over and out

The Prime Minister’s speech on Afghanistan at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) included some surprising and welcome concessions to the two thirds of Australians who believe it is time for our military forces to leave the country.

Perhaps it was the recognition that an ASPI audience wouldn’t uncritically accept the standard set of washed-out euphemisms that have been used over the past decade to justify the international military presence there.

With an eye to election deadlines here and in the United States, and rapidly declining public support, Australia is realigning to the new strategic imperative taking root in the US.

Facing the twin challenges of financial insolvency and the rise of China, the US has decided to take the advice that Republican Senator George Aiken gave to President Johnson when contemplating the horror of the Vietnam war: declare victory, and leave.

Prime Minister Gillard stopped short of declaring outright victory in Afghanistan, and for the first time acknowledged some of the deadly realities faced by the people of that torn country.

Domestic opposition to the war has at last forced an acknowledgement that people have a legitimate reason to ask why we are there, and what purpose is served by the wrenching loss of life in a theatre of war that many of us would struggle to find on a map.

In the company of three other Australian MPs, I have just had the good fortune to participate in a trip to Afghanistan, visiting the multinational base Tarin Kot, a Forward Operating Base in the Chora Valley, and the small Australian presence at Kandahar Air Field in the south of the country.

The key impression is one of focus and professionalism in a violent and ambiguous environment. The Australians have taken the lead in Uruzgan province in training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army, work which is progressing despite infiltration by people hostile to its existence.

Our soldiers live behind barbed wire, traversing steep valleys in US army helicopters and heavily armoured mine-clearing vehicles. This edgy work is carried out against a backdrop of periodic rocket attacks, and every step outside the fortified bases carries the risk of death or mutilation by improvised explosive devices.

Our narrow focus on building a domestic military force in Uruzgan may have blinded us to the bigger picture: the province is only three times the size of the ACT, and across the rest of the country good news is hard to come by.

On Radio National earlier this year, US officer L Colonel Daniel Davis noted “an absence of success on virtually every level in Afghanistan”, and accused the Obama Administration and senior military leadership of systematic lying about the truth on the ground.

This sounds eerily consistent with AusAID’s treatment of an independent consultant’s report which struck a discordant note from the Government’s relentless optimism: according to the Sunday Age, the report was chopped to pieces and whole sections on security removed.

Retired Major General Cantwell’s chilling assessment that Australian soldiers’ lives were being sacrificed for “the dirty ugly world of international relationships” is also sharply at odds with the Prime Minister’s pitch: it is his view that Australia will be leaving whether the Afghan National Army is ready or not. As the GOP Senator advised, declare victory and leave.

Afghanistan is a textbook case of ‘mission creep’ – from day one, when Prime Minister Howard invoked the ANZUS treaty and uncritically pledged Australian support for all future US military interventions, he set us on a dangerous course where messy and complex truths would be subordinated to bumper sticker slogans.

The elimination of Al Qaeda gave way to democracy dropped in from a height. A brittle, corrupt and centralised quasi-democratic regime has been installed to rule over a feudal mosaic of tribal alliances and micro-states, a process consuming eleven years and half a trillion dollars.

Many believe it has no chance whatsoever of survival once the crutches of foreign military occupation have been removed.

It is here that our narrow focus on building an army begins to come unstuck. Who will this military force serve beyond 2014? Who will pay its wages bill? Where is the compliant, pro-Western liberal democracy and the instant civil-society-in-a-box imagined by former US president George W Bush?

I put some of these questions to the ADF commanders and soldiers I met last week, and got the response I deserved. Those are political questions, Senator. We are just here to do a job that the Australian Government tasked us with. We don’t set the policy – you do.

The people ordering Australian troops into combat to defend this impossible situation don’t live behind blast walls and barbed wire, they’re not struggling with post-traumatic stress, and they’re not coming home in caskets. For all the talk of progress, a third of Australia’s combat casualties in this decade-long conflict occurred in 2011 alone.

The Prime Minister hinted in her address to ASPI that Australian Special Forces combat troops will remain in Afghanistan well beyond any other drawdown that may occur. This is an open-ended commitment to a project flawed in ways which are only just beginning to be acknowledged by those who still believe, against all the odds, that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was a good idea.