Well Meaning Futility


Could someone give me some help here?

I’ve been so preoccupied by important questions like, ‘What in God’s name are we doing in Iraq?’ that I had quite forgotten another question: ‘What in God’s name are we doing in Afghanistan?’

Are we supporting the killing of thousands of civilians in a futile attempt to eradicate the Taliban … and thus driving the survivors of these attacks into the arms of the Taliban? Or are we there to destroy the opium crops which provide the only income for subsistence farmers … and thus driving these penniless people into the arms of the Taliban?

I ask these questions because Australia, which has about a thousand totally irrelevant troops on the ground,is now by its mere presence a player in the continuing destruction, witting or unwitting,of a country with whom it should have no quarrel.

Of course, the answer is we’re there because the Americans are there just as we are in Iraq, where we’re equally irrelevant. Our sole purpose is to add our flag to the ragged and diminished band of brothers called, ‘The Coalition of the Willing.’ We don’t have to do anything, and basically we don’t.

Image by Sasha Uzunov

But to the Islamic world, we’re part of the anti-Muslim crusade masterminded by Washington DC. No Taliban warrior will ever strike against Australia the average countryboy Talib probably doesn’t know the country exists but the association of Australia’s name with the killing and destruction now being inflicted on their fellow Muslims will probably strike a chord with angry Muslims a lot closer than Kandahar like in Bali maybe, or the beaches of southern Thailand.

Australia joined the war in Afghanistan after the Twin Towers bombing of 2001. In those days, Osama bin Laden was directing his fledgling al-Qaeda from a comfortable villa in Kandahar, close to his old friend and ally, the Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar.   Osama had a worldwide, anti-America (and its allies) agenda; while Mullah Omar had formed the Taliban with the admirable purpose of cleaning out the brutal, drug-running warlords who traditionally ruled Afghanistan which it did. (Of course, it also went on to establish the most reactionary Islamic regime possibly ever.)

What is happening now in Afghanistan reminds me very much of what happened in Vietnam when I was there for the last five years of that war. The US, which supplies about half the 50,000 foreign troops and almost all of the air support, are chasing an elusive guerrilla force over a wild inaccessible mountainous country, half again as big as Iraq (which is dead flat, and can’t be controlled by about 170,000 foreign invaders).

In Vietnam, the Americans would mark out large stretches of countryside and declare them ‘Free Fire Zones,’ which meant that they were allowed to kill any living thing in that zone on the theory they were all Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars. The bodies would be piled up for press inspection the infamous body counts and if you pointed out, say, a dead teenage girl and asked ‘Why?’ you were told: ‘She’s big enough to carry a grenade.’

Afghanistan seems to be going that way.

At the most conservative count, 7000 villagers have been killed, many more thousands wounded, and tens of thousands displaced. In June, an article by Laura King in the Los Angeles Times, began, ‘After more than five years of increasingly intense warfare, the conflict in Afghanistan reached a grim milestone in the first half of this year. US troops and their NATO allies killed more civilians than the insurgents did.’ The number of dead civilians is now over double the number killed in the Twin Towers bombing.

Most of the civilian deaths are caused by indiscriminate American bombing. The reports again take me back to Vietnam. The main offenders these days seem to be the small groups of US special forces notoriously uncontrolled cowboys who encounter bands of Afghans who might be fighters, and might be wedding guests (because they all dress the same), and start blazing away. When the locals fire back, the Americans immediately call in massive air strikes which devastate the surrounding area.

If it does turn out that half the victims were women and children, they apologise. ‘What does sorry mean?’ a former Prime Minister, Ahmad Shah Ahmadazi told Time magazine reporter Aryn Baker, in June:

This is why people are losing hope and trust in the government and international forces. The Americans can make a mistake once, twice, maybe three times. But 20, 30 times? I’m not convinced they are doing this without intention.

Or, as Mahmadullah a mullah from the village of Kutaizi, in a heavily bombed region of Helmand province told  the New York Times in August: ‘Now we understand the Americans are a curse on us. They can tell the difference between men and women, children and animals, but they are just killing everyone.’

These homicidal blunderers (to put it kindly) are the forces the Australians are supporting in the grotesquely named ‘Operation Enduring Freedom.’ That’s if ‘supporting’ is the right term. The Americans have lost over 400 men killed in Afghanistan, the British about 70 some killed by American ‘friendly fire’ the Germans more than 50. Canadian soldiers are dying, as are Dutch. But, as in Iraq, the Australians have not (touch wood) had a man killed in action.

I know Australia produces good, tough soldiers, and I wouldn’t want any Australian killed, but the fact they never die would suggest either that God really is an Australian, or more likely, that they’re being kept out of harm’s way so that John Howard won’t pull them out and so weaken the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ even further. The Aussies have renovated a school and re-plumbed a hospital in the town of Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan Province,  but that seems about it give or take a minor skirmish or two.

Actually, a better description of Australia’s efforts came recently from Professor Hugh Wight, Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, who labeled Australian efforts an exercise ‘in well meaning futility.’ As he wrote  in the ANU Reporter,’Are the people of Oruzgan to be transformed by a re-plumbed hospital or a four week course in carpentry delivered by a alien force of heavily armed infidels? Sadly, the Australian Defence Force’s mission in Tarin Kowt will most probably fail.’

Even if the Taliban are pushed too hard, they’ll simply take cover in the mountains or slip over the Pakistan border, as they did after the first US-led onslaught in 2001. There, they’ll join their Pushtu-speaking cousins and wait their next chance while stepping up the Talibanisation of Pakistan, of course.

But even if they were miraculously destroyed, the people who would rejoice most would be their natural indigenous enemies, the Afghan warlords who ruled before the Taliban. First, these thugs would be free to loot and rape as before, but they would also take back the opium/heroin trade now financing the Taliban

And it would be a great time to get the poppy monopoly. Ironically, when the Taliban were running the country, they virtually wiped out poppy cultivation. But a UN report in late August said that all had changed. While the allies are great at killing civilians, they’re not so hot at killing poppies. Afghan opium production reached a record 8000 tonnes last year 93 per cent of total world production.

(In passing, in the unlikely event ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ did trash the poppy fields, the people who will rejoice most will be the generals ruling Burma, whose main source of income has been grievously dented by cheap Afghan exports. Now there’s a challenge! Overthrow a brutal, hated regime, which just needs a push because all the people hate it, and allow a Nobel Prize-winning, pro- Western heroine, Aung San Suu Kyi, to turn the country into a fruitful democracy? Nah, much too sensible, life enhancing and worthwhile.)

I suppose I should mention al-Qaeda since all this started with them. They’ve pretty much moved on, and Osama is probably in the Pakistan tribal area of Waziristan. But al-Qaeda was never a native Afghan organisation. Its hard core (like the Twin Towers bombers) were Saudis like Osama, and other Arabs, with some Pakistani volunteers. It had crude training grounds in Afghanistan, but you don’t train men to fly Boeings into skyscrapers in a cave in the Hindu Kush.

Al-Qaeda has long since metastasised it’s a worldwide franchise now, run largely by little groups of people who use the al-Qaeda name and may or may not have known a man whose uncle once shook Osama’s hand. In fact, even if the vast military effort in Afghanistan did kill Osama, it would no more stop al-Qaeda operating, than Saddam’s hanging ended Sunni resistance in Iraq.

Back to my first question. I guess Howard got us into this because of his dog-like loyalty to George W Bush. But the thing that spooks me is that Kevin Rudd says that, if elected, he will keep Australia in Afghanistan because of our treaty obligations to the USA. Here’s a possible future leader of Australia saying he’ll tailor Australian military commitments to that drooling fool in Washington who has largely been abandoned by his own supporters because of his military disasters.

My old friend Johnny Apple,  the great New York Times reporter, once told me he thought Kevin Rudd was ‘the brightest Aussie politician I ever met.’ I now find myself waking up in a cold sweat at nights, wondering if that could possibly be true.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.