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The unwinnable war in Afghanistan

The funeral of Australian soldier Marcus Case, killed in Afghanistan in June. AAP

In an interview conducted in Kabul on Monday June 6, perhaps not coincidentally the 67th anniversary of the Normandy D-Day landings, the top US military commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, was asked by ABC (US) “World News” anchor Diane Sawyer whether the US was winning the now decade-long war in Afghanistan.

Petraeus replied: “We’re really loathe to use this very loaded term of winning or losing.”

Nothing could more clearly demonstrate the extent to which the meaning of victory has changed in the sixty six years since the end of World War II than this remark.

It is almost inconceivable that Generals Dwight D Eisenhower or George Patton in Europe, or Admiral Chester Nimitz in the Pacific, (or their enemy counterparts) would have entertained the sentiment uttered by Petraeus.

In 1951, when he was being removed from command for advocating expansion of the stalemated Korean War into China Five-Star General Douglas MacArthur curtly and memorably replied, “There is no substitute for victory.”

He was simply stating the strategic philosophy that had governed the U.S. military since 1775.

The goal of the Allied powers in World War II was clear and unequivocal: the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers, Germany and Japan, and victory would not be attained, or declared, until that goal had been achieved.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during that same Kabul joint-interview with Petraeus told Sawyer: “We have not had a declared victory in a war, with the possible exception of the first Gulf War, since World War II. It is the phenomenon of modern conflict.”

The goals and nature of war have changed almost beyond recognition since 1945. World War II was fought with massed infantry troops, large naval fleets and the use of massive air power. Casualties ran into the several millions on both sides.

The war in Afghanistan is a guerilla war against an insurgency, the Taliban, fought on the allied US and NATO side, including an Australian task force, primarily with units of marines and special forces, small patrols, helicopters, and unmanned drones. Casualties are (thankfully) often numbered in single digits after a military operation.

When discussed, victory in the war in Afghanistan has been variously defined as that point at which the activities of the Taliban have been disrupted, their capabilities degraded, and control of population areas denied to them.

This is generally meant to mean victory will be achieved when the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) is judged capable of maintaining law and order and controlling Taliban forces, and coalition troops can be withdrawn.

President Obama has committed his administration to begin reducing the US contingent of 100,000 troops from July 2011. British Prime Minister David Cameron has indicated that 2014 is a fixed date for complete withdrawal of British troops. The Australian government is committed to “staying the course” until 2014.

The assassination of Osama bin Laden by US special forces on May 2 was seen as a significant event in reaching the goals described above, and gave renewed impetus to impatient public and legislative demands for a rapid drawdown of allied troops — the so called “declare victory and withdraw” strategy.

The economic cost of the war — currently running at $10 billion a month in military expenditure and $320 million a month in development aid — has added further urgency to these calls.

Military leaders in the US the UK and in Australia, as their predecessors have in all the wars fought since World War II, call for a continuation of the military operations.

Secretary of Defense Gates insists that it is too early to end the combat in Afghanistan. He told combat troops early this week: “We’ve made a lot of headway but we have a ways to go.”

Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston was reported on June 8 as stating that it would make no sense for Australia to bring its troops home at this point, as the Taliban were on the back foot and their capacity to wage war was being severely disrupted.

It is important to keep in mind that after winning the civil war that followed the expulsion of Soviet troops in the late 1980s, the Taliban sheltered al Qaeda and refused to hand over bin Laden after the September 2001 attack on the US.

The reason the US entered Afghanistan was to locate and capture (or kill) bin Laden, punish the Taliban for harboring him and, if possible, to destroy al Qaeda in Afghanistan. With the death of bin Laden that task has now been partially completed.

But the war has turned into something wider — as all wars tend to do — the reconstruction of Afghanistan into an as yet undefined post-Taliban nation. How long that task will take is unknown.

The military top brass believe continued military pressure will force the Taliban to negotiate, and to reconcile with the Karzai government. However, it is hard to see how such reconciliation would be achieved by continued military operations which would result in more deaths and injuries—the majority of whom would be Afghan civilians.

So far, the war has cost the lives of 1534 American troops, 364 of their British counterparts and 27 Australians. From a narrowly Australian point of view, there is little evidence that our interests would be better protected, or that Australia’s security would be better protected by a continuation of the conflict, or indeed that we have made Australia a safer place by resorting to armed conflict in the first place.

The ANA is made up mainly of non-Pashtuns from the north, west and east of the country. The Taliban, made up predominately of Pashtuns — the largest ethnic group in the country — from the south and south-east, believe they would easily defeat Karzai’s ANA following a Western coalition troop withdrawal, especially as they could rely on support from Pakistan.

Afghanistan would then be back where it was before 9/11/2001, with catastrophic consequences for the Afghan people. To regard such likely circumstances after ten years of futile combat as victory would indeed be an illusion.

No wonder, then, that Petraeus is reluctant to use the term.

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