Afghanistan debate unedifying

The debate on Afghanistan was long overdue and the Greens are to be congratulated for forcing it upon a reluctant government. But it must be said that we have learned very little from it to date.

A very large majority of the parliament supports the idea of having troops there – or at least most members say they do, but they would, wouldn’t they, because that’s the policy of the major parties. Julia Gillard supports the idea hugely and Tony Abbott supports it even more. But neither wants to send any more troops there and both would really like to withdraw troops as soon as possible … well, within a few years anyway, although it would be a mistake to set a timetable. And we will probably need to keep some involvement going for some time after that, but we’re not quite sure what or for how long.

It used to be an axiom of military operations that before embarking upon any action, you should have a very clear idea of your objective. In the case of Afghanistan, this is not so. Originally the idea was to wipe out Al Qaeda and capture or kill Osama bin Laden – or so we were told. Australia was involved because there had been an attack on American soil on September 11 2001 and thus the ANZUS Treaty could be invoked, but the invasion was also approved by the United Nations security council; all tickety boo.

Nearly nine years later we are still involved, but the aims have changed. We are still upholding ANZUS but we are apparently running a holding operation in Oruzgan province while training the Afghans to take over. Al Qaeda is dispersed, mainly to Yemen, Somalia and possibly Pakistan; Osama is said to be living comfortably in Pakistan. Afghanistan is as far from peace and stability (let alone democracy) as it has ever been; the fragile and corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai and his fellow warlords holds sway in some areas while the Taliban rule unchallenged in others. The former are slightly less misogynist than the latter, but more dependent on the drug economy.

Apparently there is now talk of some sort of accommodation between elements of the two with a view to power sharing in Kabul and designated areas of influence elsewhere; this might lead to a ceasefire, but would be of dubious benefit to the people. Both parties are deservedly loathed by a majority of the population. But the presence of foreign troops is resented even more, and not only in Afghanistan. There is abundant first hand evidence that the principal motivation for most terrorist extremists is the invasion of what are regarded as Muslim lands by infidels. In a very real sense the Diggers in Oruzgan are unintentionally moonlighting as recruiting agents for Al Qaeda.

And then there is the nuclear arsenal next door, Pakistan. The Taliban were created in Pakistan by Pakistan, with the overt and covert support of some very important people in the military and the secret services. No one seriously believes that significant remnants of that support do not still exist. Pakistan is a large and powerful nation whose widespread poverty is due not to a lack of resources but to the fact that the military have grabbed most of them for their own use. While it remains at best ambivalent about its neighbour no end to the strife is possible.

Indeed, history would suggest that no end to the strife is possible under any circumstances and that foreign intervention only makes things worse. There is certainly plenty to talk about, and the debate has a long way to go past the slogans of the party leaders; but it is hard to see anything substantial coming out of it.

So far the only serious proposition has come from the Green Adam Bandt, and it was not really about Afghanistan: Bandt wants parliament, not the government, to have the final say over declarations of war. It sounds attractive, but there are problems. Parliament, as a whole, can never be privy to all the information held by the intelligence agencies, both military and civilian, and while this may at times be misleading (Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction spring to mind) it is better to have it than not. And if only parliament can declare war, presumably only parliament can un-declare it; but in practice peace negotiations also have to be kept secret.

In any case, if Bandt’s intention is to give parliament the power to block the executive from getting into wars of which it disapproves, that power is already there; parliament can simply refuse supply, thereby denying the government the wherewithal to fight. This would, of course, lead to an immediate election, but it seems only fair that the people should also have a say. As it is, it appears that while more Australians than not oppose the war in Afghanistan, they are prepared to trust the government: the anti-war movement is yet to take to the streets.

But while Bandt’s idea may be naïve, it is hardly less so than those of John Howard, who enthusiastically and unilaterally took Australia into the coalition of the willing in Iraq. In published extracts from his forthcoming doorstopper, Howard writes that he was really unhappy when the then leader of the opposition, Simon Crean, wanted the endorsement of the United Nations security council before he would offer his support. In other words, splutters our former Prime Minister, he was prepared to wait on the whim of Jacques Chirac and Vladimir Putin! Of course our man of steel had no such hesitations; ignoring the wishes of his own people and the vast majority of the nations and populations of the world, he flung himself fearlessly behind the whim of George Bush and Dick Cheney.

That’s leadership. Couldn’t we send him to Oruzgan?


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