We were not born yesterday

Our leaders have been conning the Australian public for years about the realities of international efforts in Afghanistan. The small army of activists, writers, independent journalists, academics, historians and retired diggers and diplomats who for years have been exposing their untruths usually are ignored, dismissed or ridiculed, including by mainstream media.

So you’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little reluctant to accept at face value the recent announcement of Australia’s ‘Claytons’ troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

There’s been no expression of war guilt or remorse by our leaders; perhaps – one hopes – that is something they express privately. But what is clear is that our leaders don’t learn from their mistakes: they merely bury them for 20 years, and in the meantime keep making more.

In her book ‘Letters to my daughter’ Maya Angelou relates Fannie Lou Hamer’s call to all American citizens to ask themselves some questions about their country. Replacing America with our own country, I think it’s appropriate that we ask ourselves those same questions:

What do I think of my country? What is there, which elevates my shoulders and stirs my blood when I hear the words, Australia: Do I praise my country enough? Do I laud my fellow citizens enough? What is there about my country that makes me hang my head and avert my eyes when I hear the words Australia, and what am I doing about it? Am I relating my disappointment to my leaders and to my fellow citizens, or am I like someone not involved, sitting high and looking low?

As Australians, we should not be afraid to respond.

I laud my fellow citizens who have the courage to make known that they want our troops brought home from Afghanistan. Yet equally I feel like hanging my head and averting my eyes when I’m reminded that my country’s successive governments have not remained strong, objective and neutral on the international stage, but instead have allowed us to become a prisoner of Australia’s alliance with the United States government.

And in America just as in Australia, it’s important to emphasise the distinction between the American people, for whom I have tremendous respect (and the majority of whom, incidentally, are also against the ongoing war in Afghanistan), and the United States government.

The ANZUS Treaty unfortunately has wedded us to the US in an abusive relationship. By flattery and deception on one side, and political servility and diplomatic ineptitude on the other, for the last half century our country has been conscripted to support illegal invasions and occupations of sovereign nations for highly questionable purposes.

Well, enough is enough.

Experienced commentators rightly ask:

“What have we ever got from taking sides with the US, and earlier with Britain? The US would have come to Australia in 1942 even if we’d been neutral: they needed a safe base, an aircraft carrier with a food basket, from which to launch their front in the Pacific.” 

As Professor Peter Edwards pointed out in 2001:

“... though the American people were animated by a warm friendship for Australia, their purpose in building up forces in the Commonwealth was not so much from an interest in Australia but rather from its utility as a base from which to hit Japan … The Australian landmass offered a geographically convenient base for American forces, and that was all that mattered to American policy makers.

The late American historian Howard Zinn warned that if you don’t know history it’s as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything and you have no way of checking up on it.

I would add that ‘checking up’ may require us to confront uncomfortable and sometimes painful truths, and it does require eternal vigilance by every citizen.

What will our students be taught years from now about our nation’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan? That it is was in our national security interests? That it was for freedom and democracy? Or will a more honest account be given about the lies, the cover-ups, the undercurrent of economic opportunism and exploitation, and the cost to innocent victims? Will the words “our military and foreign policies placed us at greater risk” ever appear on the blackboard?

Afghan parliamentarian and acclaimed human rights activist Malalai Joya was in Australia last week. Her personal experience provides a less palatable historical analysis.

In 2003, when just 25 years old, it was she who dared to hold up a mirror to the new Afghan parliament as America’s post 9/11 foot soldiers: a batch of brutal criminals, left over from Afghanistan’s civil war after the end of the Soviet occupation, who now were not only being granted impunity, but were handed the keys allegedly to bring democracy to the people of Afghanistan.

How ironic is it that sitting in the Afghan parliament, right under our noses, is Abdul Rab al-Rasul Sayyaf, the man who first invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan before the Taliban rule, who trained and mentored Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and who massacred thousands in Kabul during the 1990s? There he sits as a member of a government that Western nations support by various means including the lives of our soldiers.

When Joya refers to “warlords” it’s not just some generic term. She is specifically referring to the war criminals – known recidivists – who were involved in the Battle for Kabul from 1992 to 1993.

Most are mentioned by name in the 2005 Human Rights Watch report ‘Blood-Stained Hands Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity’. The report couldn’t be clearer:

“… Many of the main commanders and political faction leaders implicated in the crimes detailed in this report are now officials in the Afghan government – serving in high level positions in the police, military, intelligence services, and even advisors to president Hamid Karzai…”

Instead of helping to bring war criminals to justice, which many Afghans claim would have increased stability and brought security, we have helped to back them. To be more specific, our government, in our names, has helped to back men guilty of or complicit in the massacre, rape, forced disappearances and torture of innocent Afghan women, men and children.

Implementing a Kony 2012-type campaign there would render immediately vacant most of the seats in the Afghan parliament.

In this context it is absurd to put isolated propositions about our “achievements”, things like the improvement in life expectancy for the women in Afghanistan (the figures compiled by a US-sponsored mortality survey, disputed by several experts), or gains in girls’ education without discussing the documented qualifications of and limitations to that success.

People like Joya seldom face questions about their pressing concerns, like the 1.3 million Afghans – comprising asylum seekers, refugees, returning refugees and half a million internally displaced persons – and their insufferable conditions, or about whether the recent joint communiqué of Afghan and Pakistan Progressive and Left Parties has popular support.

Malalai Joya is the very embodiment of an Afghan-led solution staring Western leaders in the face. Unlike the people we openly back, she doesn’t have blood on her hands. Armed only with her voice, she is empowered by popular support.

She and others like her have the power to unite the Afghan people. She’s intelligent, secular and she’s a survivor. She loves her country and its people and they know it. She is the kind of leader that the long suffering people of Afghanistan deserve and she understands that for many Afghans the healing starts with justice.

Soon many Australian troops will return home irreparably damaged. They will need to be supported and soothed and cared for. But the war in Afghanistan will not be over until all international troops have gone and Afghanistan can proceed down the path to self determination free of foreign interference.

The value of an accurate historical record is the lessons it offers to all humanity, and the opportunities to avoid repeating past mistakes. The war into which our government led us will conclude with a whimper, as it always was going to do, an ignominious withdrawal with no enduring achievements after a decade of sacrifice.

History has shown yet again that we simply can’t believe what our politicians tell us and that we can’t trust the motives they proclaim.

Now that we are facing the reality of our potential involvement in yet another futile war we must not just seek but also demand that in future Australia’s participation in any war or the deployment overseas of any Australian forces requires formal parliamentary approval after informed and open debate, both in Parliament and in the public arena.

No ifs or buts. We were not born yesterday.

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