Blood on their hands

The loss of any and every life in Afghanistan is a tragedy, whether civilian or soldier and no matter which if any side they’re on.

Leaders who’ve long known, or at least should have known, that the efforts in Afghanistan are futile stand before the media scrum and offer condolences to the families. Of course that’s politically proper, but to what extent are they offering true support to the families, friends and relatives? If they had to be tormented by the emotions felt by those left behind, would this war have continued for so long?

How it feels to receive word that you will never again embrace the person you love, and what it’s like to begin to grapple with a life without them, is never the headline.  We hear news of the deaths, we hear official condolences from sombre military officers and politicians, and we see coverage of bodies arriving home and officials attending funerals. But in very little time each of those young faces becomes, to those of us who did not know and love them, just part of the patchwork of this enduring tragedy. It’s unfurled each time there’s another death, lists of names and rows of pictures in newspapers. Pragmatism is far more palatable than empathy. Our involvement in war goes on, the reporting continues, and gradually the victims become statistics with their deaths dehumanised.

Like a slave repudiating their master, a politician has now joined the confessional  queue claiming to have blood on his hands.   We should respect him for it.  Of course, it’s hard to argue with him. Speaking out is probably cathartic for our elected representatives who have finally come to realise what they have continued to condone without personal consequence. Others may never admit their mistakes in maintaining support for this war, but they would never be prepared to do the killing themselves and they would not support the war if it were “theirs” who were being killed. Such is the privilege of high office: if you don’t pay a personal price, you don’t have to learn lessons and you’re not compelled to a desperate search for some other way.

Political rhetoric and flawed logic takes hold in the aftermath of tragic losses. It’s hard to find a modicum of truth in official statements about “setbacks” or “small incidents not affecting our resolve” or “the mission being on track”.  Surely our leaders have grown tired of sprouting this rubbish, just as we the public, and some of their elected compatriots, have stopped believing it?

The military says it follows orders from our Government, that it doesn’t set the policy. But the Government justifies its stance on the basis of assessments provided to it by the military. When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. Who then has the power to say “enough”?

 The Prime Minister asserts that the mission in Afghanistan is to “train local Afghan people so they can provide security for their own nation, that is, that they can prevent their nation once again becoming home to terrorist training.” Yet neither Australian or American military commanders are able to offer a reasonable and concise explanation for why our Afghan comrades are killing soldiers in increasing numbers.  They may never know. And one shouldn’t overlook the fact that special operations forces will be required to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, even though this is now the United States’and Australia’s longest war.

Special operations forces probably have to stay to try to prevent the immediate fall of the Karzai regime: it won’t be a good look if, after 11 years, we leave without being able to declare success and the government falls soon after. But the Karzai regime has reached the end of the road; it lost the support of the majority of Afghans years ago. The parliamentarians themselves are feeling that: it was reported in June that chronic absenteeism has become a serious problem in the Wolesi Jirga with some parliamentarians absent for as much as a year, but still receiving their full salaries and privileges.

Our Government has neither the courage nor the honesty to admit that our efforts have not led to the expected results.

And as the historians forecast at the outset, history is repeating itself. Towards the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Gorbachev’s government had to face the fact that they were unable to close the border of Afghanistan with Pakistan and Iran; they acknowledged the need to include India and Pakistan in the resolution of the conflict; they noted the failure to back military results with political actions, with the government in Afghanistan only supported by a minority of the population; they lost hope that an Afghan army could be created regardless of how much is invested in it, noting high desertion rates; and they had disregarded the most important national and historical factors, with the military presence being associated with forceful imposition of customs alien to the national characteristics of the Afghan people.  The Soviets also had to concede that the fragmentation of the rebel movement worked to its advantage: there was a lack of a central rebel base of operations to bomb, there wasn’t a single strategy planning meeting to infiltrate and there was no single popular leader to negotiate with or eliminate.

Have we learned nothing? Our young soldiers are not “dying doing what they love” when they are slain by their putative allies. In just the same way, a poor Afghan doesn’t see the coalition forces as a friend of democracy when members of their family are killed defending their home during a night raid or when they’re blown to bits by bombs from drones.

Our soldiers are being exposed to unacceptable levels of risk. They return irreparably damaged, most of them probably haunted if not maimed. An added sting in the tail is a concern that a lasting legacy of this war may be ongoing “mysterious” illnesses: it was recently reported that New Zealand soldiers returning from Afghanistan are having urine tests to check if they have absorbed radioactivity from depleted uranium munitions.  There’s no mandatory routine testing of our soldiers for exposure to chemical or radiological contamination.

The war in Afghanistan has long ceased to be about September 11. It is no quest for democracy or freedom: it is a protracted deception of the public by people who consider that political, financial and strategic interests are more important than the lives of our young soldiers and the lives of the people of Afghanistan. To the puppet masters, those deaths are of little or no consequence.  People like that don’t ever grow tired of war.  It’s business, it’s politics or it’s diplomacy. They are indifferent to killing, they don’t balance pros and cons, human values are irrelevant, everything is permissible and nothing and no one is important. Little wonder that for our government this war has become a desperate quest to justify the unjustifiable, and to deny, cover up and manage mistakes.

Mal Washer is right to feel that our elected representatives have blood on their hands. There is no legitimate justification for Australian troops to remain in Afghanistan.

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