Most Australians live in cities where the only newspapers are owned by Murdoch. So unless they found Fairfax on line, they were spared the sorrowful report on 3 May that Afghan government troops have pulled out of more ‘strongholds’ in Uruzgan province. http://www.smh.com.au/world/australian-troops-fought-and-died-in-uruzgan-now-afghan-troops-are-pulling-back-20160302-gn7z1i.html To the surprise of no-one who read it, Taliban are back.
The withdrawal, Reuters reported mournfully, followed ‘many years of work and much blood shed by Australian troops to maintain peace and stability in the province, before the last Australians left in 2014’. After Australians spent thirteen years in Tarin Kowt, 41 died, and many more were injured, the Afghan authorities have made ‘a tactical decision to deploy forces more effectively’. So many Afghan soldiers and police have deserted or been killed, they say, that the province is short of its ‘assigned strength’. (One thing they appear to have learnt from years of US/NATO training is Western management-speak).
The sombre announcement stirred barely a ripple of interest in Australia, for three possible reasons.
First, Australia is over Afghanistan. Only a fortnight ago those at Anzac day services swore not to forget our past wars, which include several egregious disasters, but we do forget them. Many of us forget, for example, that Australia has not declared or won a war since 1945, unless East Timor and Gulf War I count as victories. Since well before Federation, Australians have habitually and repeatedly gone to fight in distant countries, which are then forgotten as we prepare for the next one. As Henry Reynolds says in his new book Unnecessary Wars (2016), most Australians don’t ask why we fought or what resulted, only how we fought, as if war was a game of football.
Second, Afghanistan can’t be occupied. The British learned this to their cost in the Afghan wars of 1839-42 (‘Auckland’s folly’), 1878-80, and 1919, after which the rulers in Kabul took control of their country. The USSR fell into the Afghan quagmire in 1979 and was forced to withdraw ten years later by the United States’ proxies, the Mujahideen and the Taliban. In 2001 America attacked Afghanistan in revenge for the 9/11 attacks (in which no Afghan took part). The invasion made even less sense after Osama bin Laden fled al-Qaeda’s Afghan headquarters and was allowed to escape to Pakistan. Iraq was top on Bush’s list of target countries: Afghanistan was merely low-hanging fruit on the way to the invasion. Starting as a counter-terrorist war, the conflict in Afghanistan became a counter-insurgency, in which the only local support the US/NATO could expect for their objectives was what money could buy, and only for as long as they kept paying.
Third, Uruzgan is not Australia’s province. It can no more be claimed as uniquely Australian than Nui Dat or Kapyong, the Kokoda track or Gallipoli could. As the junior ally of Britain and the United States, our troops have always gone where they tell us to go, fought who they tell us to fight, and left when they leave (with the honourable exceptions of Curtin bringing Australian forces back to defend Australia in 1942 and Whitlam pulling them out of Vietnam in 1972). Uruzgan meant no more to Australia than it did to our Netherlands predecessors there, who gave it up as a bad job. Australia was stuck in Uruzgan at the United States’ pleasure, as a consequence of John Howard’s unilateral globalisation of the Anzus Treaty.
If anything can be learned from the current collapse of ‘strongpoints’ in Uruzgan, it is that invasion rarely defeats insurgency, that neither invasion nor occupation can last forever, and that Western invasion of Islamic countries attracts Muslim hostility like a magnet. Australia, learning nothing from Vietnam, repeated its errors by invading Iraq in 2003 and again in 2015, and by bombing Syria in 2015-6. The sooner the decision to commit Australian forces to these futile wars is taken out of the hands of an ill-advised prime minister, the better.
Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform and Vice-President of Honest History.