The Drum Unleashed (ABC online)

By Tom Switzer

For weeks, pundits have argued that the federal election campaign offered an uninspiring choice to an electorate crying out for "leadership". Whatever one thinks of this view, there is at least one issue where both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have lacked leadership: Afghanistan. The Prime Minister insists that Australia's role in the war is "vital work" and estimates that our mission should be completed within two to four years. The Opposition Leader maintains it is a "very important struggle that can't be abandoned". Yet neither leader has explained satisfactorily the rationale behind Australia's 1,500-strong troop and personnel presence in Afghanistan. What's the compelling reason for the war? Who are the obvious bad guys to defeat, and good guys to support? Why have western casualties dramatically risen in recent months? The British statesman Lord Salisbury once warned: "The commonest error in politics is sticking to the carcass of dead policies." Today, after nearly nine years of fighting and no end in sight, we are witnessing a striking and dangerous example of this error in Afghanistan. Indeed, the war to destroy the Taliban is "unwinnable", as US Republican chairman Michael Steele recognises, and Australia should set a firm timetable for an early withdrawal from this world-class fiasco. Here's why: First, the goal of eliminating the Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan from which the 9/11 terrorist attacks were launched was achieved years ago. There is no substantial Al Qaeda presence in the country anymore; according to the CIA, only 50 to 100 Al Qaeda fighters are left there. To the extent Osama bin Laden's network remains operational, it is more likely to be based in Somalia and Yemen than Afghanistan. "We're not there because of terrorists," Andrew Wilkie rightly argues. "The terrorists morphed years ago into a global network, making Afghanistan irrelevant." The Taliban, to be sure, retains a strong presence throughout the country, especially the Pashtun-dominated south. But there is little evidence to suggest that the Taliban, a loose confederation of local tribal, factional and personal relationships, is directly linked to a global terrorist network. According to US intelligence, only 5 per cent of the Taliban are "hard core". Second, democracy is not an export commodity, especially to an artificially constructed state and ethnically and tribally divided society such as Afghanistan. It is a primitive society, more difficult in its terrain than even Iraq. Poppy fields are in bloom. Elections have been deeply flawed. And the Karzai government is hopelessly corrupt. None of this augurs well for a democracy project. Third, no recent invader has ever prevailed in what is known as the "graveyard of empires." Think of the Greeks, Mughals, British. Even the former Soviet Union, which had deployed around 150,000 troops in brutal counter-insurgency in the 1980s without restrictions on rules of engagement, went home with its tail between its legs. Fourth, other Western nations are heading for the door. US leaders keep insisting on the possibility of victory, which they struggle to define. But given an economy that is on the verge of a double-dip recession, the parlous state of US finances (more than $US13 trillion in outstanding public debt, and counting) and an electorate clamouring for massive reductions in the size and cost of government, it is hard to imagine that Afghanistan will remain a high priority in Washington. Indeed, Defence Secretary Robert Gates recently insisted that "there is no question in anyone's mind that we are going to begin drawing down troops in July 2011". Nor is the US alone. The Dutch quit the country for good last month. The Canadians are withdrawing next year. And David Cameron's rhetoric has already shifted Britain's priorities in the theatre. Fifth, while polls should not define the national interest, popular opinion cannot be ignored: Newspoll in June saw 63 per cent of Labor voters supporting withdrawal from Afghanistan, with Coalition voters not far behind on 55 per cent. Given that nearly half of all the 21 Australian deaths in Afghanistan have taken place since June, it is a fair bet the public's opposition to the war has intensified. As the deteriorating position of the coalition in Afghanistan becomes increasingly evident, Gillard and Abbott are falling back on the intellectually bankrupt argument of last resort: that we must finish the job. But the logic that suggests that because we've stayed so long, we may as well finish the job, is based on a false premise that assumes a defined endgame exists and is achievable. For Gillard and Abbott, momentum has become a substitute for logic: Australia is not fighting in Afghanistan because we have clearly defined goals. We're fighting, apparently, because, well, we're fighting. This is absurd. Whoever occupies the Lodge after the fate of the hung parliament is determined should seriously reconsider the continued investment of precious blood and treasure in what even leading neo-conservative scholar Fouad Ajami says is a "hopeless undertaking in an impossible land." Gillard or Abbott should remember the adage: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. Tom Switzer is research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.