The West is not doing this. This column makes the argument that at least part of the reason for this is that our politicians are too interested in their own domestic agendas and re-election campaigns . . .
The tar baby
Nothing was left to chance. The atmospherics surrounding Barack Obama's visit here were all carefully choreographed from afar. Washington wasn’t going to leave anything to chance and Canberra – in particular, Julia Gillard's office – rushed in to assist with every detail.
That's why the diggers stood eight-deep in serried ranks behind a US president under stars and stripes alternating with draped flags bearing the Southern Cross. The Australian soldiers were, simply and casually, being used as a political prop. A pop-concert was put on beforehand to ensure a happy mood enveloped the hangar. Then the politicians swooped in and quickly did their thing before departing. A staged, manipulated event, the triumph of form over substance.
If you thought it was all about America's need to shore up support in the region, well, that's fine. That's exactly what the coverage suggested. It was, supposedly, all about them wooing us, a play in which Gillard had the role of blushing bride. But that doesn't mean that this was the real agenda driving the visit. The US doesn't need us. Not really. Obama's trip was hijacked for a domestic political agenda. It had far more to do with Gillard's need to place her own stamp on the Alliance, allowing her to 'own' it. The point of this was all about eliminating a political rival: not Tony Abbott but Kevin Rudd.
It worked a treat. Just as Labor’s swift move on Thursday to replace the Speaker has consolidated Labor's grip on Parliament. Obama's trip emphasised (in a way that nothing else could) that Gillard is now the “it" girl. Notice how invisible Rudd's become? Even his statement admitting Gillard bypassed him with her unilateral decision to sell uranium to India went virtually unnoticed. Except, perhaps, in Pakistan, but more of that shortly.
The PM acted here without bothering to even genuflect in the direction of Labor policy, which restricts sales to members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Party policy to have only three uranium mines is another logical absurdity; does this mean the PM will wake up one day and suddenly decide to abolish this clause as well?
The problem with Gillard's actions is not the unilateral nature of these decisions – the difficulty is rather that there's been no real explanation of any reasoning behind abrupt reversals in policy directions. And this is important, because it's difficult to discern any international strategy originating in her office. With the possible exception of attempts to sideline Rudd and ‘fall in’ behind the US, of course.
This absence of strategy became most critically apparent on Monday, when she gave a speech outlining the continuing problems in Afghanistan. It was nothing more than a simplistic analysis that proffered glib answers. It most certainly was not a genuine exploration of the current situation and realistic solutions that might return the region to some form of stability.
The speech was so far in lockstep with Washington that it's difficult not to conclude it represented nothing more than a “tit-for-tat" in return for the domestic bonus of Obama's visit. Unfortunately, America appears mired in this region with no discernible way out. The dysfunctional, corrupt Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, the seemingly unstoppable continuing surge of the Taliban and finally the utter deterioration of relations with Pakistan would appear to presage an overall strategic failure that we are rapidly becoming caught up in.
Afghanistan has become a tar-baby for the US. In this story the character Br'er Fox makes a pretty doll out of sticky tar to trap Br'er Rabbit. When the 'baby' fails to reply to a polite greeting, Rabbit begins punching it, but his arm sticks and is held tight by the tar.
"If you don't let me loose, I'll hit you again", Rabbit warns. He then uses his other hand to attack, but this becomes stuck as well. Then his legs. Finally his head, until Rabbit is stuck fast. The more Rabbit attempts to extricate himself, the more he becomes bound up in the problem, because his only answer is to keep doing more of the same thing.
The only workable solution for the Afghanistan problem is for the US to draw back and re-examine the fundamental causes of the ongoing crisis. Instead of assisting Washington to find new solutions, Canberra is now parroting America’s line. Perhaps that was the quid pro quo for Obama’s personal support for Gillard.
Bizarrely, at the same time as the PM was making her speech to parliament condemning Afghanistan, Defence Chief General Hurley was in Islamabad with other top-level intelligence officials. Given the massive tensions that are tearing away at the West's relationship with this country, it was an unusual time for her to be presenting one message to parliament while the senior delegation was actually attempting to engage with Pakistan. Separating the issues is impossible.
Pressures became apparent at recent, extraordinary, meeting between Pakistan's Military Chief General Kayani and US Joint Chief Admiral Mike Mullen in Seville, Spain. Although this has not formerly been reported, it’s understood increasing frustration between the two senior officers led to one of them leaping up from their chair and almost coming to physical blows with his counterpart. To suggest the relationship is “under pressure” is a massive understatement. Astonishingly, it’s understood that Pakistani officers have begun refusing opportunities to study at US Military institutions; a posting that would normally indicate the individual could expect promotion to the highest level. The mood amongst the elite in that country is rapidly becoming antagonistic towards America.
The point is that the US cannot afford this. Despite all its power, the world's superpower is quite simply not strong enough to enforce the result it desires in the region. As it is the US is spending $10 billion a month but failing to achieve its objectives. That's what makes this conflict so radically different Vietnam. At some point all wars end. This one is already causing the American budget to pointlessly haemorrhage. As well as representing a strategic failure, by the time the US departs it will be left with a crippling debt.
Admiral Mullen's frustration is perfectly understandable. It's born out of aggravation and irritation at perceived Pakistani encouragement for the insurgency. The trouble is that military action alone has been unable to produce a solution for Afghanistan. Equally understandably Islamabad wants to ensure a friendly (if not client) government in Kabul and it will never depart the region. It can outlast the superpower.
The strategic objectives of the two countries are not aligned. That's why Gillard chose the wrong horse when she decided to unequivocally back America. The decision to sell uranium to India simply drives home the depth of our commitment. It offers nothing to Pakistan. While that country feels excluded and that its representations are being ignored it will have no desire to participate in achieving a worthwhile solution.