Sacrifices in vain on the Afghanistan war path

A NATO report made public yesterday suggests that the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, is set to retake control of Afghanistan after NATO-led forces withdraw.

Although not a strategic study the report begs the question, has the sacrifice of our Australian diggers been in vain? Has our contribution to the war on terrorism as Australian taxpayers been money well spent?

Early this year Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar reportedly confirmed having opened peace talks with US authorities, demanding the release of Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay and the complete pullout of US led forces. Of course, US president Barack Obama wants to maintain America’s prestige and negotiate a withdrawal that leaves America’s credibility intact, which may be fair enough, but what if the Taliban won’t compromise? What leverage will the United States have at the negotiating table?

Peace talks require groundwork, mutually acceptable compromises about things like the location for formal negotiations (Qatar) and procedural issues like a possible ceasefire. These preliminaries help to buy time domestically for political leaders who want to be seen to be doing something but who are faced with bad choices, like the symbolic withdrawal of troops when there’s been no victory or fighting a war for something less than vital interests (ie national security). Any peace talks doubtless will be lengthy, costly and exhausting; for what end they’re being pursued remains unclear.

Peace talks with the Afghan Taliban logically are a spoke in the wheel for the recently vocal proponents of “we dare not withdraw troops from Afghanistan and let Afghan women face the prospect of the return to Taliban rule”, so it’s strange that we haven’t heard a word – not one word – from any Australian politician from the major political parties calling for negotiations to include Afghan women if the Taliban is to be reincorporated into the political system.

After going toe-to-toe about war strategies with US “institutional interests” from shortly after his election, Mr Obama in 2009 determined and issued his “final orders” for Afghanistan (and Pakistan). December 2010 was selected as the next assessment point because it was one year after the additional 30,000 US troops committed in 2009 arrived in Afghanistan, allowing enough time to assess progress and validate the operational concept.

When a leaked 2011 National Intelligence Estimate report found that Afghanistan was “mired in stalemate”, military and Pentagon officials argued that assumptions used by intelligence agencies were flawed. Virtually the same line was taken following the release of the 2010 National Intelligence Estimate report.

“Stalemate” probably means that the Taliban can continue to absorb casualties, and continue to fight at the level they have been, and seek safe haven when required, indefinitely. If so, there isn’t any point where military pressure or troop escalations can achieve diplomatic or political success. Perhaps that is consistent with Mr Obama symbolically announcing the withdrawal of 33,000 “surge” troops by the end of this year, leaving 68,000 troops. Ignoring the rhetoric, that move appears to be a unilateral withdrawal of about a third of US troops without a single concession from the Afghan Taliban.

Indicators of progress towards any solution on the ground are equally poor.

As a result of killing 25 Pakistani soldiers last year, the United States now pays six times as much to supply its troops in Afghanistan via alternative routes after Pakistan closed the border crossings to NATO convoys.

Earlier this year the United States Air Force released its investigation into a 2011 killing of eight American airmen and a security contractor by Afghan air force officer, Ahmed Gul. Gul had declared his desire to kill Americans, behaved erratically at work and frequented a mosque known for its anti-American views.

Similarly, reports about the recent killing of French soldiers in Afghanistan’s eastern Kapisa province suggest that the responsible Afghan soldier was prompted by the video showing US Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban insurgents. France apparently is pulling out forces by the end of 2013.

A more recent classified coalition document indicates that Afghan forces have attacked American and allied service members nearly three dozen times since 2007.

Events like these don’t auger well for peace and stability if the 2014 deadline is contingent upon Afghan Security Forces maintaining security.

And don’t forget the Afghan Opium Survey for 2011 finding that the value of opium in the country had increased by 133 per cent, violence against women being on the rise in Oruzgan, Afghans complaining about Oruzgan projects, continuing night raids still sparking anti-US protests, and two out of four Afghans suffering from trauma, depression and anxiety. Read the Human Rights Watch World Report 2012: Afghanistan for an alarming assessment of “conditions on the ground”.

The Bush and Obama administrations have long known about the depth and breadth of corruption in the Karzai government, about the expanding opium trade and about the sanctuaries provided to Al Qaeda and others in nuclear-armed and radicalised Pakistan.

Having asked the question in the Situation Room on September 13 2009, Vice President Joe Biden also well knows that there is no evidence of the Afghan Taliban advocating attacks outside of Afghanistan or on the United States. Reporter and author Michael Hastings puts it this way: “The question one has to ask oneself is that if everything we’re doing and everyone we’re fighting is not actually a threat to the United States, certainly not a direct threat by any means, then why are we expending so many resources… with all the lives lost, to do it?”

Consecutive Australian governments must have asked the same question, but what answer did they come up with? What answer have they given us?

In 1960 president Dwight D Eisenhower spoke of the need for balance so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Shouldn’t Australia – and debt-laden countries like the US and UK and the other countries currently embroiled in the European financial crisis – have made such assessments of their Afghanistan involvement long before now?

It was reported last year that our bill for fighting terrorism is at least $30 billion. But don’t we have to factor in the ongoing personal, economic and societal costs (particularly intergenerational costs) of war for veterans and their families: people who carry permanent scars like amputated limbs, severe burns, genitourinary injury, severe bodily or facial disfigurement, depression, hearing loss, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, and who cope with alcohol, drugs or suicide?

All the while, Australia has an infrastructure deficit of around $700 billion to $800 billion, or perhaps more. Has any Australian government sought, let alone found, and sensible balance between defence and security needs and other functions of government?

If, as many suspect, wars are fought for oil (Alan Greenspan candidly said so in 2007 in relation to Iraq), it’s somewhat ironic that the money we have spent on fighting terrorism could have made serious inroads into our oil deficit by funding a high speed rail network along the entire east coast. Its estimated cost is between $61 billion and $108 billion, but it would serve the 80 per cent of Australians living within 100 kilometres of the coast. But no, Australia remains a net oil importer, heavily reliant on trouble-free import supply chains. The leaked Australian Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics study predicts peak oil around 2017, followed by permanent decline: “the 2017 drop-off”. What effects will that have? Where are the reports commissioned by lobby groups, or think tanks, or business councils urging a rethink? A cost-benefit analysis? Where’s the “Bonus Army”?

The war in Afghanistan will end with attempts – which are unlikely to succeed or even be sustained – to negotiate a political settlement with the Afghan Taliban. The expression actually means, “After all the madness, what is it that each side wants in order to permit honourable withdrawal in a manner that is politically advantageous”. Peace with honour is gilded honour shamefully misplaced.

It wasn’t so long ago that president Nixon delivered his 1969 speech urging the American people “to persist in our search for a just peace through a negotiated settlement if possible, or through continued implementation of our plan for Vietnamisation if necessary, a plan in which we will withdraw all our forces from Vietnam on a schedule in accordance with our program, as the South Vietnamese become strong enough to defend their own freedom.”

Substitute Afghanistan for Vietnam and read that again.

At about the same time Liberal prime minister Billy McMahon announced that all Australian combat troops would be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1971. His announcement conformed to the decision Washington had taken to gradually withdraw US troops and to “Vietnamise” the war. Domestic political pressure doesn’t rate a mention in the top secret cabinet minute dated July 26, 1971 recording the decision to withdraw Australian troops from Vietnam by the end of 1971, despite the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign. The Australian government merely followed the United States lead in Vietnam, and the same applies in Afghanistan. Consecutive Australian governments have tagged along unreservedly.

Though public opinion might count for little in the decisions of those who determine our fate, and that of our children, we have an obligation to support those with true insight who also have the courage to speak out for what we believe to be right.

Matthew Hoh, Senior Fellow for the Centre for International Policy and former US Marine Officer and US State Department official, is a good example. He has long understood the difference between futile participation in civil war in Afghanistan, on the one hand, and fighting terrorism on the other. Hoh is scheduled to speak at the National Security Australia 2012 conference. He may need more than a little luck to get much “quality media air time”, but if you know he’s speaking you’ll be able to track down what he says.

Taking a different tack to a similar end, Senator Ludlam late last year agreed to table a petition about the war in Afghanistan when Parliament resumes this year. Names can still be added to the petition here. Even though it is largely symbolic – no-one is pretending that it will alter the course of the war or speed up the withdrawal of Australian troops – it is important nonetheless. Why? Because it gives ordinary Australians the chance to add their name to a document which will become part of an historic public record, a document which records the names of ordinary Australians who dissented from decisions and actions that powerbrokers presume to make in our names.

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