Can we get out of Afghanistan?

Nov 24, 2020

The revelation of war crimes by Australian soldiers has brought our focus on to Afghanistan, why we are there and why the special forces did what some of them did there. If the US pulls out so will we but, if not, we face difficult choices. We must wait and see what President Biden will do when he finally gets into the White House.

The Government response to the revelation of war crimes by special forces has been to express horror at the actions of a minority and reassure us that most of our soldiers are honourable men and women who serve their country with distinction and courage.  Both Government and Opposition reiterate the myth that we are there at the request of the Afghan people to bring them freedom and democracy.

In fact, we are there to please the Americans as part of our need to portray Australia as a loyal little ally who should be protected from evil. There is no suggestion that we should never have been there nor that it is time to leave although getting out would seem to be a sensible thing to do. So where do we go from here?

Donald Trump says he will pull out the US troops and we have said that if he does we could not remain because we need the support of the US forces to operate. We are integrated with them to a degree that makes this fair comment even though the real reason would be that if the Americans are not in Afghanistan there is no reason for us to be there.  There has never been any such thing as the Afghan people or government. The country remains a pastiche of often warring tribes and warlords which have occasionally been brought together under strong leadership but soon revert to normal. The Afghan government only controls part of the territory and its president has been called the mayor of Kabul by other Afghans.

Earlier, the US gave arms and support to the Taliban when it was fighting the Soviet Union. Obviously, this was a Cold War exercise that had nothing to do with Afghanistan as such. After 9/11 which had been carried out by Saudi Arabians inspired by Osama bin Laden, the US turned on their erstwhile Taliban allies in the belief that they were harbouring Osama bin Laden and supporting terrorism. Again, this was not about Afghanistan let alone its ordinary people. Osama quickly moved to Pakistan where he was later found and assassinated. The war then became one against terrorists who were seen as posing a threat to the USA and other countries.

We do not know what Biden will do, but if Trump manages to pull US troops out before Biden enters the White House it is unlikely that Biden will send them back again. Morrison seems to have learned from Billy McMahon’s humiliation when Nixon hung him out to dry by changing tack on China without telling Australia the day after McMahon made thumping speech along the lines of the previous American views. The suggestion that we could not stay without American support gives us an out if the US does change tack again.

The troops have been asked to carry out a mission that was always doomed to fail because it was based on false premises. The same thing happened in Vietnam and Iraq. This is not the fault of the military. In a democracy like ours, the military must obey the commands of a legitimately elected civil government even if that government takes bad decisions. Otherwise, you have military dictatorship or anarchy. Most people like to believe they are fighting for a just cause and leaders must give them one. The ANZACs fought for the King and the British Empire of which we were a proud part. The Japanese fought for the Emperor and the Japanese empire. And so on. Thus, it was necessary to invent a cause that our troops could risk their lives for which was that we were there to bring a bright future to the people. While we proudly proclaim that Australia will act in accordance with our values, sovereignty and interests we seem to find it much harder to accept that other countries might like to do the same. We also seem ready to hand over our sovereignty to the USA as part of the American Alliance.

So how do we get out? No politician likes to admit that long-held policies were wrong especially when it would involve admitting that our soldiers died for a dubious cause. Pompeo’s visit to Kabul looks like a face-saving formula in the making. As in Vietnam, things are being handed over to the local government which can now run the country. It can’t but we look like we are doing the right thing. The result will probably be fragmentation or even the return of the Taliban. If Biden reverses the Trump policy and sends the troops back then we have a problem (NATO is a player but not one we must worry about too much). For Australia to act independently of the USA would be a good thing but the track record of our governments and oppositions suggests that this is not likely so, as usual, Australia will follow the leader which in this case will hopefully give us an out. If not, we fall back into the slough of despond.

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