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Why are we in Afghanistan?

10 March 2009

Is Australia sleepwalking through a conflict with mixed objectives and uncertain prospects, asks Dennis Altman


Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai arrives at a gathering to mark International Women's Day in Kabul on 8 March. Shah Marai/AFP Photo/Pool

Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai arrives at a gathering to mark International Women's Day in Kabul on 8 March. Shah Marai/AFP Photo/Pool

THE POPULARITY of Barack Obama and the bipartisan support for the American alliance in Australia means that a strange silence exists around our role in Afghanistan, broken only by occasional news of Australian casualties. Despite warnings that the military commitment could last for at least a decade, politicians and the media – with the honorable exception of the Greens – seem gripped by a reluctance to question the point of that involvement.

Last week President Obama reopened that fundamental question when he acknowledged that the United States is failing in Afghanistan. Yet a few days later his administration asked Australia to send more troops as part of a renewed attempt to defeat the Taliban. If the government plans to respond positively it needs to outline clearly to its citizens why we are in Afghanistan and how we would measure success for our involvement.

The original invasion of Afghanistan was justified by the clear evidence that the Taliban government supported Al Qaeda and revulsion at the inhumane policies of a group of fundamentalist thugs and bullies. Leftists who quailed at the overthrow of Saddam Hussein tended to stay silent about the attack on Afghanistan, and Obama campaigned last year on a promise of increased military support for the Afghani government.

But there is growing disillusionment in Washington with President Hamid Karzai, who faces an election later this year. His government has limited control over the country, and corruption and local warlords seem untamed. Some military observers, including very senior British officers, have warned that “winning” is impossible in the Afghani quagmire.

We have been here before. The long bitter history of the Vietnam War saw search upon search for a leader in South Vietnam able to both rally his people and satisfy American criteria for minimally decent standards of governance. The Afghani situation is made more bitter by the fact that the United States had earlier backed the Taliban to help displace a previous invader, the Soviet Union.

One hopes both Obama and Rudd have seen the movie Charlie Wilson’s War and pondered on the problems of taking sides in the internal conflicts of Afghanistan. The idea that western forces can build a peaceful, liberal democratic state in a country with very different political and religious cultures is an illusion that seems doomed to be constantly replayed.

Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon argues that our presence in Afghanistan is intended to create “an economic, social and democratic model” that provides “better opportunities and greater living standards.” The involvement has also been defended as part of a global war on terror, and former Labor leader Kim Beazley has argued for sending more troops as a way of strengthening the American alliance. Others have argued that we need “stay the course” in order to remain on the “A team” of US allies. The alliance was the primary reason for Australia’s joining the coalition of the willing, and it’s sad to hear the same justification today from politicians who opposed it when it was invoked by John Howard.

The major question for “the west” is whether military force is appropriate to deal with a domestic insurgency which is strengthened every time foreign troops kill Afghani civilians. There is little evidence that the current Afghani government, or its likely successors, is any more likely than the Iraqi government to build the sort of democratic progressive state we hope for – or, indeed, that they are even likely to return Afghanistan to the status it enjoyed in the 1960s under King Mohammed Zahir Shah.

A particular question for Australia is why we are engaged in a distant war under the umbrella of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Although the attacks on Kevin Rudd’s travels are largely misplaced political sniping, it was certainly odd to see an Australian prime minister attending the NATO meeting in Bucharest last year.

I have no quarrel with Australians acting as peace keepers or providing humanitarian assistance under international auspices. There are powerful arguments for mobilising international efforts to build decent governments in some of the worst places on earth. But if this argument is advanced as the reason for our being in Afghanistan, why not also intervene in Burma or Zimbabwe? And if military presence is intended to defeat terrorists then government must face the reality that it appears to be creating new ones.

A recent conference in Canberra apparently agreed that “defending” Afghanistan was a prerequisite for preserving stability in Pakistan. No one can dispute that Pakistan is in a precarious position, and that the inability of its government to preserve security is a massive threat both to its citizens and to its neighbours. But given the fact that instability in Pakistan has steadily increased during the “western” intervention in Afghanistan, one must be sceptical that increasing this commitment will do anything other than foster greater resentments and increase extremism across the region. As the Guardian’s Seumas Milne wrote this week: “Now that Pakistan faces its own blowback from the Afghan war and the Taliban it helped create, its military intelligence is trying to redirect its wayward offspring back to fight what are supposed to be Pakistan’s own US and British allies in Afghanistan on the other side of the border.”

Australia has very different regional interests to those of members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, including a strong imperative to build close ties with moderate Islamic countries, above all those in our region. The views of the governments and people of Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh are more significant to us than those of the NATO countries, and the perception that we are part of what is essentially an American-lead push to impose a certain version of security and governance in Central Asia is hardly in our long term national interest.

Increasingly the onus is on the government to explain clearly, and without recourse to the grandiose language of the war on terror, just what our role is in Afghanistan, and what would constitute measurable and achievable success. An open ended commitment to support an unpopular government is likely to lead to greater casualties and stronger opposition within Afghanistan itself.

Yet as a country we seem to be sleepwalking into increasing a commitment for which the justification is less and less apparent. Labor, rightly, called for clear goals and an exit strategy in Iraq. Is it too much to now ask for a similar justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan? •

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None of the above: former British PM Gordon Brown speaks during a “No” rally in Glasgow last Friday. Andy Rain/EPA

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