghanistan which is reason to talk while it still has some leverage. Should the US come to rely on foreign loans it might be expected that at some point lenders might seek conditionality.

Australia has no business in the conflict. It is a regional issue. Australia allowed itself to be sucked in on the basis of our alliance with the US, which increasingly promises little. The war in Afghanistan will not bring about an end of al-Qaida nor the Taliban, to do so by military means would take more troops than the US put into Vietnam and the absence of many other regional factors which play out against the US.

In these uncertain times Australia needs to get its house in order and prepare for unusual and unpredictable events that might unfold closer to home. Australia does not need its forces strung out around the world, particularly when the US has a reduced and reducing capacity to service our Vietnam, Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan contribution to the alliance.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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