Best we don’t ask why we go to war.

Aug 27, 2021

Australia seems to hold more inquiries into itself than almost any other country. We inquire into everything, from Indigenous deaths in custody, child sexual abuse, and same sex marriage to bank misdemeanours, casino operations, pandemic responses, and alleged war crimes. There’s one exception to our obsession with self-scrutiny: Australia’s wars.

In Unnecessary Wars, historian Henry Reynolds memorably observes that after a war Australia never asks why we fought, with what result, or at what cost. We ask only how we fought, as if war was a football game.

The Australian War Memorial has lost sight of its original purpose of commemoration, as well as of the sombre warning ‘lest we forget’. The AWM’s preoccupation, with Brendan Nelson as Director, became the celebration of past wars, and the promotion of weapons, mostly imported at great cost from companies which sponsor the AWM. Its Board, which is chaired by Kerry Stokes and includes Tony Abbott, doesn’t include one historian.

The government is cutting back history teaching at universities. Instead of learning what we still can of our history, Australia repeats and repeats it. We have not won a war since 1945. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, we have lost three more.

Australians pleaded for an inquiry into the Iraq war, similar to the British one under Sir James Chilcot, which reported in 2016 on the shortcomings which led to that disaster. In Canberra, neither Government nor Opposition would have a bar of it. Instead, they commissioned an official history of the wars in East Timor, and the Middle East, which has yet to appear.

This month’s debacle in Afghanistan was entirely predictable, and was indeed predicted, including by Americans in the military, as the ‘Afghanistan Papers’ showed in 2019. Well before then, the ‘Afghan War Logs’ published by WikiLeaks showed that the ‘forever war’ would end in defeat. Julian Assange is still locked up for his part in doing that.

Even those too young to have known Vietnam at first hand could recognise the pattern in Afghanistan: a false reason for war, a misunderstood enemy, an ill-conceived strategy, a series of stooges running a corrupt government, a defeat. In both wars, successive US presidents (and Australian prime ministers) refused to admit what the result would be.

The CIA in Afghanistan replicated the opium trading operations it ran in Vietnam and Cambodia. When Taliban MKI took over in 1996, they shut down poppy cultivation, but after NATO arrived in 2001, heroin exports became business as usual. American observers say Taliban MKII in 2021 may need the revenue from drugs to run their devastated country, particularly if the US and its allies impose punitive sanctions, or cut off World Bank and IMF support to Afghanistan.

Playing the human rights card is always the last recourse of defeated Westerners. We heard about the barbarous Taliban trampling on the rights of women and girls whenever allied enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan declined. Then there would be a troop surge, the result of which was to kill thousands more civilians, including women and girls.

Now, if we’re wringing our collective hands again, it may be in confusion: are most Afghan women still oppressed by the same barbarous Taliban, and many children afflicted by malnutrition and stunted growth? Or are most Afghan women benefiting from 20 years of access to education, jobs, and health care? If those were such high priorities, why did Trump cut off US funding for family planning services? (Biden, to his credit, restored it in February).

With so many dead and injured, the capacities of all women and men will be needed, as Taliban leaders have said. To what extent Islamic principles will apply is not for us, the countries which lost the war, to decide. So why is the US contemplating sanctions, which will further impoverish the country? Of course, as with all past American wars, there’s been no mention of reparations, which would help Afghanistan do its own nation-building in its own way. That would be too much to expect from such sore losers, including Australia.

Afghanistan has for centuries been at the strategic centre of the ‘great game’ between East and West. With the latest war lost, the power balance is swinging decisively towards East Asia – something Singapore’s Kishore Mahbubani has been predicting for more than two decades. China is recruiting nations across Central Asia, not to fight wars, but to benefit from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Central and Eastern Europe Community, and the Belt and Road Initiative. Iran and Pakistan are now engaged, and Afghanistan can be expected to follow. China is gaining influence across the region through peace and development, not war and destruction.

If Australians ignore the change in the global power balance that is happening before our eyes, we will suffer the consequences. If we can’t defeat the Taliban, how will we prevail in a war against China? Our losses will be incomparably greater. Perhaps when they meet in Washington in September, the PM may wish to ask if President Biden still believes America is back, and wants a war with China. But Biden didn’t even bother to call Morrison to discuss the Kabul rout. So much for our investment in the Afghanistan war, which was supposed to buy us access in Washington.

The lessons of our history are plain. Before we repeat them by taking on China and inviting a worse disaster, ANZUS at 70 needs a thorough review, and Australia needs another independent, public inquiry – this time into the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

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