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The Australian Defence Force has experienced an increase in the level of casualties in the Afghanistan theatre. This increase is the subject of an Op-Ed written by Hugh White, published today by the Fairfax press.

White is a former senior defence department official and currently heads the strategic studies centre at the Australian National University. When he speaks on Australian defence matters and international relations one should listen, no matter one’s own ideological or theoretical positions. On the latter two points I can say that I don’t agree with him at all.

In the Op-Ed White develops an important thesis in explanation for the rise in Australian casualties; it is a thesis that frames his analysis

Perhaps they are facing stiffer opposition? But not if you believe what the government and the Australian Defence Force keep telling us. They say that the Taliban have been mauled and are on the back foot.

So the most likely explanation is that our soldiers are undertaking more hazardous operations. In other words, they are being asked, or ordered, to take more risks. And one has to ask why that should be so…

White’s thesis is that the conventional wisdom in Australia on this issue is wrong. Australian forces are experiencing higher casualty rates not because of an increase in the tempo of Taliban operations in Oruzgan province, but because, White seems to be suggesting, the ADF has changed its rules of engagement.

White, naturally, asks; that being so, why so?

It could well be, given his connections, that the underlying assumption that White adopts here is based on the ADF’s own internal statistical breakdown and analysis. So let us assume that White’s assumption is correct and let’s try and answer the question he raises, which he really doesn’t answer in the Op-Ed (even though he probably knows why).

Australia, like many other US-led coalition partners in Afghanistan, has received periodic requests from Washington for a military beef up in Afghanistan. The public debate has focused on the size of the Australian military footprint in Afghanistan. Even the Labor Government had agreed to US requests, as White states here, for more forces but Canberra has been loath to increase the ADF presence in Afghanistan in recent times. It didn’t increase the size of the Australian deployment following the Obama surge.

Could it be, therefore, that one way that Canberra has sought to address and accommodate US concerns is through the development of more permissive rules of engagement for Australian forces? From a political perspective one could see how this would be rational, for it would be a low-profile way of boosting Australia’s military commitment to the US-led coalition. To be sure, as White points out, this leads to an increase in casualties but that could be, one surmises, managed so long as the public does not develop the correct flow between cause and effect.

This issue could be, and should be, the subject of an investigation by a Senate estimates committee or some such.

White asks in his article

So here are the big questions for the men and women who order Australian soldiers into action in Afghanistan. Are the risks to those troops from the operations we are now conducting justified by any real prospect that Afghanistan will be any better off when we leave in 3½ years? If not, how can such operations be justified?…

We in Australia are schizophrenic about the alliance with the US. Polls indicate that public support for the alliance with the US in Australia is high. On the other hand Iraq, and now Afghanistan, demonstrates that, at times, support for paying the price to maintain the alliance with the US, which does not have the same terms as the NATO alliance, is not nearly as high.

That is an asymmetry that frames a lot of the politics in Australia on the alliance.

Indeed both cases now demonstrate that majorities are loath to pay that price; we want to have it both ways. We’ll take the alliance but won’t be too fussy about the commitments. New Zealand demonstrated that you can’t have the alliance without paying the price required to keep it.

For Canberra that’s a problem. It is also a problem for those who unquestionably would like to go all the way with the USA. If Washington doesn’t guarantee our security like it does Japan’s or Germany’s why pay an uncapped insurance premium? That would be irrational.

For those who don’t support the alliance, precisely because of the costs that need to be paid, that isn’t a problem, of course. But having basically no role for deterrence in defence policy whilst rejecting the alliance is also, I think, irrational. If you don’t want the alliance you need to be mindful that a robust conventional deterrent would need to replace it. Countries like Sweden and Switzerland are quite militarised, believe it or not.

My reading of White, as Australia’s most astute and nuanced realist, is this; White understands that this is all about the alliance. White understands that the alliance requires Australia to pay an insurance premium to Washington. White is comfortable with that. White also understands, however, that Washington’s insurance policy does not provide comprehensive coverage, unlike its NATO policy, and so that places limits on how high a premium we in Australia should pay for the policy that we are offered. If that price edges too high, like in Afghanistan, then Australia needs to delever to restore balance to the relationship.

White’s position is quite rational and understandable.

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