Sometimes I find it strange that there is so little public debate about the ongoing engagement of Australian troops in Afghanistan. As this piece from The Age last October noted, “recent polling indicates declining public support, with half saying the troops should be pulled out”, even though “there is bipartisan support for that war from the major parties” and “Labor leader Kevin Rudd has gone so far as to say he would consider sending more there.”
Australia’s Defence Force chief has said the war there could last for 10 years, and this report from the weekend quotes the Afghanistan NGO Security Office as saying “the consensus among informed individuals at the end of 2007 seems to be that Afghanistan is at the beginning of a war, not the end of one.”
Because the war in Afghanistan has been framed through the simplistic “War On Terror” framework, with the undoubted evil of the Taliban making anyone opposing them seen as being part of the ‘good guys’, any criticism of ongoing military presence there immediately gets labelled as ‘soft on terror’ and ‘ caving into the Taliban.’ Thus, any sober assessment of what we are actually doing there and what long-term impacts it is having gets lost.
I don’t profess to be an expert on the region – although I don’t think many of the politicians or commentators who lecture about being ‘tough on terror’ have great expertise either. However, I have had a lot of contact with some genuine experts, including of course some of the refugees now in Australia and New Zealand who have fled Afghanistan and who have strong continuing contacts there, including people of many different backgrounds and beliefs and some who have previously held very high offices in past times. I quoted one of these people when I blogged about this issue nearly two years ago – they said “the presence of Western troops contributes to the insurgency” and “the war in Afghanistan will last “years and years;” and it’ll most probably get bloodier and bloodier too. Sending young Australians to such a quagmire, without the hope of accomplishing much, may not be a wise policy.”
A fairly comprehensive piece in the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend provided some fairly stark assessments, including some by Lord Paddy Ashdown, a former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats. Lord Ashdown has just been appointed as the new chief envoy of the UN in Afghanistan, and his comments are refreshingly free of the sort of boofhead bluster and cartoon-like ‘black hats versus white hats’ nonsense we used to get from Alexander Downer. Ashdown eschews such empty and sometimes dangerous nonsense, and goes to the substance of the matter.
“Firstly, we forget that, although you can successfully fight modern high-tech wars in weeks, state building takes decades. Afghanistan, I think, is probably a 30-year project.
Building the state requires more troops than winning the initial fight.In Afghanistan, we have 1/25th the number of troops and 1/50th the amount of aid, per head of population, that we put into Kosovo. There is political shortsightedness: a combination of hubris, nemesis and amnesia.
Secondly, Ashdown says: “We lovingly forget that item number one is always the rule of law. It is not elections, I’m afraid. If you have elections before you establish the rule of law then all you do is elect the criminals who ran the war. What you create is not a democracy but a criminally captured space. That is what we had in Bosnia. Corruption is now in the marrow and bone of Bosnian society.”
A point which obviously can equally be made about Afghanistan.
Democracy is about much more than just elections, and democrats have to recognise that elections are not always the most important part of building a democracy. I’ve written before about the experiences of Malalai Joya, a young woman elected to Afghanistan’s parliament, which certainly give testament to that. She is a vehement critic of the Taliban, but also has very strongly criticised some of those she calls fundamentalists and warlords who now sit in the Afghan parliament. But she has also criticsed the role played by foreign troops in that country too.
I don’t know what the answer is that gives the best hope of long-term stability, but even though it is a difficult issue, it is also a very important one. I’m not convinced we as a nation, or our politicians, are giving anywhere near sufficient thought to it, particularly given the possiblity that a majority of Australians don’t even support our troops remaining there.