What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Of carpentry and state-building in Uruzgan

MStFB Uruzgan Series update
"Are the people of Oruzgan… to be transformed by a replumbed hospital or a four-week course in carpentry delivered by an alien force of heavily armed infidels?" Don't start wondering, this question was asked by Australian scholar Hugh White, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, about the Australian Reconstruction Task Force's work in Uruzgan (which is more about construction than about reconstruction, as it is ironically pointed out in a video I'm about to link to). Professor White later on added as a conclusion: "Sadly, the ADF's mission in Tarin Kowt will most probably fail." (The Age, August 13, 2007.)
In this post here I first of all have to say special thanks to Andy who drew my attention to some more of David Axe's videos from Afghanistan that have been uploaded by David Axe to You Tube during the last couple of days. Check out especially two of these videos (for they are relevant to this post), to see pictures of the carpentry training that Hugh White is talking about (Parts one and two). (I'm not embedding the videos here, because it is David Axe's work after all. So just right-click the links and open the video pages in a new window.) The people who attend the four-week carpentry course, technically speaking, are only meant to get as much as a basic beginners' course.
Professor Hugh White is criticising more than just the carpentry course, however. And he doesn't pull any punches. He hits straight at the standard Australian line that I've quoted a number of times on this site, too. That if Australian soldiers are sent into harm's way, they should be sent with a meaningful purpose (as the Australian Defence Forces argue they are). "Before we risk the lives of young Australians by sending them there to build roads and hospitals we need to ask whether this will make any real difference," says Hugh White.
As to where he sees such a meaningful purpose possibly, well, he mentions Pakistan. That's the "real epicentre of extremist terrororism", and so the war is fought "in the wrong country", he says. Apparently with an alternative war in Pakistan in mind, Professor White is asking: "How exactly, is any of the work now being done in and around Tarin Kowt meant to defeat the Taliban, strengthen the Kabul Government or sway political, religious and social alignments in this part of Afghanistan?" Well, since I don't think the alternative of a war in Pakistan is feasible at this point, I have to say that I find the latter question rather unfortunate, in having within it as implicit content that what should be the explicitly asked question rather. So the critical question in the Uruzgan context could rather be, how is the work not being done outside the direct vicinity of Tarin Kowt, Deh Rawod and a few other places going to strengthen the position of the Afghan government in Uruzgan? (And a question then is, are the efforts of the Australian Special Operations Task Group, sent to carry out disruption operations in areas outside the Uruzgan development ink blots, enough for us to hope that in the foreseeable future there will be a chance to extend (re)construction work into those areas?)
I'm saying that talking about a war in (against?) Pakistan, the way Professor White does, might suggest that since that is not possible there's no point in trying in Afghanistan at all. But is that really the only alternative? Is it alright that Afghanistan be not given the chance of a serious strategy? The level of troops in the "south" could/should be increased, and the level of aid to the "north" could/should be increased (treat this north-south dichotomy as only vaguely indicative of the actual geographical distribution of stability). Pakistan's tribal areas would certainly remain a problem. But if the West would show a clear determination for success in state-building in Afghanistan, which it is not showing at the moment, even such people who lend support to cross-border militancy, in the Pashtun areas, from within Pakistan's security sector would perhaps feel it's not worth the investment that much. The re-launching of the Taliban was something that set a string of events into motion which cannot be stopped at the push of a button, as the current insurgency draws as a resource on trans-national/global networks, but still the insurgency would be worse off without the sort of support (or with less such support) that I've just mentioned.
I wouldn't think of course that Professor White isn't aware of this. He's rather taking the current lack of public support in troop-contributing countries as a fixed constraint, and adapting his analysis to that factor. But I'm not so sure that it is that fixed after all. As Hugh White himself said elsewhere: "For governments and leaders around the world, looking for opportunities to demonstrate the strength of their commitment to the war on terror, Afghanistan has always been the more politically acceptable option. (...) I think that both Government and Opposition find themselves in a situation where they're deploying Australian forces not because they expect that those forces will be able to achieve a significant strategic result, but because they find them necessary as a piece of political symbolism." (ABC, April 11, 2007.) If the greater political acceptability/political correctness of the Afghanistan mission wouldn't have been tied directly to the idea that it's also a lot cheaper and demands less sacrifice of any kind, maybe politicians wouldn't see the "obstacle" of public opinion as so insurmountable by now. (Although that is just a guess from me regarding the potential flexibility of intersubjective consensus in today's democracies.)
But anyway, currently, when Australia seems to be the country for the job in Uruzgan after a full or a partial Dutch pull-out likely coming either in mid-2008 or mid-2009, I maintain my view that one should rather be asking critical questions about the work not being done, and not (only) about the work that is being done.


fm said...

Professor White is a central figure in Australian Defence politics. He is a former Secretary of the Department (the most senior civil position) who was 'retired' about five years ago by the present Conservative government. In the shorthand of Australian defence strategy, Professor White is an advocate of the "Defence of Australia" doctrine which is at odds to the present, more expeditionary outlook adopted by the Conservatives. As such, Professor White is something of a contrarian. Just about anything the government does will be criticised by Professor White, and lately, his criticisms have become a bit shrill. The newspaper that printed his story (The Age) isn't a fan of the government either, so that's why he gets the exposure (about monthly, it seems). I wouldn't say he is taken too seriously by many Australian defence observers, but obviously that's my own subjective opinion.

I guess what I'm saying is that some of his commentary has an element that is political, rather than serious strategy.

fm said...

Correction to my last: Professor White was formally Deputy Secretary for Strategy and Intelligence in the Australian Department of Defence.