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.

That’s much less of a concession than it seems, given that the Taliban, as it prepares for power, views al Qaeda and the Islamic State as rivals, and has been fighting against the latter. The talks might 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 in Afghanistan. But if you search “Australia” and “Afghanistan”, you return more news stories on the cricket than about a conflict that has killed 41 Australian Defence Force members.

One of the few to take an interest in recent developments was Clive Williams, an academic at the Australian Defence Force Academy. “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 who argued 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. 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 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, 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. In late January, for instance, Akerman, the man who viewed 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 over 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 percent 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 alone has spent $932 billion 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, 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.

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First published at www.EurekaStreet.com.au. Jeff Sparrow is a writer, editor and honorary fellow at Victoria University.