THERE is an unpleasant whiff of politics and self-interest in the strategy to withdraw American, Australian and other foreign combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014 or earlier.
The electoral cycles of nations contributing troops to the fight in Afghanistan mean that politicians everywhere are looking for the exits.
Barack Obama wants to lock in a firm plan for the withdrawal before the US presidential elections late this year. Nicolas Sarkozy used the current French presidential election process to announce an accelerated 2013 departure plan. Germany goes to the polls next year, the same time that its troops will start withdrawing.
Italians vote next year and Prime Minister Mario Monti has told them their troops will be home by 2014. British Prime Minister David Cameron is also clearing the decks, proposing deep cuts to troop numbers in 2013.
All of these decisions are driven by politics and growing disillusionment over Afghanistan in the voting constituencies of contributing nations.
Now Australia will follow. Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced that the majority of our combat troops will be withdrawn by the end of 2013. This represents a modest advance of the previously announced 2014 milestone for transition. There is no surprise in this: the withdrawal of our conventional combat troops from Afghanistan has long been foreshadowed by our political leaders.
There is also some confidence in military circles that security in the province where most Australian troops are deployed, Oruzgan, has improved and is likely to continue doing so, albeit in a patchy and fragile fashion.
In an opinion piece published earlier this month I wrote that the elements of the Afghanistan National Army being trained by Australians, the 4th Brigade, will be ready to take the lead in parts of Oruzgan province within the next 12 months. I also said that the brigade as a whole will be ready by 2014 provided that certain high-end combat support elements continue to be provided by the coalition. The progress achieved is thanks to the skill and sacrifice of Australian soldiers. None of that has changed.
It makes sense that Australia makes clear its position ahead of the NATO conference on Afghanistan in Chicago next month. I have no doubt that our government will have paid close attention to the advice of the Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, in developing its revised position.
But make no mistake, the key considerations are political not military. Could anyone seriously doubt that the government's political strategists would not have considered the electoral benefits of this revised withdrawal schedule, when the federal election rolls around next year?
For its part, it is unlikely that the opposition wants to be dragged down electorally by opposing an early departure from the unpopular Afghanistan conflict. In a speech this week outlining Australia's position, Prime Minister Gillard said she welcomes debate on these issues. What's the point? The decisions have been made, the policy has been announced and next month our position will be locked in at the Chicago conference.
That's not to say that I think the policy is wrong, but simply to remark that public debate on the schedule is now largely irrelevant.
What is relevant is the high likelihood of a troubled transition process, in Oruzgan and Afghanistan more broadly. The improved performance of the Afghan 4th Brigade is from a very low base. It takes many years to grow genuinely competent armed forces and the Afghans have a long way to go.
As they take the lead more often, it is inevitable that things will go wrong sometimes, perhaps badly. Australian mentors will have a vital role to play right up to the day they leave. There is a strong possibility that our troops will continue to be involved in direct combat action, to bolster the Afghan soldiers or get them out of trouble.
The other reason that the pathway to a changed posture in Afghanistan is unlikely to be smooth is that the Taliban and their insurgent allies get a say in how it goes. The Taliban might simply be content to wait for us all to leave, but I think that's unlikely.
Afghans admire strength, not weakness. The Taliban will want to be in a strong bargaining position when the Afghanistan government starts the process of reconciliation and political bargaining. That means more high-profile attacks, continued unrest and potentially greater risks for our troops and their Afghan colleagues.
The Prime Minister tells us that we are entering a strategically important period, and she's right. But we are also entering a period of great uncertainty and potentially greater danger, not just to our troops, but to the whole strategy.
John Cantwell recently retired from the Australian Army with the rank of major-general. He was the Australian National Commander in Afghanistan and the Middle East in 2010.