Separating strategy and tactics in the Afghanistan debate

By Natalie Sambhi and N.R. Jenzen-Jones

While we do not subscribe to all that Raoul Heinrichs proposes in his 31 May Lowy Interpreter post, we feel it necessary to outline our position relative to some of the claims Rodger Shanahan makes in his 1 June rejoinder to Raoul. In short, while Raoul is wrong about the ADF, Shanahan is wrong about strategy.

Nowhere in Shanahan’s post does he acknowledge the final note upon which Raoul’s piece actually hinges: that is, there is a need to measure our tactical and operational gains and losses against a clear strategy for Australia’s continued involvement in Afghanistan which, in Raoul’s opinion, is absent. Against a weak strategy, human costs are magnified, and it is the responsibility of those in the strategic realm but more importantly the political realm to do so. In fact, to not do so would violate the very covenant Shanahan holds sacred, that of the social contract between soldier and government.

Soldiers do not fight for strategy; on that point Shanahan is correct. But neither do they fight simply to “leave the area for which you have responsibility in better shape than you found it”. This idea in itself is a strategic concern, and certainly not always the goal of warfare. Shanahan appears to use this point as a fulcrum for suggesting that gains made to date directly translate to current strategic imperatives. Of course, these fluctuate with time and circumstance; and we have been in Afghanistan for near on ten, strategically-shifting years.

At the end of the day, both Shanahan and Raoul are focussed on the tactical level manifesting in their concern for the welfare of the soldier, except that Shanahan has also left considerations of strategy behind.

Postscript: For further views on this debate, Crispin Rovere advances similar arguments to the above in a 2 June Lowy riposte while @ClosetIdealist further teases out Australia’s strategic interests in Afghanistan on a 3 June Pynx blog post.

Image courtesy of Department of DefenceMembers of commando SGT Brett Wood’s platoon escorted his coffin at Tarin Kot airfield where a C-130 waited to commence his repatriation.

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