Parliamentary Library Vital Issues Seminar—Australia’s role and commitment in Afghanistan

Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler depicting the arrival of assistant surgeon, William Brydon, at Jalalabad on 13 January 1842.
This seminar, held on 20 October 2010, featured distinguished speakers Major General Jim Molan AO DSC and Mr Geoffrey Barker who provided contrasting perspectives on Australia’s continued involvement in Afghanistan. The seminar was chaired by Senator Russell Trood.

Major General Jim Molan (Retd)

MAJGEN Molan presented a speech entitled ‘Flying in the face of history, graveyard of empires’. MAJGEN Molan commented that Afghanistan is arguably the most invaded and occupied nation on the planet and that contrary to popular belief not all of these invasions have failed! He noted, however, that the difference between previous conflicts and now is that the objective of the current war is not to occupy Afghanistan but to ‘give the Afghan people some breathing space’ to develop their own political systems.

MAJGEN Molan stated that the original reasons for our involvement in Afghanistan are no longer as important as what we can achieve and how we do it. He asserted that our self-interest is still served by removing one safe-haven for terrorist groups and promoting greater regional stability. He said the war will be won with good leadership, a good plan, and adequate resourcing. However, he also stated that it is the Afghan people who must ultimately win the conflict, not the coalition of nations that comprise the interventionist forces. MAJGEN Molan also highlighted what he believed to be the negative humanitarian and security ramifications of any premature withdrawal.

MAJGEN Molan addressed a number of issues that he believes tend to derail discussions about the war in Afghanistan. The ‘derailing questions’ and MAJGEN Molan’s responses to them were:
  • the notion that Afghanistan is the ‘graveyard of empires’—this is not so 
  • we should never try to impose Western values on the Afghan people—we are not 
  • there is no military solution—no one has ever claimed that there is 
  • there are too many military personnel and not enough civilians—without the military, the civilians would be killed 
  • we have been there for nine years and have not won—Afghanistan was a two year war extended by poor decision-making and is still capable of a positive outcome, and  
  • our military commanders are not asking for more resources—we might not need more resources for our current task of training and mentoring, but this task is insufficient for our overall mission to be a success.
The last dot point is the crucial one for MAJGEN Molan—Australia’s military role is too narrow and excludes the conduct of offensive activities other than by Australian Special Forces. He believes that coalition forces must reduce the Taliban threat or the Afghan National Army (ANA) will not survive once the coalition withdraws, but he argued that more troops and resources are needed to achieve this objective. He also argued that not enough is being done to protect the local population.

On the issue of Pakistan, MAJGEN Molan believes that Pakistan’s failure to fully cooperate does not mean that we will fail. He noted that the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, recently stated that the Afghan/Pakistan border remains the ‘epicentre of terrorism’ and that we should expect a major offensive by Pakistan against terrorist safe-havens in the future. However, success in Afghanistan, MAJGEN Molan noted, does not hinge on Pakistan.

Geoffrey Barker

Mr Barker began by stating that he is a foreign and security policy realist of a ‘Machiavellian and Hobbesian disposition’. As he asserted in his article of 30 August in the Australian Financial Review, it is not clear why Australia is in Afghanistan and how we plan to leave. He believes that Afghanistan presents no threat to Australia’s security. His view is:
  • the war is unwinnable
  • the Afghan Government is irredeemably corrupt and incompetent 
  • the current approach of talking with the Taliban undermines the fight; it basically says that Karzai has ‘run up the white flag’ 
  • al Qaeda has gone on to establish themselves in other safe-havens such as Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan 
  • threats from terrorism are increasingly ‘home-grown’, and should we succeed in Afghanistan, many would still rebel, and 
  • we cannot destroy the Taliban or al Qaeda. On one similar point to MAJGEN Molan, Mr Barker argued that Pakistan is the real issue—we are fighting the wrong war in the wrong place.
Mr Barker pointed out that despite a substantial numerical advantage, the ISAF nations and the Afghan forces cannot seem to overwhelm the 13 000 strong Taliban force. He said that the Dutch, Canadians and the UK have already decided the war is unwinnable and are getting out. Many people argue that Australia’s major motivation for being in Afghanistan is to uphold the alliance with the United States. Mr Barker argued that Australia’s record in supporting the US in its wars has been impeccable but the US does not expect Australia to get involved in all of its wars. Other countries closely aligned with the US have not supported certain US wars and their relations with the US have not been damaged (for example, the UK refused to get involved in the Vietnam War).

He disagrees with the argument put by the former Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy, that priority should be given to increasing the civilian presence in Afghanistan. Mr Barker believes this would require an expanded military effort to ensure the protection of civilian staff.

He asked what a successful Afghan society should look like, and claimed that no one knows—but that we are unlikely to get a society that reflects ours.

For further details about the Parliamentary Library’s Vital Issues Seminars and Lectures, or to listen to this seminar in its entirety (including the question and answer session), go to the Parliamentary Library’s website.

(post co-authored by David Watt)

(Image: Elizabeth Butler, The Remnants of an Army, 1879, sourced from


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