The Taliban over-ran Kabul last night. They had been speedily advancing throughout Afghanistan for weeks. Despite the US spending trillions of dollars training and equipping the Afghan army it collapsed almost overnight due to corruption and poor morale.
Australia was one of more than 40 countries which had signed up for the conflict, and which is still scrambling to tie off the ‘loose ends’ of twenty years of war. The loose ends include Afghanis who assisted us, or the Americans, during those twenty years.
As an advanced democracy, we also bear responsibility for the backlash which will inevitably fall on those we leave behind. Admiral Chris Barrie (retired) commented today that we announced our decision to leave in April, and yet, here we are four months later, still trying to arrange the retrieval of our support staff. Too little, too late, again?
The current situation resembles Vietnam in the final weeks, as the Americans strive to get out. Their Afghan allies have been abandoned, military supplies left to the victors, collaborators are in extreme danger of retribution. There is also another large group, which finds itself in jeopardy-women and girls.
The Taliban is an extreme and pre-modern Islamist movement, and women and girls can expect, at the very least, the re-introduction of arranged marriages, the removal of hard-won rights and personal freedoms, the abolition of education for girls, and the mandatory dress code, which includes the most extreme version of the burqa.
When you invade a country, any country, you must win the war, or, even if you retreat with honour, you lose. The enemy surges if you abandon the field of battle, and the ideology you were battling against, wins. The Vietnamese are still Communist, and the Taliban will continue to be Islamist fundamentalists.
Why were we there?
Eighty years ago, Prime Minister John Curtin prepared a New Year’s Eve message for the Australian people. It was written three weeks after the war with Japan had begun. It was published in the Melbourne Herald on 27 December, 1941:
‘Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.’
With this message he informed the world that Australia’s foreign policy direction must change, in response not only to the military situation with Japan, but to Australia’s location in the Pacific. From then on, he states, Australia will be proactive, the architect of her own interests.
Australia disengaged from the ‘general war’ to concentrate on the Pacific conflict. Both Churchill and Roosevelt were surprised, and dismayed, but the die was cast. Australia survived the war, but only with massive assistance from the U.S. America has been the cornerstone of our foreign policy ever since. The alliance between Australia and the United States was formalised through the ANZUS Treaty in 1951.
John Howard took us there
John Howard signed us up for this war in Afghanistan. He invoked the ANZUS Treaty. He was in Washington on September 11, 2001 and Australian troops were committed to Afghanistan within a month, by October that year. On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. he stated that “the decisions I believed were right. I still believe they were right, and I believe history will vindicate them.” Sadly, every Australian Prime Minister since then, has kept Australia in this fruitless, endless war.
Australians have fought alongside Americans in every major US military action since World War 11. They include Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, and lately, Syria.
Many have used the “shared history, and shared values” argument to justify our continued relationship. Others question the value for Australia, which has stood loyally by its mighty ally, through its many wars, with not much to show for the effort, except in terms of lost lives, and wasted military resources. We were never there as equal partners.
Realpolitik suggests that there is an element of coercion in the relationship, in that the U.S. is understood to reward its allies, and to punish those who are not. Self-interest is also clearly evident. We consider ourselves too small to defend ourselves in a dangerous world, and so being friends with the richest and most powerful nation on earth, adds to our international weight.
Is Morrison committing us to a war with China?
Last year our Prime Minister ramped up the hysteria and the rhetoric concerning China. He even committed a sum of $270 billion to defence, which included funding for long range missiles. These are presumably to warn China that we are deadly serious about defending ourselves, militarily, against our largest trading partner.
This can be traced back to a slavish desire, on Morrison’s part, to please Donald Trump. The ex-President, in an attempt to divert attention away from his own criminal negligence regarding the pandemic in America, had sought to demonise China for somehow ‘inventing’ Covid19.
So by jumping onto Trump’s bandwagon, Australia is now in the uncomfortable position of having antagonised our largest trading partner, and then by clearly choosing the Americans over China, in a geo-political struggle which we should have stayed out of.
So we probably do need the relationship with the Americans, because we chose to be China’s enemy. Or is the American Empire heading toward its inevitable end? In Australian terms “have we backed the wrong horse?”