We Must Leave Afghanistan ASAP

By Greg Sheridan

US, NATO and Australian policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan is now disastrous and urgently needs reversing. We must find a new road or we are headed for a much bigger strategic mess than we have ever imagined until now.

The problem results from a complete misalignment of allied strategy with allied interests.

Afghanistan is a desperately unhappy, violent nation of 29 million people with only one strategic consequence -- it once sheltered al-Qa'ida and terrorist training camps.

Pakistan is a critical nation of 180 million people with the world's fifth largest nuclear arsenal. It is, with China, the greatest source of nuclear weapons proliferation in the modern world. It is increasingly radicalised. Islamist extremism is on the march there and it is now the likeliest place where terrorists might get hold of a nuclear device.

Allied strategy is focused on Afghanistan when it should be focused on Pakistan. The dangers the West faces in Pakistan are vastly greater than those in Afghanistan.

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Our strategy now is not only ineffective, it is beginning to unravel in a profoundly dangerous way.

At the weekend, the US conducted a drone strike and gun battle on Pakistani soil that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead. It's still unclear exactly what happened, but the strike was probably intended to hit terrorists.

As a result, the Pakistanis have ordered a lot of CIA personnel out of the country, closed NATO's overland supply routes into Afghanistan and announced they will boycott next week's UN conference in Bonn on the future of Afghanistan. It hardly needs saying that an international conference on Afghanistan without Pakistan is a sick farce.

Also, right now, a series of Iranian nuclear facilities are suffering huge explosions. I have no inside knowledge on this, but surely these explosions are the work of either the Americans or the Israelis and demonstrate the extreme danger Washington and Jerusalem see in Iran's bid to acquire nuclear weapons.

Our utterly doomed bid to construct a democratic, pro-Western Afghanistan is costing us huge amounts of money and allied lives, not least 32 Australian servicemen, and is actually making the long-term strategic outlook worse.

Opinion polls now show massive popular Pakistani hatred of America, with the US for the first time eclipsing India as the country most Pakistanis see as a threat.

In a moral sense, this is not the US's fault. I do not condemn the US, with Australian help, for going after terrorists. But never have so many billions, and so many allied lives, been sacrificed so counter-productively. The strategy is not only not working, it could be leading to disaster in Pakistan.

There is now no chance of allied strategy succeeding in Afghanistan. The Afghan army is substantially based on the old Northern Alliance and has few southern Pashtuns in its ranks.

The Pashtuns are the biggest ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pashtun insurgents in the Taliban and the Haqqani network receive extensive, continuing support from Pakistan. This should inform our sense of what Afghanistan will look like when allied troops have withdrawn.

The opposition's Julie Bishop echoed a commonly held view last week when she said the allies must not repeat the Russian mistake of completely abandoning Afghanistan after military withdrawal.

In fact, the Russians did no such thing.

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Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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