Australia is leaving the Afghanistan war well before the war is over. This is one of the Vietnam echoes in our experience of Afghanistan. Both were coalition wars fought by Australia with a central focus on securing the alliance with the US.
As with Vietnam, so with Afghanistan; Australia departs a disastrous war without any damage to the alliance. Indeed, this time Australia withdraws with far fewer doubts about the alliance than last time. After Vietnam, Australia had to rethink its defence doctrine based on the new reality that never again could it expect US ‘boots on the ground’ in Southeast Asia. Australia’s grand self-defence rethink after Vietnam was driven by that ‘no-more-GIs’ understanding.
This time, the new alliance dimension is the US Marines in Darwin, while the US Navy and Air Force look afresh at the attractions of Western and northern Australia. The Australian fear after Vietnam was being left home alone; now the US is taking up residence.
The long-expressed perception of Australia as a natural ally was enhanced by Australia’s contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the natural ally perception plays some part in Washington eyeing Australian real estate as an easy and early part of the rebalance. But Australia’s marginal contribution in Iraq and Afghanistan has no role in the US decision to rebalance to Asia; Washington isn’t on the pivot as an expression of thanks to Australia for services rendered.
The language of the alliance is of an unbroken covenant, but the hard political reality is always of the need to decide, choose and commit. The difference is between seeing the alliance as an unbroken continuum or thinking of it, instead, as a shape-shifting relationship driven by the specific choices of a given moment.
The wars that are the milestones of this relationship obviously have some common characteristics (the continuum) but they always present as turning points or hurdles or leaps of faith or steps in the dark (the choices). The ANZUS treaty is a legal contract that isn’t self-activating or automatic. Always, the alliance calls for an act of will, a moment of choice at a particular moment.
At crucial points, the alliance has ‘sliding door’ moments. The consistent element in Australian thinking—the prime directive—is the desire to go through the door as close as possible to the US, no matter how different the other factors involved. This is a recipe for following, not diverging.
The question of how past performance in the alliance will influence the future of the alliance is a Canberra perennial. The realist/cynical view is well-expressed in a letter the then Cabinet Minister, John Gorton, sent to his Prime Minister, Harold Holt, in December 1966, as Australia readied to lift its Vietnam contribution from a combat battalion to a task force of 8000 men. Australia should make ‘a contribution’ and have ‘a presence’, Gorton wrote, but the size of the contribution was irrelevant, so long as it was ‘not contemptible.’
As Gorton’s biographer, Ian Hancock, summarised the argument: ‘It was plainly ‘absurd’ to suggest that an extra two or three thousand men would affect the decision-making of the present or of some future American administration’. Little wonder that Peter Edwards commented in the official history of the Vietnam War that, as Prime Minister, Gorton ‘oscillated uncertainly between forward defence and continental defence, between hawkish reaffirmation and dovish initiatives’.
Australia’s alliance habit is towards big rhetoric while sending a small force. The realist/cynical perspective runs through much that Australia did and did not do—and the size of what Australia contributed—in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The aim was to make ‘a contribution’ and have ‘a presence’ that honoured the alliance while minimising the military and political burden.
John Howard managed to design—and luck plus good soldiering delivered—a ‘no casualties’ alliance contribution in Iraq. By being an early, enthusiastic and voluble volunteer, Howard shared the early-mover, closest-ally kudos with Britain, while being able to argue that the size of the Australian force and the needs of Australia’s own region must guide the alliance contribution. Australia certainly did the time in Afghanistan. But the limits Australia imposed on what it did could be symbolised by Canberra’s refusal to accept the command job in Uruzgan province until the withdrawal phase was in view.
Until 2010, Uruzgan was under Dutch command. When the Dutch withdrew, Australia refused to accept command, instead providing the deputy to a US commander. In announcing the decision to take the command position in 2012, Defence Minister Stephen Smith said circumstances in Uruzgan were very different from what they had been in June 2010 and that ‘taking on the leadership now in Uruzgan puts us in a better position to manage the transition process’. The transition was the argument made, but it was becoming hard for Australia to refuse command when the bulk of the troops in Uruzgan were Australians, joined by several hundred American troops and contingents from Singapore and Slovakia.
The Uruzgan commander job issue is an example of a recurring habit of mind in Canberra: when Australia speaks of military operations and the alliance, one of the key drivers is some explicit or tacit version of ‘alliance management’. In Vietnam it was expressed as the ‘insurance policy’ requirement of contributing now to ensure future benefit. Maybe Australia is making progress if it has moved from just paying the price to some attempt at management. Yet, while the language has shifted, the sentiments don’t seem too far apart.
Alliance management, ultimately, is about where the weight of the alliance falls. The next column will look at the emerging demands of Australia’s alliance addiction.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.