How Australia views Afghanistan

GEOFFREY GARRETT — Australia has always followed the United States into tricky situations. Afghanistan is no different.

Rushing after the Americans

In many ways, Afghanistan became America’s “forgotten war” between 2003-2008. What attention did Afghanistan garner from outside the US in this period?

I was living in the United States until April 2008, and I observed how Afghanistan was indeed forgotten in the US media. The stories were all about Iraq. The only time that situation changed was when the global financial crisis hit the economy, and these two events came together in the 2008 US Presidential election. 

The real experiences I have of reading about Afghanistan outside the US are in Canada and Australia, both countries with a significant long-term troop presence in Afghanistan. It is fair to say that in Australia, public opinion was torn apart over Iraq, as John Howard — the Australian Prime Minister at the time — was very supportive of US President George W. Bush’s actions there. Of course, Australia ultimately withdrew its troops from Iraq, amidst a massive political firestorm. Since that time Australians have been very unhappy about the Afghanistan War. Yet there has been incredible political consensus over continuing Australia’s involvement there. Thus, the Obama Administration has been far more aggressive about bringing forward the withdrawal agenda than has been the case in Australia. 

Canada is a bit different. It decided not to be involved in Iraq at the outset, so Afghanistan always remained the most important war for them. Therefore the stakes for Canada in Afghanistan were much higher. From the middle of the last decade, Afghanistan was the top foreign policy issue in Canada, and there was a great deal of pressure from both ends of the political spectrum. Some Canadian politicians saw their country’s involvement as part of a global coalition against terrorism. Others wanted to withdraw, since the immediate purpose of the war following the 9/11 tragedy had been met. The situation in Canada is clearly quite different than it is in Australia, where there has been rock-solid political consensus between the labor government and the liberal national coalition in opposition. 

In your 2009 article in The Age, you write that “Afghanistan was eclipsed first by the Iraq war, then by the global financial crisis, and now by health care in the minds of average Americans.” How do domestic politics in the United States continue to clash with strategic imperatives in US Afghan policy?

Domestic politics have been eclipsing foreign policy since Iraq. The Iraq invasion was the exception, not the rule; normally, presidential elections will be fought on domestic issues, but both the 2004 and 2008 elections in the United States centered more around the conflicts in the Middle East. 

The other important debate in the US at the moment is about the fiscal problems the country is facing, and the effects this has had on the Defense Department budget. People around the world are worried that American economic decline will lead to a contraction of the US’ global role. That worry is perhaps a bit overstated. The US’ fiscal problems — while severe — are not “mission critical” in the way that they are in many European countries. Looking back to before the 2003 Iraq invasion, the US was already thinking about a smarter, wiser, leaner military. This debate is closely linked to the conflict in Afghanistan. The idea that the US should stand down as Afghanistan stands up has always has always been discussed. The Obama Administration was never committed to Afghanistan in the same way that the Bush Administration was committed to Iraq. During the campaign in 2007-2008, Barack Obama was under a great deal of pressure from John McCain for being weak on national security. The line that Obama towed — which was politically effective — was that Iraq was the wrong war and that Afghanistan was the right war. Once he executed the surge in Afghanistan, it became fairly clear that he did not want an open-ended, massive commitment there and this desire has played out in his subsequent policies.  

In the months after 9/11, Australia committed 1,550 troops to help the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, and remains the largest non-NATO contributor to the war effort. Although bound to the United States by the ANZUS Treaty, there seemed less pressure on Australia to back the US than on NATO member nations. Why did Australian leaders back US Afghan policy in such a seemingly wholehearted way in 2001?

In Australia, unlike in many other countries, supporting the US following 9/11 was not a divisive issue. The ANZUS Treaty was indeed invoked for the first time by Prime Minister John Howard to support the war in Afghanistan. There was a broader issue in Australia of how strongly should the country continue to support the US in the subsequent years. When considering this issue it is important to remember two things. First, Australia has fought alongside the US in every major war since World War One, including Vietnam and Korea. Australia had conscription during the Vietnam War, when the Prime Minister used the slogan “all the way with LBJ” during his reelection campaign. Second, in the upper reaches of Australia’s government there is a consensus that the US alliance has always been the bedrock of American security assistance. Therefore, supporting the US internationally is an integral part of a strategy by which the US is providing a security guarantee for Australia. 

In the past couple of years, that view has come into question for two main reasons: One, that the US is not going to be able to keep its international footprint, and two, that Australia’s incredible economic relationship with China will be adversely affected by the US presence. There is a great debate in Australia today about how national strategy should evolve. But looking at what both sides of government believe instead of what political commentators and intellectuals are saying in Australia, there remains very strong support for the US alliance. And Afghanistan was in many ways a very easy decision, and remains very easy.

For the United States, it has become a matter of global credibility not be seen as a loser in the Afghanistan War. Yet, after more than a decade of conflict, what objectives must US leaders achieve before they can leave “with honor,” and are these objectives respected by the broader international community?

This question is at the forefront of any discussion about Afghanistan today. Nobody talks about “victory” in Afghanistan anymore, especially after the now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner behind President Bush in 2004. What does success entail in Afghanistan? That is always a moving target. But the principle has been simple: As the Afghani security forces step up, then the US and the other countries should step down. That means that the main role of the western powers should be to empower and train Afghan security forces. Of course, it is hard to even rely on the Karzai government to follow through on its pledges. When the US leaves, Afghanistan may very well remain unchanged from 2001. Yet Washington can say, and with some justification, that if Afghanistan was the launchpad for Al Qaeda terrorism, the war has seemed to extinguish this threat. Of course, Obama will always have on his record that he killed Osama bin Laden, albeit in Pakistan. That was the objective of the war in 2001, that Afghanistan should not be a safe haven for terrorism and that Al Qaeda should be decapitated. 

Washington has justification to say that he has achieved these initial goals. The forward-looking goals — that Afghanistan will become a stable democracy — have been discounted.  

Are these goals respected by international leaders? Certainly in Australia, the position is essentially the same: That Afghanistan should not be the progenitor of international terrorism that could adversely affect the global community. The debate is the same in Australia as it is in the US, although the political consensus in favor of Afghanistan has been stronger in Australia. In some sense Obama is leading Australia with his plan for a faster withdrawal timeline, not the other way around.

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GEOFFREY GARRETT is the Founder and CEO of the United States Studies Centre and Professor of Political Science at the University of Sydney, and was previously the Dean of the International Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a frequent contributor to a wide range of Australian media, including The Australian, Australian Financial Review, Sydney Morning Herald, Sky TV, and ABC radio.

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