We Must Leave Afghanistan ASAP

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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.

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.


The best guide to what the shape of things might be post-US withdrawal comes from Afgantsy, a brilliant book on the Soviet experience in Afghanistan by the former British diplomat Rodric Braithwaite. I have written of this book before, but not of its treatment of Afghanistan after the Soviets left.

Russian troops left in February 1989, but it took more than three years for Afghanistan's puppet government, led by Mohammed Najibullah, to fall. This is because the Russians gave Najibullah $3 billion in aid a year, as well as weapons and ammunition.

Najibullah, like Harmid Karzai today, had 300,000 troops at his disposal. As Braithwaite shows, these troops fought well and effectively against the mujaheddin while ever Soviet aid kept flowing. They did so in part because of the savagery of the mujaheddin. There was no incentive to surrender. When the mujaheddin finally took custody of Najibullah himself, they tortured and castrated him and hung his body in Kabul's square.

Rather than the mujaheddin causing the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that led to the cessation of aid to Najibullah that led to his defeat.

The pattern of the mujaheddin's military success was that the Pakistanis backed them in the south especially, the Pashtun area, while Najibullah's area of effective control gradually receded to Kabul and its surrounds.

After the mujaheddin warlords fell out with each other, the Pakistanis used the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan.

The basic pattern will surely reassert itself. The Americans will provide billions in continuing aid to Karzai or his successor, as well as perhaps some special forces as a Praetorian Guard, and will be able to maintain some kind of government in Kabul.

The Pashtun south will be dominated by Pakistani proxies and allies, some amalgam of the Taliban, perhaps marginally rebadged.

This basic pattern will play out whether we leave next month, next year or in 2014. We should get out as soon as possible and then, from a distance, try to help what friends or collaborators we have, in Afghanistan and, much more importantly, Pakistan.

The US now has the capability to strike any terrorist training camp that emerges in Afghanistan. That pretty much satisfies its strategic needs. In the meantime, Pakistan is going to hell.

It is abundantly obvious that the US and allied presence in Afghanistan is making things infinitely worse in Pakistan. The US understood an analogous problem a decade ago in relation to Saudi Arabia. US troops were necessary to secure it from Iraq, but the presence of US troops on Saudi soil was politically and socially unsustainable. So the US withdrew before the US-Saudi relationship fell into absolute crisis.

This all points to a long-term need to engage Pakistan, on economic reform and, above all, on keeping its nuclear weapons safe. Australia does this now by giving aid to Pakistan and training its soldiers in Australia.

But surely this is completely unacceptable while the Pakistani military is assisting the terrorists who murder Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Only after we leave Afghanistan can we decently engage the Pakistani military. Otherwise, we are helping an institution that helps others to kill our soldiers. Whatever the strategic imperatives, that price is too high.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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