Australia has given more than $2 billion (an average of $180 million per year) to Afghanistan in the past 12 years, following the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001. This amount is separate from hundreds of millions of dollars the country has spent to maintain the presence of her troops in Afghanistan. Also, around 40 Australian soldiers have lost their lives on Afghanistan’s soil and 261 Australian soldiers have been seriously wounded since the first arrival of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan along with other NATO forces in 2001.
Finally, after 12 years of being in the front line of the battle against the Taliban and terrorists, the last episode of Australia’s post-Taliban involvement was the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2013. The withdrawal was followed by a decrease in Australian aid to Afghanistan.
Is the mission accomplished? Was the sudden and rushed exit followed by a cut in aid justifiable? Was this all that should or could be done? Hasn’t Australia underestimated the risk of leaving Afghanistan in the hands of terrorism? Has the Australian presence in Afghanistan been a learning journey and, if yes, what are the lessons learned? How much do Australians and people in Afghanistan know about what the Australian governments has been doing in Afghanistan? Will Afghans stop coming in boats to Australia anymore?
We can say this with confidence the answer for most of these questions, if not for all of them, is negative.
Fixing the errors and moving towards a more positive situation requires the Australian government to take some unprecedented steps.
Firstly, it would be better if the Australian government provides Australians with a more transparent snapshot of the realities on the ground in Afghanistanand gives a clearer picture regarding where and how their money is spent in that country and what has been the immediate and long-term impact.
The Australian public needs to know more than the scary headlines about bombings and suicide attacks. They, for example, need to understand that the whole country is not insecure; the insecurity that impedes development and investment exists only in some provinces.
Surprisingly, with the current level of understanding among the Australian public about Afghanistan, many of them suggest thatit is for the best interest of Australia to stay ‘effectively’ engaged in Afghanistan believing that if terrorism networks regain control of Afghanistan, then they will target both Afghans as well as all those who had any sort of presence or involvement in the country.
Secondly, it would be wise if the Australian government makes Afghans more aware about Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan in order to improve Afghan’s perceptions of Australia, its involvement in the Afghan war.
Thirdly, it would be wiser and less costly for the Australian government to address the root causes of the migration problem though some initiatives on Afghan soil and reach Afghan migrants before they jump on the boat. Portraying sea trips to Australia as a death journey is not an effective way to reduce or stop boat arrivals from Afghanistan and curbing human smuggling networks that facilitate such arrival in exchange for $20,000 to $35,000. It is better to address the migrant issue through opening processing centers in nearby countries to deal with asylum cases and creating employment opportunities to stop economic migrants from paying thousands to people smugglers to reach Australia by boat.
Fourthly, it would be best if Australia encourages and funds more Australian-led studies to explore the investment opportunities in Afghanistan. There are many opportunities in peaceful and secure parts of the country. Providing a hope-generating image of Afghanistan would encourage Australian companies and the private sector to explore investment opportunities in secure areas (north, south-west and central regions), particularly if they find that other companies (such as China Metallurgical Group (MCC)’s who have invested $3 billion in Logar province) have already done it.
Finally, it would be in both countries’ best interest to use Afghan communities in Australia to raise awareness about Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. Underestimating the role of Afghan-Australians and Afghans living in Australia could be a strategic error. The Afghan diaspora communities maintain strong ties with their homeland and can provide significant help in raising awareness about realities in Afghanistan as well as Australia’s mission and involvement in Afghanistan.
Australia has the opportunity to be the first to prove that taking an unconventional step can change evil to good and protect the investment made in Afghanistan from being a sunk cost.