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Reckoning is due after Afghanistan endgame

  • 31 January 2019


The war in Afghanistan is approaching its end — and no-one in Australia seems to much care. Last week, Washington's chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, announced a framework for peace, based upon a supposed Taliban commitment to prevent terrorist groups using the country as a base.

That's much less of a concession than it seems, given that the Taliban, as it prepares for power, views al Qaeda and Islamic States as rivals, and has been actively fighting against the latter. The talks might, in fact, still come to naught, foundering on the Taliban's rejection of other key US demands. The insurgents won't negotiate with a national government they classify as a puppet regime; they won't disarm prior to a complete American withdrawal. And why should they?

Khalilzad's statement amounted to an admission, if one were needed, that the US has effectively lost the war, with the Taliban playing much more of a role than the Americans in Afghanistan's future. You might think that such an outcome would interest the Australian political class, given that an entire generation has come to maturity with the nation fighting Afghanistan. But if you search 'Australia' and 'Afghanistan' you return more news stories on the cricket than about a conflict that has killed 41 ADF members.

One of the few pundits to take an interest in recent developments was Clive Williams, an academic at ADFA. 'The real reason [for the continuing] Australian presence in Afghanistan,' he explained, 'is of course to show we are a willing ANZUS and Western alliance partner in order to be well regarded by the US and receive the defence and intelligence benefits that go with active membership of the Five-Eyes relationship. Afghanistan per se is of little strategic importance to Australia.'

The 'of course' in that passage implies that this cynical trade — a few dead soldiers sacrificed for better intelligence ties — was commonly understood. Maybe, among the defence establishment, that was so.  But when Australia first signed up for the war, the political class painted the intervention in quite different colours. 'Australian military forces are joining a long-overdue fight against evil,' explained Piers Akerman in October 2001. 'Is that too difficult to understand?'

The rhetoric shifted as the campaign settled down into the familiar strategies of armed occupation, with the violence of the American military machine bolstered by alliances with brutal warlords and corrupt local elites.

Nevertheless, those of us argued that that the war depended