“We are now one of the biggest suppliers of military training to Pakistan. Yet elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies are intimately assisting the people who are killing our soldiers in Afghanistan.”
By Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor | The Australian | November 10, 2011
THE most respected institution in Australia today is our military, and with good reason. Our soldiers are as brave and as effective as any in the world. Our sailors will risk their lives without hesitation to ensure the Safety of Life at Sea. Our air force personnel yearn to be in the fight. They put their lives in the service of something beyond themselves. They are the best our society produces.
The primary purpose of our military is to exercise lethal force to ensure security. When the nation commits them to battle, it must be
willing to bear casualties.
But along with the respect we owe our soldiers, here is one basic requirement: we must not commit them to battle when there is no
compelling military or strategic reason to do so. Where there was once a military rationale, and that rationale disappears, our soldiers need to
Afghanistan has reached that stage now. Yesterday an Afghan National Army soldier shot and wounded three Aussie Diggers. Ten days ago,
another ANA soldier, a veteran of several years service in the ANA, shot and killed three of our men.
Afghan army infiltrated
This follows a pattern of incidents in Afghanistan in which the Taliban has infiltrated the ANA and dozens of coalition soldiers have been
killed by ANA soldiers or people in ANA uniforms. These are the people we are training, to whom we will hand security responsibility in 2014.
Australian soldiers no longer serve any military purpose in Afghanistan. There is a broad strategic purpose and that is purely to continue to
express political and military solidarity with the US as it pulls out of Afghanistan by 2014.
The Obama administration, quite understandably in my view, has consistently defined downwards its strategic objectives in Afghanistan.
The old ideals of nation building are all gone. The objectives now are purely to leave behind a government in Afghanistan that can maintain
itself in office and prevent Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
Because it is a great power, the way the US conducts an orderly withdrawal, always the most difficult of military operations, has a big
effect on its credibility. And US strategic credibility is an essential element of what global stability there is. So helping the US do this by
providing it a foreign flag of support is a legitimate strategic interest for Australia.
But there is no longer any interest at all in thinking that we can effectively train the ANA or win the hearts and minds of the Afghan
people. Therefore, if our troops are to stay in Afghanistan, there is only one mission for them, and that is to stay alive.
I do not want and cannot justify the sacrifice of 30 more Diggers’ lives while we wait for the Americans to leave at the end of 2014. If we are
to stay, we must come back inside the wire, and “train” the ANA without giving them weapons within our lines.
There is a very respectable case for withdrawal altogether, but if on balance we decide to stay, given that we are no longer achieving
anything militarily, we must stay without avoidable casualties.
COIN is dead
If you want a sense of what allied soldiers do in Afghanistan, you can’t do better than see two documentary films: Restrepo, about an American
platoon, and Armadillo, about a Danish platoon. While broadly sympathetic to the allied troops, they both show that after a decade of
coalition troop presence, the soldiers are alienated from the local population and completely incapable, because of the conditions, of any
At the strategic level, five key analytical points suggest themselves. Afghanistan, much more than Iraq, marks the death of the vogue for
counter-insurgency strategy. As recently retired US Defence Secretary Robert Gates remarked: “Any future defence secretary who advises the
president to send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have their head examined.”
The dominance of COIN, as it’s known, had one particularly dolorous effect for us. The US military was configured for land wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, not for the maritime task in the Asia-Pacific.
Second, the big US-led coalition presence in many ways makes things worse.
As my old friend Raja Mohan, India’s most brilliant strategic analyst, has argued, the US will have more meaningful options when it steps back,
when it is not the central reality that everyone hates, when it is itself rather a swing factor that local actors must factor into their equations and perhaps seek support from.We are now one of the biggest suppliers of military training to Pakistan. Yet elements of the
Pakistani military and intelligence agencies are intimately assisting the people who are killing our soldiers in Afghanistan.
Third, the deepest long-term strategic threat to the West in all this comes from Pakistan. The longer the US wages war on this scale in
Afghanistan, and necessarily across the borders into Pakistan, the more it is contributing to the radicalisation of Pakistan.
Fourth, the Taliban and related insurgents in Afghanistan are completely impossible to defeat while they are actively supported by Pakistan, as
is now indisputably the case. Although it always would have been expensive, the US-led coalition with Australia playing a strong part
could possibly have conducted a successful counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, even given all its difficulties, if the Taliban had not
been able to retreat, rest, recover and re-launch at will from safe havens in Pakistan.
And fifth, all this is happening in the context of declining US influence in Central Asia and the Middle East. The US wanted to keep some troops in Iraq, the Baghdad government said no. The US would like to keep its giant air base in Kyrgyzstan, the local government said no.
Iran is proceeding to nuclear weapons. Now the US defence budget overall is in decline. The US is not broke because of its military commitments, but its military resources will decline and it must manage its credibility in this period with cleverness, but also with serious
strength and commitment to those things that are essential.
And here is a final, bitter reflection for us. We are now one of the biggest suppliers of military training to Pakistan. Yet elements of the
Pakistani military and intelligence agencies are intimately assisting the people who are killing our soldiers in Afghanistan. The extent and
detail of the reporting of this is now irrefutable. Countless Americans up to the most senior commanders have stated bluntly that Pakistan
continues to give assistance to the Haqqani network and to elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
It is often the case that strategic necessity gives you a series of choices of the lesser evil. It is often the case that decent governments
like our own have to keep up a degree of co-operation with evil regimes to try to make them less evil, and to secure vital national interests of
But to assist people helping forces to kill our Diggers is a bridge too far. It is absolutely unacceptable. It ought to stop straight away. We
must end all military assistance to Pakistan. After our troops come home, we can reconsider. The fact that neither government nor opposition
ever raises this shows how feeble our Afghanistan debate is. The government reads its public-service lines, the opposition doesn’t have a
clue. Our Afghanistan debate is not worthy of our troops — lions led by sheep.