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Two different places

2 Mar 2007
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Despite what the defence minister says, the most striking thing about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is how different they are, writes William Maley

BRENDAN NELSON has been having a rather rough time as Defence Minister. His is genuinely a portfolio in which loose lips sink ships, at least metaphorically. Last Thursday was quite a day for him. Not only did he create headlines with the statement that “there is no such thing as victory in Iraq,” he also attracted the ire of some veterans of the World War II campaign on the Kokoda Track with the assertion that “today we face something which is no less a risk to our culture, our values, our freedoms and way of life than was presented to us in 1942.”

This was, to put it mildly, a startling claim, not only because it reflected a profound misunderstanding of the existential threats Australia faced in 1942, but also because the Iraq conflict is a war of America’s and Australia’s choice in a way the Pacific war in 1942 certainly was not.

Partially buried by these dramatic utterances was another statement from Nelson on 22 February, this time in a doorstop interview, which attracted less attention but in a way deserved more. “The most important thing we’ve got to understand,” he claimed, “is that the same people that are causing all of the problems in Afghanistan are the same people that are causing problems in Iraq. We’re fighting the same people in two different places.”

Does Nelson truly believe this?

The most striking features of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are not their points of similarity, but their differences. A government that is blind to these differences risks badly botching its response to each country’s genuine but distinctive problems.

In both countries, the “enemy” forces defy simple description. Iraq is now enmeshed in a nasty civil war, a label that even the neo-conservative former US diplomat John Bolton is now prepared to use. However, its roots lie in a logic which should surprise no informed analyst.

Saddam Hussein’s regime saw a Sunni Muslim elite in a position of domination over a population which is about 60 per cent Shi’ite Muslims. The overthrow of Saddam held the promise of a permanent minority status for the Sunnis as a whole, and retribution against those Sunnis who had been Ba’ath Party members. The ill-considered de-Ba’athification decrees of the US-run Provisional Authority simply confirmed the fears of militant Sunnis, and drove them into classic patterns of “spoiler” behaviour. This was predictable.

It is cheaper and easier to be a wrecker than a builder, and the obvious targets for Sunni wreckers were members of the Shi’ite community. Leaders of the Shia of Iraq knowing that their numerical weight positioned them to benefit from electoral processes showed great patience in the face of both the Sunni spoiler tactics, and the inability of the coalition forces or the Iraqi Government to offer them protection. But eventually, their patience ran out, and Shi’ite militias lifted their own levels of activity, with some support from circles in the Shi’ite state of Iran. However, the impact of Iran’s support should not be exaggerated. A US National Intelligence Estimate in January 2007 concluded that “Iraq’s neighbours influence, and are influenced by, events within Iraq, but the involvement of these outside actors is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq’s internal sectarian dynamics.”

The confluence of the Sunnis’ spoiler behaviour, and the disgust of Shi’ites at the failure of the US and its local allies to protect Shi’ite interests, has produced a very complex nationalist underpinning for political violence: large numbers of both Sunnis and Shi’ites would like to see the Coalition leave. In a survey conducted last September by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, 71 per cent of respondents stated that they would like the Iraqi Government to ask the US-led forces to withdraw within a year. Some 78 per cent believed that the US military in Iraq was provoking more conflict than it was preventing, and 61 per cent approved of attacks on US-led forces. It is this reality the loss of confidence on the part of a large slice of the Iraqi population that makes the Coalition’s position so dire, much more than any threat from “terrorism.” Some Sunni terrorists with attachments to al-Qaeda have indeed found their way to Iraq, and engaged in spectacular acts of barbarity, but to treat Iraq as the “front line” in a “war on terror” is to misread Iraq’s complexities very badly.

It is rather Afghanistan that faces the main threat from globalised terrorism, and it is there that resources should be concentrated to halt al-Qaeda’s recrudescence. It is simply mind-boggling that the US blundered off into Iraq before ensuring that al-Qaeda had been substantially obliterated in its hideouts on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Yet in contrast to what one finds in Iraq, the bulk of the Afghan population remains notably supportive of an international presence, and civil war has been avoided even though the population is also segmented on complex lines. The enemy here, while some use the expression “neo-Taliban,” is better seen as al-Qaeda in alliance with the old Taliban leadership, aided by a number of paid helpers doing its work in Afghanistan’s southern provinces, and by networks of supporters in Pakistan. Its core leaders sit nearby in Pakistan, and Pakistan provides a safe haven for its operations. Here is perhaps the key distinction between Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iraq conflict is largely generated by an internal dynamic. Afghanistan’s troubles are largely driven by an external terrorist force and by the foreign state from whose territory it is able to operate.

There is a role for Australia to play in Afghanistan, and an enhancement of Australia’s contribution there will enjoy bipartisan support. It is also time to put pressure on Pakistan, which is acting far more destructively in Afghanistan than Iran is in Iraq. But building wider support for a good cause like the Afghanistan commitment is not helped by linking it in any way to the Iraq fiasco. The people of Afghanistan deserve better.

William Maley is director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the ANU and author of Rescuing Afghanistan (0), published in APO’s Briefings series by UNSW Press. This article first appeared in the Canberra Times.

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Published year only: 
2007
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