We can’t set and forget Afghanistan strategy

DEFENCE is the wrong department to co-ordinate a whole-of-government approach.

SO we’re having a debate. Line up, take your turn, set-piece statements. A few tears, a bit of passion, the obligatory case for the negative. Take the weekend off and then see what the senators have to say.

Ideally, a debate should lead to a resolution, but no objective has been set for the present debate on Afghanistan. What is point, then, of the debate?

While Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott gave fine speeches, are we to expect that what was said at the start will not be modified by the contributions of the parliamentarians? Who will sum up the debate and advise if there are any changes to our national interests, objectives and strategies?

It’s not too late. The Prime Minister should commit to concluding the debate with a statement incorporating the views offered by the MPs. So far many of their views have been constructive. A closing statement, from the Prime Minister, would validate the intent, provide the strategic basis and confirm the public narrative for our continued and now declared long-term commitment to Afghanistan.

This statement need not be delivered in the present sitting period but it should be delivered in the next sitting in November.

Any statement by the Prime Minister must detail a whole-of-government response. This will be best determined through the full involvement of the National Security Committee supported by the National Security Adviser.

At the moment the government tends to subcontract strategy development to individual departments. Defence has the lead on Afghanistan. Despite its best intentions this has led to a defence-centric response; if you ask a carpenter to do a job you are likely to get a solution that has a focus on a hammer.

As the security situation in Afghanistan improves and as we progress through the decade-long involvement foreshadowed by the Prime Minister, we should expect a much greater civil involvement in the development and execution of our strategy in Afghanistan. As this happens, other departments should become more involved. Rather than move responsibility from department to department, the mechanism for their involvement should be through the NSC and the international division, led by the National Security Adviser.

Sadly, in Australia, we don’t often see strategic thinking. Our politicians are too focused on the here and now and if they can struggle past the next opinion poll they seldom see beyond the next election. The National Security Adviser, placed inside the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, has a unique opportunity to assist in the development of whole-of-government strategic plans. He can provide for the Prime Minister and the National Security Committee coherent, long-term objectives and strategies that incorporate all elements of national power: economic, diplomatic and military.

This will not be easy. Individual departments will guard their turf and while a co-operative and collaborative national security community is being developed there is still a long way to go. One thing that really needs to be done is to sponsor the development of broad-based strategic thinkers who can think big, think long, think novel and challenge the status quo. They have to be protected from the hurly-burly of contemporary politics and be encouraged to think beyond opinion polls and short-term crises.

With regard to the debate on Afghanistan, so far it looks promising. The MPs have made a positive contribution, the public has been engaged and the reasons for our involvement have been articulated. Let’s do it again and do it on a regular basis. The Prime Minister has offered every 12 months. Anyone for every six months?

In this era of lengthy and often ambiguous deployments the reasons for the initial commitment and the situation on the ground can change rapidly and unpredictably. A “set and forget” strategy is not a real strategy.

Regular and extensive reviews are required. We should now review our deployments to East Timor and Solomon Islands.

And, while we are in the groove, it is time for the Prime Minister to commit to bringing any decisions to commit the Australian Defence Force on future military operations to the parliament so they can be debated and considered in depth.

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