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Reckoning is due after Afghanistan endgame



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.

US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne cover a ridge during 'Operation Viper', 19 February 2003 in the Baghran Valley, Afghanistan. 'Operation Viper' was an operation to search from village to village for weapons and signs of Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathisers. (David Swanson-Pool/Getty Images)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 upon bolstering forces no better (and often considerably worse) than the Taliban, that the foreign presence was causing deep and sustained resentment, and that military occupation wouldn't produce a stable or democratic regime were still pilloried as fools or traitors or both. 'Let us stay the course,' editorialised Melbourne's Herald Sun in July 2005, using the slogan that would become a ubiquitous justification for the entire operation.


"If back in 2001, the resources flung at Afghanistan had instead been devoted to environmental projects, perhaps the state of the planet wouldn't be so uniformly bleak."


John Howard promised to 'stay the course' in Afghanistan  — and so too did Alexander Downer, Joel Fitzgibbon, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. So complete was the political consensus that parliament didn't even debate the Afghan intervention until nine years after it began. When, in mid 2011, four Australian soldiers died within a fortnight, Air Chief Marshal Houston knew precisely what he had to say. 'Believe me,' he said, 'we need to stay the course.'

Now that there's no longer a course on which to stay, we're due some accountability. 'For a decade or more after the Vietnam war,' noted James Fallows in 2013, 'the people who had guided the US to disaster decently shrank from the public stage.' That, however, was a different era. Those who backed the Afghan catastrophe — basically, the entire political class — remain entirely unrepentant.

If some of the politicians associated with the debacle have shuffled off the stage, that's more to do with parliamentary instability than any sense of shame. After all, the Liberals still consider John Howard, the man who led Australia into both Iraq and Afghanistan, a potent electoral weapon.

As for the pundits, they've simply changed the conversation. Last week, for instance, Akerman, the man who saw the invasion as a crusade against evil, treated us to a fulmination entitled 'why the policies of selfish lefties are lethal'. Lethal, you say? No-one really knows how many Afghans have died in the war that he championed, though most estimates put the figure in the hundreds of thousands. And for what?

In October 2001, the Taliban offered to hand Osama bin Laden for trial if the US ceased its bombing campaign. In other words, more than 17 years ago, the Americans were presented with a deal on terrorism as good as the one they're pleading for now. But President Bush dismissed the offer out of hand and persisted with his war, with backing, every step of the way, from Australia.

That decision becomes even more unforgivable when we think about the state of the planet today. The Guardian recently carried a heartbreaking piece describing the return of scientist Brad Lister to the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico where he discovered that 98 per cent of the insects he had catalogued 35 years ago were gone. 'We are essentially destroying the very life support systems that allow us to sustain our existence on the planet, along with all the other life on the planet,' Lister mourned. 'It is just horrifying to watch us decimate the natural world like this.'

Environmentalists have long called for a massive injection of resources to the fight against climate change, along the lines of the national mobilisations during and after the Second World War. But where might that kind of funding come from? Well, consider the following assessment from the New York Times, America's paper of record.

'The United States,' it says, 'has alone spent $932 billion since since 2001 in Afghanistan; its allies and international agencies, many billions more. On reconstruction aid alone, America spent more on Afghanistan than on the entire Marshall Plan to rebuild post-World War II Europe, in today's dollars.'

It's enough to make you weep. If say, back in 2001, the resources flung at Afghanistan had instead been devoted to environmental projects, perhaps the state of the planet wouldn't be so uniformly bleak. Instead, George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard, with the tacit support of most of the commentariat, launched a war that now seems to be ending, having achieved absolutely nothing.

Such are the priorities of our time.



Jeff SparrowJeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.

Main image: US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne cover a ridge during 'Operation Viper', 19 February 2003 in the Baghran Valley, Afghanistan. 'Operation Viper' was an operation to search from village to village for weapons and signs of Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathisers. (David Swanson-Pool/Getty Images)


Topic tags: Jeff Sparrow, Afghanistan



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An excellent article! It seems to me that the situation in Afghanistan is also complicated by the chaos in the US administration. As we have seen in Syria, it is wise not to count one's US troop withdrawals until they hatch: Pentagon, CIA, president, Department of State, Congress and who knows how many other factions within the Washington beltway work at cross-purposes. It is not clear for how many of these factions the former US pro-consul in Iraq, Zalmay Khalizad, speaks. Indeed, even as the US prepares (possibly) to disengage from Afghanistan, it is talking up further regime change adventures in Iran and, most immediately, Venezuela.

Justin Glyn SJ | 31 January 2019  

And in all those years that we have been involved and implicated in Afghanistan, not a peep about it from the bishops. The only things that they have been able to get their knickers in a knot about are marriage equality, the secrecy of the confessional, 'religious freedom', and Commonwealth funding for schools. That's morality for you.

Ginger Meggs | 31 January 2019  

There is a difference between asserting that the US shouldn’t be sending its military into a foreign country to bring about a functioning liberal democracy and that the US should be careful about which foreign country it sends its military into. It’s a matter of calculating the likelihood of success in achieving that aim. Where the upsides far outweigh the downsides, as with tiny Grenada, it should do so. All Grenadians today would agree that if Reagan had worshipped the principle of non-interference, his idolatry would have been disastrous for them today. There are several nations in domestic binds which could be candidates for an Alexander’s Gordian Knot approach, eg., the Central American countries that send economic refugees to the US, and perhaps even Venezuela where, like Grenada, a longstanding liberal democracy was terminated by an experiment in roguish behaviour. One of the calculations to be made is whether, as in South Vietnam, the Americans would have a poor client who undermines their sacrifice. But there should be no principle against armed rescue by the US because, on every important index of freedom, there is no equivalence between the US and aspiring superpowers such as China and Russia.

roy chen yee | 01 February 2019  

Jeff, I totally agree with you. Once again at great cost the US and its allies have lost out on their plan to run the affairs of another country. I was conscripted and served in Vietnam. Not a day goes by when I don't pause to wonder "for what purpose?". I wonder just what it will take for our political leaders to realise that following our "great and powerful friend" into doubtful situations is not a great idea. Trump's latest foray into South American politics, his stance on Iran and his other idiotic decisions should be cause for great concern by the Australian Public. However as you so clearly observe, we are more interested in the Cricket than our dying environment! We see the iconic Darling River in terminal decline, we (in Canberra) have experienced a blistering January, yet we can not find the money to address the problems we face with our fragile environment ! How very sad.

Gavin O'Brien | 01 February 2019  

Grenada was not invaded by the US for the benefit of Grenadians. It was invaded because of where it is ! When elephants fight, the grass is crushed.

Ginger Meggs | 01 February 2019  

William Arkin, one of the sanest and most practical American commentators on defence, who has the knowledge of a former Army intelligence officer and analyst, considers that, for all the Western military intervention in the Middle East in the last 18 years, that area is less safe today than it was. We are doing something very, very wrong. I don't think most of us in the West really understand Islam in all its dimensions and history. Nor do we understand the Middle East or the larger Muslim World. Action based on ignorance does not ensure success.

Edward Fido | 04 February 2019  

I think Roy has it right. The intent from US and Australia was morally correct, but unfortunately overoptimistic and rather naive. The attempt was to create a stable Western-style democracy with the whole package of human rights, but has failed as perhaps it was always going to. But now it will back to the dark-ages for the people of Afghanistan, especially horrible for women who return to official chattel status, with forced childhood marriage and no chance of any education, with large refugee emigration from loads of people now in danger of torture and death. The green-left needs to be careful of what it wishes for.

Eugene | 04 February 2019  

Thanks for this wise, reflective article. I don't think the topics of war & USA can be separated from the other pillar of American barbarism ... the proliferation of weapon manufacturing. Australia is now embarking on this path with stealth ... just travel on the Melbourne-Albury train and you will see a factory (enormous) in a paddock built for this very purpose. Shocking.

Mary Tehan | 04 February 2019  

There are many critics of American foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere, many of them American, who would be very hard to classify under the dump code 'green-left', Eugene. Significant among these are William Arkin, who I have already mentioned, Robert Baer, an ex CIA operative in the Middle East and Robert Fisk, the Independent's long term Beirut-based Middle East correspondent. These are people well committed to Western democratic values, but who realise that some US led initiatives, such as the invasion of Iraq and the long engagement in Afghanistan have not led to the desired results. Speaking specifically of the Taliban, some see it as a creation of the Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence Agency. If it is, it has gotten wildly out of hand and threatens Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. Containing the Taliban is something which needs to be done primarily by Pakistan. Could the new Pakistani government under Imran Khan achieve this? Over time the Pakistanis have contained and rolled back the Taliban in certain areas. Containment of the Taliban is possible. What results may not be our 'ideal' solution but better than Taliban rule or dominance.

Edward Fido | 04 February 2019  

Eugene,the US/UK/Australian invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with installing ‘a stable Western-style democracy’, otherwise we would have invaded Saudi Arabia as well. It wasn’t even the stated objective - remember the alleged weapons of mass destruction ? Like every Western intervention in the Middle East, it was about access to resources - OIL !

Ginger Meggs | 04 February 2019  

Dear Ginger, You make a good point about Iraq, where motives were certainly more mixed and where the only winner is Iran. But Jeff`s article is about Afghanistan. My comments on that horror would also apply well to Vietnam, however. Excellent analysis recently published on that by Max Hastings; an attempt to prevent a takeover of nice people by really bad people ended in "an epic tragedy", and was always going to!

Eugene | 05 February 2019  

Thanks Eugene, point taken, but the US involvement in Afghanistan goes back long before they began trying to suppress the Taliban. At the beginning, they were actively encouraging and supporting the Taliban when the Taliban were seeking to oust the Russians. Was that because the Taliban were not ‘really bad people’ then ? No, it was to frustrate the USSR in its attempt to secure access to the Indian Ocean. No imperial power (and that includes the US and the USSR) has ever intervened in the affairs of a smaller country primarily for the benefit of the latter; it is always to protect or further the economic or security interests of the former.

Ginger Meggs | 05 February 2019  

Ginger Meggs: “Grenada was not invaded by the US for the benefit of Grenadians.“ Why is the date of the invasion commemorated in Grenada as Thanksgiving Day, then?

roy chen yee | 05 February 2019  

The American Way is superior to the Taliban Way because the Americans have Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghani Muslim, at the heart of their foreign policy. Waiting for an evangelical Christian white to be at the heart of Taliban foreign policy ….

roy chen yee | 05 February 2019  

You seem to love simplistic analysis crowned with a statement, such as your one that in Iraq 'the only winner is Iran', Eugene. Would that the situation were that simple! Conducting international diplomacy would then be a breeze. We could then follow Trump's line that Iran is the real villain in the Middle East and that we need to support the rough de facto alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel against it. God only knows what further death and devastation this would bring to the region. I shudder at the thought.

Edward Fido | 05 February 2019  

Logic 101 Roy. Your position is too simplistic. That the Grenadians call it 'Thanksgiving Day' may imply that they benefited from the invasion: it does not imply that benefiting Grenadians was the prime purpose of the invasion. For some of the background to the invasion and the self-interested reasons for the US intervention, go read Wikipedia < https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_invasion_of_Grenada>.

Ginger Meggs | 06 February 2019  

Thanks for this Jeff. Helpful even if discouraging.

Anne Benjamin | 09 February 2019  

Ginger Meggs: “it does not imply that benefiting Grenadians was the prime purpose of the invasion.” Irrelevant. I think Logic 101 accepts you can tie your shoelaces and chew gum at the same time. Or do you believe that the prime purpose of hosing down your neighbour’s house in an approaching bushfire must only be to save your neighbour’s house, not to save your house next door? False hierarchy (or false binary) was pointed out thousands of years ago when Christ said the greatest single commandment was the two-headed to love your God and your neighbour. Mr Reagan obviously loved his God of anticommunism (and quite reasonably too) and the invasion was, on all his pragmatic calculations, a swell opportunity to love his Grenadian neighbours as well.

roy chen yee | 11 February 2019  

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