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David G. Miller: Staying the course in Afghanistan

Staying the course in Afghanistan

David G. Miller

Over the past months, the debate has increased as to whether international forces should be withdrawn from Afghanistan, especially as casualties continue to mount. The British Government under David Cameron has set a deadline of 2014 for the withdrawal of combat forces, although whether such a pledge is feasible and fulfilled will remain to be seen. However, momentum is gathering in Britain for an exit strategy and an article in the Telegraph newspaper on July 8, titled Afghanistan: Now it’s America’s war says that as the UK tires of an ongoing war, withdrawal is being viewed the only option.

The Telegraph article takes the line that there are not enough British forces stationed in Afghanistan to bring stabilty and economic and political recovery to the country. It argues that UK troops are now spread too thin to be effective and are incurring a greater casualty rate against a resurgent Taliban. The conclusion is that the British have no option but to hand over responsibilty for the southern regions to American command and withdraw.

The death of Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell in August brought the reality of the war to New Zealand. The ambush of the New Zealand soldiers occured in Bamiyan Province, an area of the country which had previously not seen a great deal of activity, highlights the fact that the war is spreading from provinces such as Helmand to other areas. It also indicates that a growing number of coaltion forces will be drawn into hositilities even though their stated objective is peacekeeping and recontruction. Meanwhile, western public opinion against the war increases and so too does the pressure on governments to withdraw the troops. Both the US and UK governments have started talking about timetables for leaving.

The Australian edition of The Spectator on August 7 calls for Australian forces to be withdrawn on the basis that Afghanistan is unlikely to be transformed into stable soveriegn state. The editorial claims that given the cost of the war, the tenous nature of the US economy, the Dutch withdrawal and that the coalition cannot achieve victory against the Taleban, there is no point to an ongoing deployment. The article says that the mission has become a dubious gamble and that no more troops need to die for a lost cause.

However, despite this growing pressure and rhetoric, the coalition cannot afford to quit Afghanistan and nor is it likely to do so anytime soon. The editorial is correct on all points, there is no endgame to this conflict, however a coalition withdrawal would certainly lead to a second Taleban takeover of the country and its government. The government of Hamid Karzai would almost certainly fall without coalition support and the US is painfully aware that the previous regime provided a haven to al-Qaeda in the lead up to 2001. Should the US and its allies withdraw or scale back major combat forces then Afghanistan does a 180 degree u-turn, back to the mid 1990’s when the Taleban took control.

There is also the Pakistan factor as part of the equation for Washington to consider. Islamabad would likely to support a coalition withrawal given that it has never been comfortable as a partner of Washington. One the one hand, Islamabad relies heavily on US aid and is vital to the war in Afghanistan given its geographical location and the western allies cannot afford to see the government in Islamabad destablised by extremists.

A withdrawal of US and coalition from Afghanisaton would also free up Pakistani forces currently engaged in the civil war with the Pashtun dominated Taleban elements inside its western borders. Both Afghan and Pakistan Taleban groups are Pashtun dominated and while the two are spoken of as separate groups, a victory in Kabul would likely coincide with the end of hostilities in Pakistan’s tribal belt. This scenario would also enable remove any Indian presence or influence from Afghanistan.

The other factor which has appeared on the radar screens then quietly disappeared is the potential mineral wealth that was reportedly discovered in Afghanistan earlier this year. London’s Spectator magazine recently published an article refuting this claim saying it was the last throw of the dice by the Washington neo-cons to try and keep what remains of public support for the war.

However, assuming the reports of potential mineral wealth are accurate, then it is unlikely any company based in the US and the coalition would be able to undertake any extraction. Certainly not without a massive security presence to protect an activity that would take years to complete. A Chinese, Russian or Middle Eastern company would likely be the only firms and financiers willing to take a risk in mining any of Afghanistan’s resources.

The Chinese have the financial resources to back any mining venture and are unlikely to have any issues with Islamist militants operating in the region, the Karzai government and nor would they get any opposition from Afghanistan’s neighbours, namely Pakistan and Iran, especially if they were included in the deal. Washington would not want to see the Chinese nor the Iranians or even the Russians reap any economic rewards given that so many of its soldiers have become casualties.

If there is a withdrawal of a large contingent of US and coalition forces from Afghanistan in the next few years then not all of their troops will come home. The US is likely to adopt the same policy in Afghanistan now being applied in Iraq whereby frontline combat operations are carried out by local forces with a country-wide network of American bases and support personnel remaining in place. Along with reducing US and coaltion casualties, this will enable the Americans to provide sufficient support to the Afghan National Army as it battles the Taleban and other insurgents. Such support will be in the form of advisors, “support units” and airpower. This will ensure that the Karzai government remains in office, the Taleban are continued to be engaged in combat and Washington and its allies will be hoping it’s a military and political win-win situation

Therefore, it is unlikely that New Zealand and Australian forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan, certainly while significant frontline US and coalition forces remain and while there is the scope and opportunity for reconstruction and redvelopment work to continue. The death of Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell raised questions over New Zealand’s deployment and any further casualties will increase the pressure on the government to bring the troops home. However reconstruction work is vital to rebuilding Afghanistan, and at least is helping it on the road to becoming a stable, democratic nation and New Zealand forces and personnel should continue to help facilitate that work.

If the US and its allies begin to withdraw front line combat forces then the deployment should be reconsidered, but while this work can be undertaken and the country as a whole denied to the Taleban, then New Zealand, along with the rest of the coailtion, will remain committed to Afghanistan. As the events of 2001 showed, there is too much to lose by heading for the door.


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