I have mixed feelings about the imminent decision by the Government to send some Australian troops back to Afghanistan.
As a matter of principle, I don’t believe any Australian troops should be deployed to a new theatre overseas without a vote of Parliament, except in cases of extreme emergency. I’ve had a Private Senators Bill in the Parliament to this effect for some years, as have many other Democrats stretching back to the days of Don Chipp and Colin Mason in the early 1980s. However, neither of the larger parties support it, so it has never been adopted. Whilst Afghanistan is not exactly a new area of deployment, this does involve a decision to send troops to a country where we don’t have them at the moment, so I think formal Parliamentary endorsement is desirable.
However, I do support, with some apprehension, the provision of military assistance to Afghanistan. Indeed, I called for this support to be provided over 12 months ago, following requests for assistance from the Afghan government. That request was ignored and things have been allowed to deteriorate since. It is simply ridiculous that Australia left Afghanistan to basically fend for itself so soon after the toppling of the Taliban. Whilst I am always apprehensive that more troops in a situation can end up hindering rather helping achieve peace, I think in this case there is sufficient need and sufficient justification. Afghanistan has another crucial election coming up later this year and that needs to go well to give the country the best chance of stabilising in the future.
So on balance, I support sending troops back to Afghanistan. I noticed the Greens put out a statement saying they oppose sending troops. Whilst they rightly make the point that any deployment should be debated in Parliament first, their opposition to the actual deployment seems to be because George Bush has also asked for it, rather than just Afghani President Hamid Kharzai. Whilst that is a cause for cynicism, I don’t see that it should mean the deployment should not be supported, particularly given that the Afghan Government also clearly still wants extra support. I also think the Greens’ view that “this situation in Afghanistan would not exist had the invasion of Iraq and consequent heightening of terrorism not occurred” is stretching it a bit. I’m sure illegally invading Iraq hasn’t helped reduce terrorism anywhere, but whilst the situation would be different in some ways, there’s no reason to suggest it would be much better (except for the fact that it would have meant resources staying in Afghanistan longer, rather than being diverted to support the invasion of Iraq.)
However, risking the lives of Australian troops by sending them overseas should always be a matter of major debate. It is not an abstract intellectual exercise; there are lives and families literally being put in the firing line. There are legitimate arguments for and against deploying troops, but what I find very frustrating is that the public reporting of the possibility of re-deploying troops is once again wrapped in the usual bluster about fighting the war on terrorism, protecting democracy and generally wrappping ourselves in the flag. If all that is true, why did the Government pull troops out of Afghanistan so early (or “cut and run” to use their jargon) and why were they not labelled ‘soft on terror’ by all their cheerleaders in the media who supported the invasion of Iraq? Today’s Daily Telegraph has an article headlined “Back to finish the job”. One would think this begs the question of why the Government left the “job” unfinished in the first place, but the article simply gives some “Boy’s Own” style quotes from the Prime Minister and the Treasurer while they practice their impression of steel jawed resolve (while sending other people to face the landmines, bombs and bullets).
However, all of that is more a criticism of how dismal the level of public debate on these issues is, rather than a criticism of the decision to send the troops back. Whilst I do support the redeployment of troops and remain critical of the previous withdrawal, I repeat my view that we need a reconsideration of how we are approaching the so-called ‘war on terror’. Military support can play a part in this, but it can only ever be one part, and even that has to be judicious in its use.
UPDATE: As was widely anticipated, the Government has announced it will send some troops back into Afghanistan. There’s seems to be little comment about whether they should have been withdrawn in the first place.
I also find I’m agreeing with Malcolm Fraser again. An article by him in today’s Age expresses support for deployment in Afghanistan, opposition to the invasion of Iraq and calls for different strategies in the ‘war on terror’, including the importance of strong adherence to the rule of law.
There’s also a good piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by Christopher Kremmer. “There is simply no comparison between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One was a justified, legal military action to root out a terrorist network that had taken over a whole country and declared war on another; the other, a foolish and possibly illegal invasion which served vested interests and made a bad situation worse.”