EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Afghanistan after the Western withdrawal
, November 9, 2013
Twelve years after the synchronised al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and other targets in the United States, and the subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, Western nations are now drawing down their forces in anticipation of a complete withdrawal in 2014.
As Australia has been involved in military operations for the entire period, it was appropriate that the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and Opposition leader, Bill Shorten, should travel to Afghanistan, to thank the 1,000 Australian soldiers remaining on duty in the country, and to reflect on what Australia’s contribution had meant.
Mr Abbott said, “Australia’s longest war is ending, not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that is better for our presence here.”
Bill Shorten added, “‘There are no words to thank you for the sacrifice [you have made]. It will be a great homecoming for a tremendous job.”
This bipartisanship reflected well on both parties, which have supported the long and costly Australian commitment to Afghanistan since 2002.
There is now a great deal of speculation about whether the benefits of involvement outweigh the costs, and whether the effort was worth it.
To answer this question, we need to go back to September 2001. At the time of Osama bin Laden’s audacious attack on the United States, planned from secure bases hidden deep in Afghanistan, bin Laden wanted to trigger a war between the West, which he despised, and the Islamic world.
Afghanistan itself, then controlled by the extremist Taliban regime, was a safe haven for terrorists, including bin Laden and his organisation. It was also a source of destabilisation for neighbouring Pakistan, a country of 180 million people, which was far more important than Afghanistan strategically and economically.
The Western alliance, with support from the United Nations, was able to overthrow the Taliban regime; but since 2002 the Taliban has waged a guerrilla war against the “invaders”, capitalising on the Islamic fundamentalists’ hostility towards the West, and the traditional hostility of Afghans towards foreigners, which was expressed against the British in the 19th century and the Soviet Union in the 20th, as well as against neighbouring Pakistan.
The Taliban campaign has inflicted immense misery on the Afghan people, and a very high cost in lives and treasure on the West. It has not been successful in retaking control of the country, which, after the withdrawal, is likely to descend into a collection of tribal fiefdoms controlled by warlords.
If the aim of Western intervention was to create a modern democracy, it has clearly failed. Afghanistan remains a feudal society where power is exercised principally through the gun.
If the aim was to defeat the Taliban militarily and install a better government, it has been a qualified success, with at least a recognisable government established with some degree of popular involvement, providing a level of security through the Afghan army and police, and delivering some basic government services, including more education, some infrastructure (including roads) and better health services.
The withdrawal of Western military forces will reduce (but not remove) one of the Taliban’s main propaganda points against the government of Hamid Karzai.
President Karzai will step down as President of Afghanistan next year, having completed his second five-year term. Elections will be held in April to elect his successor.
A residual Western military presence will be necessary to prevent the Taliban disrupting the election, but we can reasonably expect that the next government will continue the policies of the present administration.
One result of the Afghan war and the “Arab Spring” is that governments around the world are now well aware of the danger of extremists seizing control of countries in the Middle East, capitalising on a failure to provide education, health and jobs to an army of unemployed youth.
Not only Western governments, but also Russia and Pakistan, are conscious of the danger this presents to world peace and security.
Pakistan’s lawless North-West Frontier Province and the tribal areas along the Afghan border have long been areas of Taliban operation, which Pakistan has been unable to control.
It has provided the Taliban with safe havens from which to conduct military operations inside Afghanistan.
But it is no longer in Pakistan’s interests to have the Taliban back in control of Kabul.
The Russians, for their part, are also conscious that the Taliban could potentially destabilise nearby parts of Central Asia which fall within Russia’s sphere of influence, including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan.
The fact that all neighbouring countries are conscious of the danger of a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, and are willing to fight it, is perhaps the most important legacy of the Western intervention in 2001.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.
Front-cover photograph: Australian troops from Special Operations Task Group and their Afghan counterparts board a CH-47 Chinook aircraft ahead of a mission. © Department of Defence, Commonwealth of Australia.