Time to rethink our approach to Afghanistan?

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.333999

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.

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  1. The people of Afghanistan just want the occupiers out of their country. 20 years of war must be some record. Go on the web site of RAWA and find out what’s really happening, or put Baghdad Burning into Google, and find out the real truth about Iraq from a young woman from Baghdad, who calls herself, Riverbend. She wrote a diary from prior to the invasion to ..? It was so poignant, angry and descriptive that it was put in book form of the same title. I found it at my local library. She and her family were forced to leave Baghdad last year – just too dangerous. I also found one called, Beyond the Veil about the brave women of Afghanistan.

    What the women in both these books stated very plainly was their anger and outrage at the invasion and occupation of their country. They have contempt for the puppet governments orchestrated by the US, and are hold the US in contempt. Riverbend was frequently showing frustrated anger at the b******t way the media carries on; the lies out of the White House and the Iraqi government members, many who haven’t been in the country for years, and even now are part time in Iraq, as they have their business interests in London, or Paris or the US. The fact that we discuss this and give ‘advice’ at what should happen. All this goes on while they have no water, no jobs, no sewerage works (except for that in the streets) kids traumatized (apart from the 500,000 dead ones-Iraq) short bursts of electricity, not enough food and so it drags on and on!

    The Lancet has the recent death by violent means report, and even Blair told his members that the study was well researched and plausible – 1 million dead Iraqis! No wonder the US is carrying on about the surge being successful – there’s a million people less on the streets. Who cares about keeping track of Afghani deaths?Some say another 10 years in Afghan. That’s probably how long the oil and gas will last!

  2. Graham Bell
    ‘REFUGEES and EXILES are usually excellent sources of detailed information about a country and a conflict..’

    The best source of info are Pentagon files.

    I’ve interviewed hundreds of refugees from different countries. Refugees are victims of external powers they know very little about.
    I interviewed some 37 refugees from Aceh, years back. All claimed the same thing: ‘We lived side by side Christians and Muslims together for centuries. Just overnight ‘they’ came and told us to leave our home otherwise we will be killed. ‘They’ had guns’.
    Exactly the same stories came from Bosniaks: ‘We lived together for centuries, intermarried, and never realised anyone in our very mixed neighbourhood was ever religious..’
    The same pattern gets repeated in Albania, Kosovo, Serbia..

    None of the refugees from former Yugoslavia ever heard about the ‘Operation Storm’, AMBO (Albania-Macedonia-Bulgaria Oil Pipeline) Project’ – based in NY, EAST WEST Corridor 8..

    The US policy of ‘protecting’ the pipeline routes out of the Caspian Sea basin (and across the Balkans) was spelled out by Clinton’s Energy Secretary Bill Richardson barely a few months prior to the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia:
    “This is about America’s energy security.. It’s also about preventing strategic inroads by those who don’t share our values. We’re trying to move these newly independent countries towards the West.. We would like to see them reliant on western commercial and political interests rather than going another way. We’ve made substantial political investment in the Caspian, and it’s very important to us that both the pipeline map and the politics come out right.”

    To end any conflict, anywhere, is to analyse the main cause of it. Otherwise, we would come up with very noble and touchy, albeit totally useless, idea of ‘sending knitted blankets’ to frozen to stiff victims of the war.
    Yanks control every household there, blankets delivery included.

    Price of war, price of petrol

  3. Lorikeet: The link is easier to find with the exact title: “Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey”.

    Summary on Lancet’s own website.

    Comlete article in PDF on MIT’s.

    There’s also this more recent one:
    “The Human Cost of the War in Iraq: A Mortality Study, 2002-2006”

    There’s also been heaps of criticism of these studies, for example, the concept of “main street bias” but perhaps a complete review would mean the figures need to be tempered rather than ignored?

  4. I am awfully sorry. I have just realised that I made a mistake. The people from Indonesia I was interviewing were not from Aceh (that tsunami factor) but from Ambon (Molukki. My apology

  5. Zen:

    That’s very interesting information.

    The knitted jumpers I was talking about generally go to India, I think.


    The Lancet, as a source of legitimate information, would be very hard to discredit.

    When I worked for the university, I used to prepare research material for submission to all of the world’s most eminent medical journals.

    The Lancet was definitely on the list.

  6. Time to rethink our approach to/role in Afghanistan? I think I have already found the answer.

    Recent ABC News titles speak for themselves:

    “Afghan heroin surging into Australia”
    ‘Heroin overdoses …started to creep back’ (March 7, 2008)

    “Australian addicts turning to Afghan heroin: experts” (‘Figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime say Afghan opium production is booming and now accounts for 90% of the world’s supply’).

    “Afghan opium production still alarmingly high: UN”

    I thought Americans went there to destroy poppy fields.
    Yes, it’s time to rethink…

    I would rather trust the doctors from Lancet than any ‘heaps of criticism’. The death rate in Iraq is a continuation of the death rate from well before the war when the sanctions had been imposed on the poor children of this miserable country; their only fault is that they were born in an oil rich country.
    One can count the bodies; the destruction and looting of the ancient treasures from the craddle of our civilisation is beyond any figures and counts, and should be added to every dead Iraqi child or adult.

  7. I’m sure there was a book written about the Vietnam War entitled “The Killing Fields”.

    Perhaps the problems in Afghanistan might be seen in the bookshops as “The Heroin Fields”.

    GZG makes a good point about bias. I think most medical researchers and statistical analysts are either deliberately biased (or biased by accidental omission) in favour of a certain opinion or outcome.

  8. Lorikeet #56: I’m aware of the prestigious reputation of the Lancet, but this does not preclude published material from legitimate criticism, rebuttal or indeed further research along the same lines with possibly differing final conclusions.

    Regarding the Lancet being “hard to discredit” (or Zen’s comforting, though misguided unquestioned faith in “the doctors from Lancet”), reacquaint yourself with mans’ shortcomings by reading the article “Medical journals struggling to unearth research fraud” at http://tinyurl.com/2j66h5

    In a case referred to above, the Lancet reported that

    Peer review was completed by three subject experts, together with a statistician. In detailed appraisals, our advisers commented that this trial was ‘excellent work’ which ‘builds upon the author’s previous research’

    … yet data used was subsequently found to be “either fabricated or falsified”.

    Some brief searching will confirm that the case is by no means isolated. Academics can have their own agendas be their papers peer reviewed or not.

    It’s not that I’m saying that the Lancet or doctors are generally disreputable or untrustworthy, but please everyone take note; don’t accept everything that is presented by government or science as fact, question, think and decide for yourselves!

    “The Killing Fields” was about genocide in Cambodia in the later ’70’s by the way.

  9. GZG:

    In post #58, I said you made a good point about bias.

    In the past, I have worked with several groups of medical researchers in different specialties. I know what they do.

    They even tried to use me as a guinea pig, but I definitely wasn’t coming into that.

    If they don’t have any appropriate “findings”, they won’t get any further research funds.

    The competition for research funds from various sources used to be enormous. It’s probably even worse now.

    But if you look at this particular report in The Lancet, I think it makes logical sense.

  10. GZG
    I think I owe you some explanation as I did not express myself clearly enough; thus the misunderstanding: English is not my first or second language; it’s my third.

    I did not mention ‘researchers’, but the doctors who can confirm that somebody is dead.
    I do share your opinion about the quality of ‘a research’ nowadays. Scientists are not independent and very often they are hired either by governments or businesses to do some research of which the findings are already given by the employer. I know it from my own experience that the government formulate a policy and then hire people to support the policy by elaborating some ‘findings’ which will ‘scientifically’ prove the necessity of introducing the policy. I do not believe in statistics, either.

    My concern is the 21st century culture of killing our own species. And regardless the exact numbers; 60 years after the WWII we are still arguing how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Whether it was 6 million or half a million.. Other nationals were also killed; Russians claim over 20 mln Russians, Poland – about 6 million Polish citizens perished in the war and I am not aware of the exact numbers claimed by the English, German, Serbs, Gypsies, homosexuals, Japanese civilians from Hiroshima and Nagasaki and other casualties.
    We will never know the exact number.
    The numbers are irrelevant; right after the war people believed that the holocaust, genocide, mass killing would never happen again.

    And we have been still watching the news from Cambodia, Vietnam, Rwanda, Palestine, Somalia, Darfur,Iraq, Balkans, Afghanistan….

  11. zen:

    The Lancet is a medical journal. This particular study was probably conducted by psychiatrists and psychologists. It’s hard to tell from the information provided.

    Research teams are headed and guided by medical specialists.

    They generally consist of one or more medical specialists, at least one highly qualified scientist in charge of each lab, several very hardworking people with pharmacy degrees, and the person(s) who prepare the material for publication.

    Generally, any new medications are tested on public hospital patients, after they have given written consent.

    But researchers also use each other for guinea pigs, along with anyone else they can con into it – generally NO ONE!

    At the university, I worked for several different groups. Some also wrote books.

    In the case of The Lancet article, it is probably only a statistical analysis of data, based on the very small number of people on the research team.

    You are wise to distrust statistics.

  12. Lorikeet

    Let me repeat:
    ‘I would rather trust doctors from Lancet’..

    I have known Lancet for years; and, this very valuable medical journal is not available in every public library any more -too costly?.
    Doctors are not necessary researchers. They have no time. But they are data providers and yes, very often they feel urge to publish their findings. Laboratories are only a part of a research. They provide observations, data and findings. Both, doctors and labs are very reliable, although there are some nasty cases particularly with strong competition and fame (AIDS cure findings in French labs).

    The reaserchers are people hired to collect samples, data, conduct interviews, questionnaires, contact other centres and compare demographics, ethnographics, genetics and all possible sources of information, make graphics of the data and then, discuss them and provide bibliography.

    The size of sample and manipulation with graphic presentation and interview demographics are usually the source of the fraud. The smaller the sample, the less reliable results.
    Anti-smoking researchers use all those ‘scientific’ tricks to link breast cancer to smoking. In Europe, where they have recently introduced smoking ban in public places, most women should have suffered, and died, from breast cancer as smoking was allowed in schools, hospitals, cinemas, doctors’ rooms… (I am a non-smoker, by the way).
    My chiropractor quoted some American doctors that the number of cancer sufferers quadrupled since the Cancer Research has been founded. No means to check it.
    Another interesting ‘findings’ are those related to uranium mines. Apparently the radiation there is minimal.

    Profesor Foskett from SAIT told us that if you put your head into the freezer and your feet in the campfire -your median temperature will be on your stomach.

  13. re: research cont.
    The comedy starts when anybody tries to make a decision based on the temperature of the belly.
    If you have $100 and I have none, statistically we have $50 each which would satisfy a Treasurer and Arts Minister (both at the same time) that all people of Australia can easily afford a tank of petrol or a ticket to the theatre.

    The sum of all idiotic decisions helps our pollies to convince us about our wonderful economy in spite of our supermarket’s findings..

    The most fraudelent statistics are probably inflation indicators and the methods they are obtained: quaterly, instead of annual adjustments.

    The inflation basket contains mainly items with constant prize tags like toothbrush and toothpaste. After the banana disaster in Qld., the great Treasurer was trying to take bananas out of the basket.

    It is not important what IS in the inflation basket but what is NOT there: petrol, HECS, traffic fines, etc.

    Senator Bartlett may ask what has this all to do with Afghanistan. A lot.

    Apart from body counts it would be interesting to know if there are any hospitals, kindies, schools, houses, cinemas, public toilets left in the country.
    Do the children have nappies, toys or heaters at home? Do they have enough candles? Do the women have any sanitaria? Are there any pets left?
    What about pollution and its impact on asthma??

    Lorikeet, I love discussing things with you. You make very valid points which stimulate my thinking, and that’s what I need, badly. Then, I share my thinking with anybody who would listen/read. Thanks.

  14. Thanks, zen.

    A friend of mine who is very good at understanding the financial market says we should take the (stated) inflation rate and times it by 2 – to get a more realistic idea of the actual rate.

    I’d give it about 20% at the moment, taking into account housing costs also.

    As for breast cancer – women should not expect to get it unless they have a gene running in their families – or if they had their first baby when they were over 30.

    For some years, I’ve also been toying with the idea that at least some forms of cancer might be contagious.

    So when we see Channel 2 abandoning the ABC studios, the women may be taking their contagion with them.

  15. Zen: you studied under Prof Foskett? When would that have been? (My own experience was in c. 1993 – Grad Dip in Lib & Inf Mgmt)

    Your points about blind faith in researchers are well taken. If we knew the doubtless scrupulously kept and secret figures of the USA armed forces about deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan etc we would be more informed, but not much wiser, about the advisability of invasions by incompetent meddlers.

  16. It seems like many things statistics adn researcha are well and good when people agree wiht them, but dismissed whne not so.

  17. togret
    Yes, I did, and I completed my Grad. Dip. in Information Management (Librarianship) in 1990. It was right before the uni fees were introduced and the merger with CAE.
    Prof. Foskett was a great scholar – Old English School- and the SAIT library was incredible.
    In January, this year, I went to Canberra where I spent my first day in the National Library. I must admit I was disappointed. I was looking for some quotes in Latin from Ovid (Metamorphoses). Well, they did not have Ovid Naso in original, but they had it in… German. As a reference library, NLA is not easily accessible and the sets of computers remind me of pokies rather than a ‘key to the world of wonder’. Melbourne State Library is much better.. and nicer.

    muzzmonster will tell me off for not sticking to the subject; However, there are two important things here: Quality of libraries, info resources and the media heavily influence our/others’/ governments’ opinions and decision making. (invading other countries included). Prof. Foskett advised us to ‘tripple check’ any info we get before formulating opinion..
    Secondly, I am very happy to meet a ‘schoolmate’ from one of the best education/training schools in Australia at the time.
    I knew something was very special about Sen. Bartlett’s forum.

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