Afghanistan: Keep up the War on Terror at its Source
Afghanistan: Keep up the War on Terror at its Source
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan
The Taliban’s Neighbourhood and Regional Diplomacy with Afghanistan
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Afghanistan: Keep up the War on Terror at its Source

Afghanistan is half a world away from Australia. Yet Australian troops are deploying in one of that country's most remote and violent provinces, a region where militants are launching increasingly brazen attacks in an effort to drive the international community out. It is highly likely Australian troops will suffer casualties in the coming months. So why are they there?

The answer is simply because what happens in Afghanistan is of vital interest to Australia. The effort to rebuild this country is about international - and Australian - security. In a world of globalised terror, if we don't challenge extremism at its source, it comes to us.

Failed states provide havens for extremist training camps. As the International Crisis Group has documented in the past, many of the terrorists that planned and carried out the Bali and Jakarta bombings were trained in Afghanistan during its decades of conflict and instability.

And there are the social costs. Millions of Afghanis fled during those decades, becoming refugees around the world, with thousands making their way to Australia. It is in Australia's interest that Afghanistan becomes a stable and sustainable state - one that does not export terrorism or refugees.

Despite the recent gloomy headlines, not all the news from Afghanistan is bad. The past five years have brought some very significant achievements. There is a popularly elected president and parliament, a Supreme Court and a publicly debated constitution. Five million children have returned to school.

But the sheer scale of the violence has jolted the West into realising that it took its eye off the ball, and that the gains made so far are fragile. There have been more than 2000 deaths so far this year, roughly one-third of them civilians, one-third anti-government forces and one-third local security forces. More than 70 foreign troops have lost their lives.

A large part of the problem is that, until now, southern Afghanistan was left to fester. International troops sent to enforce the peace were confined first to Kabul and only gradually rolled out elsewhere, and to the safest areas first.

In the absence of security and development in the south, popular disillusionment and discontent were inevitable, energising anti-government actors such as the Taliban, including both cross-border and local elements. NATO's southward expansion could stem the rot, but this will be a tough mission. Uruzgan, the province where Australian and Dutch troops are now deploying, had seen only a couple of hundred American troops before, so a robust international security presence could challenge these extremists.

With the lives of Australian soldiers on the line, Canberra must urgently reassess policies towards Pakistan. Afghanistan's most important neighbour has been a two-faced ally in this war, arresting some al-Qa'ida members yet allowing the Taliban to regroup and launch attacks from its territory.

In addition to the Taliban, Australian troops will confront many other groups that oppose central government control over the province and the rule of law, including those involved in the booming drugs industry: many of them government officials. Drug lords and abusive power-holders, having no wish to see security and stability threaten the culture of impunity they enjoy, act as spoilers. Fighters' ranks are swelled by the disenfranchised in a political set-up that has seen one tribe promoted over all others in Uruzgan.

As the NATO-led forces roll out in the south, the response of such elements has been to try to break the domestic political will of the troop-contributing nations, such as Canada and Britain, by launching ferocious attacks, including suicide bombings, on newly arrived troops. The Australian forces can expect the same.

All of this makes it vital that Australian troops have highly capable political advisers who do not see the mission simply in terms of good guys and bad guys but understand the complex dynamics, and under the security umbrella of international foreign forces can work on building the end goal of a stable state.

We have to understand that this is a long-term effort. This is not a fight in which the last Taliban or al-Qa'ida supporter will be shot, allowing foreign forces to head home. The international community will need to be in Afghanistan for many years to help the national and local administrations establish their credibility and capabilities, and earn the trust of a disillusioned people.


Former Senior Analyst, South Asia
Former Deputy President and Chief Operating Officer

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