Coalition ‘cannot win’ in Iraq or Afghanistan
By Graeme Dobell
Updated Sun Nov 18, 2007 1:25pm AEDT
One of Australia’s top defence experts says the United States-led coalition cannot win the conflicts in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
Professor Hugh White, the head of Canberra’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, has told the ABC’s Correspondents Report the coalition will eventually abandon Afghanistan.
He says the US cannot succeed in Iraq, but has no escape from the tragedy its invasion has created in the strategically important Gulf region.
“I think they’re very different situations,” he said.
“But the core difficulties we face in each case are somewhat similar, and that is that the resources that the West has available, and the timeframes over which we’re prepared to bring them to bear, are just way too small to make a difference to the really deep-seated security problems, political problems, social problems, that really underpin the crises in each place.”
Professor White says the war in Afghanistan takes in two very complex, interacting problems which need to be dealt with simultaneously.
“You have the problem of trying to establish, almost for the first time in history, a strong, stable government based in Kabul that can effectively govern the whole of Afghanistan,” he said.
“That’s a huge nation-building challenge by itself.
“Then on top of that you’ve got the challenge posed by the insurgency from the Taliban, particularly in the south-east of the country.
“I think the interaction of those two would require – if the West was to prevail – an effort 10 times the size of the one we’ve got at the moment, and lasting for a generation.
“I just don’t see the West being prepared to put in that kind of scale of effort.”
Professor White predicts that the West will eventually give up on the Afghanistan conflict.
“I think there’s a strong and, I think, understandable humanitarian concern about the fate of the people of Afghanistan themselves,” he said.
“But I think that after another three or five years of the sorts of problems and difficulties and casualties that Western countries have been taking in Afghanistan, if – as I strongly suspect – there’s no sign of progress, it will be very hard for publics not to start getting very sick of them, and very sick of the operation, and very hard for governments not to start slowly but surely withdrawing down the scale of the effort.”
He says handing Afghanistan back to the Taliban and Al Qaeda would be a significant setback, but Afghanistan isn’t actually central to the ‘war on terror’.
“The reason for that is really very simple,” he said.
“As we’ve seen in Pakistan, if Al Qaeda and its affiliates can’t operate in Afghanistan, they’ll operate somewhere else.
“So the idea that keeping Afghanistan out of the hands of the Taliban, for example, is somehow critical to winning the ‘war on terror’, it seems to presuppose that Al Qaeda can’t operate anywhere else, and we know that it can.”
Professor White says the US cannot win in Iraq, but nevertheless is unlikely to pull out.
“I think that’s the tragedy of the American position,” he said.
“I think they’re in the situation where the scale of resources that America has available, and the nature of the problems that it needs to deal with, simply preclude the United States achieving the kind of outcome that we all hope that we could find in Iraq – a stable government that controls the whole territory that governs more or less justly in the interests of all Iraqis, and so on.
“That just seems to be, to me, beyond reach.
“And even though… there may be, as some reports suggest, short-term improvements in security, for example, I think the chances of that leading to a long-term political evolution that would achieve our long-term objectives is very low.”
He says it would be “immensely difficult” for the US to to withdraw from Iraq.
“The reason for that is that unlike Afghanistan, for example, Iraq is absolutely central to core American strategic interests, and in particular, it’s central to the task of stability in the Persian Gulf,” he said.
“The key risk that the United States faces if it withdraws from Iraq is that Iran’s influence in Iraq and then into the southern shore of the Gulf – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and so on – would expand very rapidly.
“And the US – defining Iran, as it does, as a kind of inevitable adversary for American interests and policy – I think will be very reluctant to run the risk that a US withdrawal from Iraq would in effect, liberate Iran to dominate the Gulf.”
US resigned to staying in Iraq
Professor White says no matter who becomes US president in January 2009 – a Republican or a Democrat – the US is probably going to stay in Iraq for another four years, despite the high numbers of casualties.
“I think you can already see that in the way in which the debate over Iraq is evolving in the run-up to the US presidential election next year,” he said.
“I think one could say that 2006 was the year in which Americans realised that they couldn’t win in Iraq. 2007 has been the year in which they’ve realised that they can’t get out.
“Even the Democrat candidates are acknowledging that there’ll need to be substantial US forces in Iraq for many years to come.”
He says two aspects underlie that realisation.
“The first is that although Americans, of course, are very distressed by the level of casualties that they’re taking in Iraq, by the costs, the financial costs of Iraq, I think they are now kind of factored into the political debate there,” he said.
“Secondly I think the US confronts what is in fact quite a characteristic problem, and that is weighing the known costs and risks of keeping doing what we’re doing, against the unknown costs and risks of doing something radically different.
“For Americans, terrible though it seems, the costs, including the costs in lives of staying in Iraq, are known and understood and are bearable.
“Whereas the costs and risks of leaving Iraq and potentially destabilising the whole Gulf with immense consequences for oil supplies and so on, and the risk that America might then have to go back in again, in a even more costly kind of operation, I think all of that makes the option, sad though as it is, of staying engaged in Iraq in the long-term look like the less scary choice.”