Australia’s strategic posture after Afghanistan
24 Aug 2021|

Canberra, we have a problem. The collapse of the Afghan government and security forces; the victory of the Taliban; the abandonment of Afghans, particularly women; the unruly scramble to evacuate; and the apparently limited consultation have left allies, already sceptical of America’s reliability and intent, shaken.

President Joe Biden’s argument that his hands were tied by the ceasefire his predecessor Donald Trump negotiated with the Taliban doesn’t excuse the failure of execution. Greater weight should have been placed on an orderly withdrawal precisely because of Trump’s failings, and especially his earlier abandonment of the Kurds.

The consequences are deeper than uncertainty about whether the United States was willing to stay the course. It is a question less of persistence—after all, the US and its allies persisted in Afghanistan for 20 years—and more of competence and capacity. The US and allies were insufficiently clear on the objectives and misunderstood the complexity and effort required, especially on the neglected civilian side of governance, society and economy.

A case could certainly be made that America’s prolonged engagement in Central Asia was a distraction from the greater strategic threat of China and Russia. In this line of thinking, the US withdrawal staunches the bleeding of capability, resources and goodwill in a relatively inconsequential part of the world and in the face of a pandemic and a rising peer competitor.

That argument assumes that the US withdrawal will lead to greater engagement in the Indo-Pacific, and on fronts countering Russia and China. True, the administration is in its first year. But while Biden’s March 2021 Interim national security strategic guidance talks a good game, there’s little evidence yet of any reorientation. As ASPI’s Peter Jennings has argued, we need to see a rebuilding of an American military geared to but outlasted by years of insurgent warfare.

More, we need to see a step up in terms of rebuilding the US as a power—economically, technologically and politically. There’s a considerable amount of work of to be done to rebuild America’s strategic centre after the storming of the Capitol on 6 January.

Indeed, worryingly, the fear is that this will be only the first of several extrications for the US while it focuses on its own internal problems. Isolation would leave the world a much darker, more dangerous place not only for allies like Australia, but for the US as well.

If this proves true, allies will take the message that they can’t rely on American assistance or persistence. Already, several commentators—and former prime ministers—have echoed the need for Australia to become less dependent on the US and more self-reliant. But there have been few willing to address what that would mean, in terms of Australia’s strategic posture, the ANZUS alliance, Australia’s role and its relationships in the region, plus capability and cost.

Australia’s strategic posture is heavily bound up with the US alliance. From that arrangement—particularly its intelligence capabilities and military armament—stem much of Australia’s confidence and own capacity. In turn, Australia offers a reputable partner, some intelligence insight, and a southern anchor to the US presence in the broader Asia–Pacific. And yes, there is much to be said for shared values and a common desire for a liberal, democratic, free-market, rules-based order.

A more self-reliant Australia could offer greater value to the United States, were Australia able and willing to exert its power in the region to mutual ends.

Practicalities, however, intrude. Australia has only a small military, if one capable in niche areas and one that can usefully support larger US efforts, as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Major Australian bases are distant from key locations, whether key trade routes through the Southeast Asian archipelago, facilities such as Subic Bay, Guam or Singapore, and flashpoints such as the Taiwan Strait. Its own supply lines are highly vulnerable, both geographically and as a net importer of technology and manufactured products.

Over time, Australia has lost some defence capabilities—such as the F-111 fighter bombers—that could help it exert a more strategic presence. Nowadays, major capability relies, perhaps too heavily, on our submarines.

A more self-reliant Australia would mean a significant technology transfer program and much faster growth of independent long-range strike capabilities. And even then, the capacity of the Australian economy to contribute to and support such a program is questionable. Australia has not positioned itself for success or built the flexibility and fecundity needed to support a technologically self-reliant defence posture.

Australia has little by way of a high-technology industry or manufacturing capability, including of the sort that helps build a pipeline of engineering talent.

The shipbuilding program is emblematic of the inherent issues. Local talent is one deep in critical areas, risking burnout of key people. Engineering and manufacturing equipment and expertise are imported. The ‘smarts’—intellectual property, technical knowhow and key data—are generated and often retained overseas or beamed back via internet-connected machinery to head offices. Major contractors are foreign primes, with local companies bidding for subsidiary work. Spillovers into the broader economy, government business, and even the research sector are limited, as the project is kept tightly within national security bounds.

Over the years, Australia’s economy has narrowed rather than broadened, and the economic complexity that creates knowledge and technology is diminishing. Government policies continue to neglect rather than nurture intellectual effort, including in science, technology, engineering and maths.

So, not only is the US unlikely to transfer the technologies needed for Australia to increase its self-reliance, but Australia itself lacks the base to build, maintain and grow such capability. In that Australia has not changed—and arguably has gone backwards—over the past 50 years.

Australia’s neighbours are likely to look askance at a more self-reliant posture, which in the past has been closely tied to a defence-of-Australia doctrine. And without a clear exposition of interest and values, and the capability and competency to back it, such a stance is likely to invite further pressure from China.

That discussion has become harder with Australia’s posture in the Covid-19 pandemic—a hermit kingdom, shut away from the world, prone to a comfortable stagnation. In short, a more self-reliant path is both desirable and inevitable. But getting there successfully, while maintaining Australia’s liberal, democratic values and its security, will require us to accept that decades of free riding are over.