From down under to Afghanistan

This continues my ongoing review of Hynek and Marton’s book on state-building in Afghanistan.

The chapter on Australia came packed with a bit of a surprise.  It begins by discussing how the Australians conducted operations jointly with the Dutch PRT in Uruzgan.

Wait…what?

You see, I just wrote about the Dutch chapter and for the life of me I didn’t recall reading something as seemingly important as a joint operation with another nation.  So, I went back and reviewed Sebastiaan Rietjens’ chapter.

Sure enough, it was there.  It just didn’t stick.  Although, to be fair, in a 20 page article the Australians are mentioned for less than one page.  I find it very interested to compare that article with the one written by Maley (and, in fact, I wonder if Hynek and Marton considered putting these chapters back to back).  While admittedly, the purpose of these chapters is to focus on national level activity I got the feeling that I was reading about two different missions here.

In the descriptions of the Australians’ mission, Rietjens describes it thus:

…the [Australians] primarily focused on construction works.  They were largely complementary to the Dutch units…as the PRT did not have construction capacity of its own, and the Dutch engineers were so limited in what they could do that they could seldom be tasked for construction works outside their compound.

The other issue that stuck out to me (in light of our most recent three ring political circus Republican candidate debate where people seemed to be making the claim that no one in the world ‘respected’ the U.S.) was just how valuable coalition partners viewed U.S. friendship.  As Maley points out quite succinctly in talking about Australia (and I suspect is just as applicable to much of the rest of the coalition), their strategic thinking was focused more on alliance relations than with Afghanistan.  The unwritten implication is that the former (if push came to shove) would trump the latter.

A brief focus on Dr. Michael Kelly as an important factor on the development of Australia’s approach to civil-military operations was quite valuable.  Having that triple crown of experience as a soldier, politician and director of aid agencies he apparently was in the position to leverage all three of those positions to build a comprehensive approach to places like Afghanistan.

PRTs don’t operate in a vacuum and even coalition partners can find themselves at cross purposes.  Maley points to tension between the Dutch and US Special Forces in Uruzgan over relying on legitimate local leaders versus those who can ‘get the job done’.  It’s unfortunate that this conversation still isn’t settled in 2011.  During OEF IV I can recall hearing about plans to marginalize local militias through a program designed to lure members away with promises of vocational training and other benefits.  At the same time there were plans designed to hire these same militia members to provide security.  The mixed messages did nothing to advance either security OR reconstruction and state building.

Maley makes an interesting observation about Obama’s decision in early 2009 to launch a ‘surge’ into Afghanistan with a decision to begin drawing down troop levels 18 months later.  That policy is indicative, according to Maley:

…that the views of allies count for very little in the kid of decision-making process that resulted in [that decision]

Keeping that assertion in mind, it’s worth considering if the desire by many coalition partners to curry favor with the U.S. is worthwhile or not.

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