6 February 2019
Australia’s longest war is coming to an end.
For eighteen years, Australian troops have operated in Afghanistan in a deployment that has been backed and extended by six prime ministers. Tens of thousands of people have died, including forty-one Australian soldiers. Now, the United States and the Taliban are negotiating a peace deal that could lead to the withdrawal of the remaining foreign forces, which includes 300 Australian troops.
Despite being protracted and costly, the war has always had bipartisan support in Australia and has never been seriously debated. Hopefully, as it ends, the nation can now start to consider and absorb some lessons.
Since 2001, Australia’s commitment to the war has continually fluctuated. After committing 200 special forces troops as part of the initial US-led operation, the deployment was reduced to just two officers working on clearing landmines. In 2005, the deployment went back up to 150 troops, then to 200, and, by 2010, to 1550.
This was gradually reduced until 2013, when Tony Abbott withdrew Australia’s remaining frontline forces, saying that their deployment was ending “not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that is better for our presence here”.
Australia’s wavering commitment has consistently matched that of the US, which had almost 100,000 troops in Afghanistan during Barack Obama’s surge in 2010, and today has 14,000. These fluctuating numbers reflect a lack of clarity about the war’s aims, which have veered back and forth between a narrow focus on eliminating the threat of terror and the broader goal of reconstruction and stability.
Yet neither of these goals could be achieved through force alone. Their success has depended on other players, such as Afghan politicians, who often proved corrupt and unreliable, and Pakistan, which provided a safe haven to the Taliban. As in Iraq, entering the war – and quickly toppling the regime – proved much easier than setting clear and achievable goals that would allow for a withdrawal.
For Australia, which has little direct interest in Afghan affairs, one of the main reasons for supporting the war has been to demonstrate a commitment to the US alliance. But the prolonged conflict has demonstrated that any alliance benefits, such as access to intelligence or hardware, should be measured against its costs. This includes questions about the conduct of any war to which Australia commits, and whether it is open-ended.
The US is now demanding that the Taliban commit to ensuring that Afghanistan is not used as a haven for foreign terrorist groups such as Islamic State. Relations between Islamic State and the Taliban are hostile. Still, it is hard to see how a Taliban pledge would be enforced. Last Sunday, Donald Trump, who is keen to withdraw American troops, was asked about the possibility of a future extremist resurgence. “We'll come back if we have to,” he said.
But the US should be asking for other Taliban assurances, particularly on human rights. Before it was toppled, the Taliban ran a brutal regime, which involved barring girls from going to school and banning television and music. These oppressive measures have been resurfacing in Taliban-controlled areas. But analysts say that Taliban leaders are desperate to be seen as the country’s legitimate future rulers and that US negotiators should press for guarantees on rights and civil liberties as part of a peace deal.
Other hurdles remain, including whether the Taliban will agree to negotiate with the Afghan government.
A deal will not mark a US victory. It could, if mishandled, lead to a civil war and the further meddling of foreign forces from countries such as Pakistan, Russia, India and Iran.
For Australia, the final outcome is difficult to assess. Many of its gains in Oruzgan province, where its combat troops were based, have been lost. Last year, a United Nations report said that as many as 85 per cent of girls in Oruzgan were not at school. This, along with the continued violence and poverty of Afghanistan, is a tragedy – and, sadly, it has proved one that the US, Australia and more than fifty other nations were unable to fix.
Despite the risks, a peace deal will at least end the current predicament, in which the international coalition fights an endless war for a stalemate.