Jim Molan’s delusions

Scott Burchill

You wouldn’t expect a surgeon to recommend Chinese medicine to his patients. His advice usually involves a scalpel and some nasty cutting. Similarly, it would be surprising for military men to advocate political solutions to global conflicts. It’s not their area of professional expertise. By default they lead with their strongest suit — organised violence — not geopolitics or diplomacy.

Like economists and market forecasting, the consistent failure of military options in the modern world is rarely a deterrent, or even disheartening, for men with guns. Victory is always only just another battalion or squadron away. However, after eight long and costly years, it is increasingly obvious to most Australians that there are no military solutions to Afghanistan’s complex social and political problems. The Taliban, even without aircraft, satellites or armour, are unlikely to be defeated by either Western troops or their local proxies.

Still, we shouldn’t be surprised by Major General (ret.) Jim Molan’s latest plea to escalate our way to victory in that benighted country. “Give me more resources and we can finish the job” was an habitual refrain from our military leaders long before Vietnam.[1]

Little has changed and even less has been learnt.

Faith in military solutions convinced Molan that George Bush’s troop surge in Iraq delivered “victory” to the Western occupiers, a reasonable judgement if victory is defined as the destruction of the country and the immiseration of its population. If you claim to have run the war in Iraq, it may be necessary to believe this nonsense. By almost any measure, the war in Iraq has been one of the greatest military catastrophes of modern history.

Despite growing public opposition to sending more troops (65% of Australians are opposed[2]) and a failure to subdue the Taliban since we first attacked them in October 2001, Molan still believes a military victory in Afghanistan is “a fair probability,” even if he can neither define it nor explain why the course of the war would suddenly change with additional foreign troops.

In his latest article, Molan wisely omits his earlier recommendation in The Interpreter and in the Australian Army Journal to send a further 6000 Australian troops to Afghanistan for up to 5 years.[3] Perhaps he realises we don’t have that many to spare?

The piece does, however, contain a number of equally curious remarks.

In language borrowed from the Bush Administration, Molan claims “our enemies play on our morality and exploit our goodness,” a comment as risible as it is delusional in light of what we have also done to the people of Afghanistan. According to the BBC, 77% of Afghans are opposed to the use of air strikes by the US and other foreign troops, even if it helps to defeat the Taliban.[4] We continue to ignore these pleas, despite our moral superiority. The retired Major General should talk with the courageous Malalai Joya and the brave women of RAWA about their perceptions of our behaviour before he becomes too self-righteous.[5]

Next Molan concedes there has been “a decrease in ‘popular’ support for the war,” but he places “popular” in scare quotes, betraying a dismissive if not contemptuous attitude to what the Australian people expect from their government. He seems far more interested in elite opinion and what his former colleagues in the army think. The public, on the other hand, are weak and expose “our greatest vulnerability, our resolve.” It should butt out.

According to Molan, “the reason given by our government to be in Afghanistan — counter-terrorism — is only part of the real justification.” For unspecified reasons, he declines to explain how he knows this, nor does he adumbrate the other reasons which the government haven’t told us about. Is this just hubris or does the soldier-scholar have insights he is unwilling to share?

Finally, in a paragraph about the mismanagement of the war and corruption in Kabul, Molan blames NATO, a “poor constitution,” and “Hamid Karzai’s natural Afghan ways … .” What is he suggesting here? That Afghans are naturally corrupt and untrustworthy, hence our failure to ‘win’ the war? There is no other interpretation of these extraordinary and unfortunate remarks.

With ongoing bloodshed and little if any evident progress, the populations of the countries intervening in Afghanistan are turning solidly against this futile and unwinnable war. Their politicians will eventually catch up or risk electoral disaster. Their military leaders, however, will take longer, or perhaps in some cases never come to understand the limits of military power.

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[1] ‘More commitment or get out’, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September, 2009: http://www.nationaltimes.com.au/opinion/politics/more-commitment-or-get-out-20090914-fntc.html 
[2] ‘Shrinking support for Afghan war at odds with troops: Newspoll’, The Australian, 2 September, 2009: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25232849-31477,00.html
[3] http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2009/03/25/Afghanistan-The-case-for-6000-Australian-troops.aspx; Australian Army Journal (Volume VI, Number 2, Winter 2009).
[4] ‘Afghan people ‘losing confidence’’, BBC News, 2 September, 2009:http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7872353.stm?ad=1
[5] ‘Malalai Joya: Why Afghans have no hope in the vote’, Green Left Online: http://www.greenleft.org.au/2009/808/41546; http://www.rawa.org