If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. (Sun Tzu, The Art of War)
One reason why China has not lost any wars lately is they haven’t fought any. This may be because China, for all its growing military power, knows it can project itself and protect its interests better without fighting. The Europeans made a similar decision when they formed the European Community, and the ASEAN states consciously followed their example, undertaking not to threaten or use force against each other or against other signatories of the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (1976). All of them are members of the United Nations, whose Charter renounces war except for immediate self-defence or when it is authorised by the Security Council.
Yet war has been raging in several Middle Eastern countries since 2001, and the external nations still fighting it are the Anglo-allies and France. Their invasion of Afghanistan, with a coalition of supportive states, was retrospectively legalised by a resolution of the Security Council, but its purpose – to punish al-Qaeda for the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington – soon became redundant. Their next invasion was of Iraq, with a much smaller coalition, and with no legitimacy at all. Its first purpose – to overthrow Saddam Hussein – succeeded, but its second – to take control of Iraq’s oil – failed because of resistance from his successors in Baghdad. A third invasion, of Libya, with an even smaller allied representation, was equally illegitimate, and its purpose was similar – to depose Moammar Ghaddafi and control Libya’s oil. Again, an assassination, and chaos rather than control was the result. The fourth effort, in support of rebel proxy fighters against Bashar al-Assad, began as a ‘humanitarian’ intervention by the Anglo coalition, unauthorised by the Security Council. Along with the violent contributions of Islamic State (IS), years of civil war in Syria were the outcome. With IS dissipated and the ‘Free Syrian Army’ now corralled in the eastern province of Idlib, a rump of the coalition – the US, UK, and France – are preparing another assault. It may be this week, and will likely be represented as an emergency retaliation for an attack by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
When President Trump offered to end this fruitless fight if Iran would withdraw its troops, his Syrian counterpart correctly pointed out that they were there at Damascus’ invitation, and the illegal American presence should end first. Trump has made clear his distaste for expensive wars the US doesn’t win (https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/feb/27/donald-trump-says-us-never-wins-wars-anymore). This was repeated by the US Commander in Afghanistan as he left Kabul last week. General John Nicholson said ‘It is time for this war to end.’ One of his predecessors, Karl Eikenberry, who later served as the United States Ambassador to Kabul, said ‘We continue to fight simply because we are there’ (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/02/world/asia/afghan-commander-us-john-nicholson.html). A NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to an American decision to leave Iraq and Syria too, if Trump has the courage of his convictions and is able to control his anonymous staff who will try to stop him doing anything so unwise.
Australia has willingly fought in our allies’ wars for more than a century, but for us to withdraw from them when circumstances change is not unknown. John Curtin did it in 1941 to defend Australia against Japan, and Gough Whitlam did it in 1972 to take Australia out of Vietnam where a French colonial war had become an American war against Communism. In December 2017, Malcolm Turnbull made a Clayton’s exit from Syria by withdrawing RAAF bombers which were supposedly defending Iraq against IS attacks from Syria. Justin Trudeau took Canada’s bombers out of Syria as soon as he took office, and the sky didn’t fall.
Retired General Peter Leahy spoke from experience in February 2016, saying of Afghanistan, ‘I don’t think we even knew what our ends were. . . It was almost a set-and-forget way in our military response.’ He particularly objected to the fact that no strategy for the Australian deployment had been properly debated by Parliament. There was, he complained, no civil rehabilitation program, and no whole-of-government plan. Shortly before this, then Chief of the Defence Force Mark Binskin, told a Senate committee that the overall security situation had deteriorated in Afghanistan. In Oruzgan province, which Australian troops left three years earlier, insurgents had freedom of movement and contained Afghan army units in their bases. (https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/australia-had-no-strategy-in-afghanistan-and-allies-are-struggling-says-former-army-chief-peter-leahy-20160222-gn0hzz.html).
After 17 years of fighting illegal wars with no positive result, Australia should decide enough is enough, if only to show fiscal responsibility and budgetary restraint. The loss of Australian lives and those of Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians makes it worse, and we share responsibility for the millions of refugees who have fled those countries, as well as Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan. Our leaders repeat their regard for the ‘international rules-based order’ which they flout every day Australian troops continue to fight in illegal wars. Afghanistan became a ‘legal’ war in 2002, but internal Defence inquiries suggest that individuals assigned there in the Australian Special Forces may have committed war crimes. For this reason alone, it’s time to bring them home.
Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice President of Australians for War Powers Reform and a campaign member of Be Sure on War: No War Without Parliament.