Asia-Pacific

Australia's Afghan test shifts from Dover to Washington

Coffin of Sergeant Brett Wood, May 28, 2011, in Uruzgan
Each Australian death brings the costs of the Afghan involvement more to the fore

American politicians still apply the Dover Test when it comes to judging the political viability of unpopular wars. It is so-named because of the air base in Dover, Delaware, where flag-draped caskets are flown in from conflicts abroad containing the remains of dead American military personnel.

Based in Washington at the time, I visited the base in the run-up to the second Gulf war, just as blood was about to be shed in Iraq, and saw the gurneys stacked up in readiness. After 9/11, the facility had been expanded to cope with the expected surge of dead bodies.

Back then, the American public appeared ready to pay a high blood price as the Bush administration waged its war on terror, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Almost 10 years on, and two very difficult wars later, the Dover Test kicks in at a much lower level.

Australia does not have an equivalent of that journalistic phrase, but it is clear that many people here are becoming increasingly worried about the country's continued presence in Afghanistan. This morning, the government announced the death of another Australian digger, a 23-year-old combat engineer who was killed in a raid on an arms dump in the north of Helmand.

This is the 27th Australian death in Afghanistan, and the fourth in the past two weeks. Many of the Australians killed have been special forces soldiers who carry out missions in the most dangerous parts of the country, like Helmand. Last month, however, an Australian digger was fatally wounded by a trainee Afghan soldier who he was mentoring at the time. Given that Australia's primary mission in Afghanistan is to train members of the Afghan National Army, the ANA, that death in particular has been seized upon by those calling for a withdrawal.

Those who want Australian troops to remain in the country - this is one of the few areas of genuine bipartisanship in Australian politics at the moment - point out that the training of the ANA is vital to Australia's ultimate exit strategy. The country is too unstable, they argue, and the ANA too small and unready, to leave now.

A recent poll suggested that two-thirds of voters want either an immediate withdrawal or a complete draw down of Australian forces by Christmas. A survey of 500 people in News Limited newspapers suggested 19% wanted the troops withdrawn now; 43% favoured the repatriation of all Australians by the end of the year; and 35% believed in completing the mission.

The diplomatic reality of Australia's troop commitment in Afghanistan is that policy makers apply not a Dover Test but a Washington Test. So keen is Canberra to preserve its position as America's most dependable ally that Australian diggers will surely see out their mission. Here, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott might find themselves at odds with Australian public opinion. But both are wary, as successive post-war prime ministers have always been, of putting themselves at odds with a US president.

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