By Tom Switzer
This weekend marked Australia’s worst war-time episode since the Vietnam War. A rogue member of the Afghanistan National Army shot dead three diggers, an Afghan interpreter and wounded seven other Australians — an act of betrayal that brings Australia's troop deaths up to thirty two.
Such an atrocity should prompt a change in Australia’s military commitment in Afghanistan. That won’t happen, given both the Australian Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader keep pledging strong support for the mission.
Yet it seems increasingly obvious to raise serious doubts about the mission, for which 1 550 Australian soldiers are fighting.
Does the war justify more blood and treasure in a backward tribal nation of 25 million? What is the clear strategy? And is there a decent end in sight after a decade of war?
At least these questions are being asked more often in the US than here in Australia. To be sure, President Obama and the Republican congressional leadership still strongly support staying the course in Afghanistan.
But the Republican presidential candidates are sending more ambivalent signals.
The leading contenders either play down the issue — the national security items on the web sites for Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Herman Cain don’t mention the war — or set out sceptical, albeit qualified, positions.
Take Mitt Romney in June: “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we can — as soon as our generals think it’s OK.” That remark sparked outrage among more hawkish Republicans.
Other Republicans running for the White House are more adamant in their opposition and want to see U.S. troops reduced drastically. Ron Paul, Michele Bachman, and Jon Huntsman are strong advocates of withdrawal.
Meanwhile, many leading political and diplomatic figures in Washington can’t wait to end what is the longest war in American (and Australian) history. A growing number of congresspeople on both sides of the political fence oppose the $10 billion monthly funding bill for the operation. Tea Partiers, animated by opposition to the exorbitant level of federal spending and $14 trillion indebtedness, almost sound like the second-coming of Robert Taft.
Leading strategists and intellectuals — from Les Gelb (Democratic) to Richard Haass (Republican) — counsel significant drawing down of the US presence, lest the quagmire further damage American prestige and credibility. Nearly two thirds of Americans say the war is no longer worth fighting.
Echoing President Obama, whom the Australian Prime Minister is scheduled to host this month, Julia Gillard says: “We’re there to make sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorists.” Yet even before the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this year, there was no substantial al Qaeda presence in the country. According to CIA estimates a year ago, only 50 to 100 al Qaeda fighters have been left there.
To the extent that the al Qaeda network remains operational, it is far more likely to be based in Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Pakistan. As former foreign minister Alexander Downer has pointed out, the original objective of the 2001 operation was to destroy al Qaeda, not fight the Taliban. That aim has been accomplished.
Moreover, the Afghan Taliban does not yearn for global martyrdom; it merely wants to restore Pashtun rule in Afghanistan. That may not be ideal for the people of that war-torn country, but it hardly represents a serious threat to US and Australian interests.
The Australian Prime Minister, sounding more like a Washington neo-con than a creature of the socialist Labor Left, says she wants “democracy and a functioning government to take hold”. But after nearly 10 years it should be clear to anyone that democracy is not an export commodity to such a tribalised and xenophobic land. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest and most primitive societies. Its infrastructure is poorly developed. Its terrain is more forbidding than even Iraq’s. Poppy fields are in bloom. Elections have been deeply flawed. The local army can’t stand up to the Taliban for long. Indeed, the corrupt Karzai government is negotiating with the Taliban — which makes sense given that the Taliban will still be there after western forces turn tail and run, as they will eventually will.
It is true, as Gillard argues, that Australia’s commitment to the all-important US alliance means a special obligation to support what Robert Menzies called “our great and powerful friends.” It also explains why Canberra has supported all of Washington’s (and London’s) major wars in the past century.
Yet the Obama Administration is considering direct talks with the Taliban even as it begins phasing out 5 000 US forces in July. The US and NATO have flagged their complete combat withdrawals by 2014. (Two thirds of the 140 000 coalition troops are American.)
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has called for a withdrawal of British troops within the next two years. The Dutch have quit Afghanistan for good. The Canadians are in the process of pulling out all their troops.
The logic that suggests that because the US-led coalition have stayed so long, we may as well finish the job, is based on a false premise that assumes a defined endgame exists and is achievable. But no endgame exists, let alone is achievable.
This is no way to conduct a war. Australia has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, and like America and Britain today, we are out of patience, political rationale and public support. A political settlement with the Taliban is the best way to produce a speedy withdrawal of Australian and Coalition troops. It is time to scale down our ambitions and reduce our commitments.
1 November 2011