Time For A Proper Debate On Afghan War


As today’s national elections in Afghanistan take place amid widespread violence and the threat of electoral fraud, Australia faces some serious questions over just what it is trying to achieve through its military presence there.

Yet while the domestic pressure mounts in countries with troops in Afghanistan to withdraw their forces, here there seems to be almost no high-level debate on this issue at all.

Recent polls in England, Canada, Italy, France and Germany have found a majority want their troops brought home.

The issue of withdrawing troops has becoming a matter of public debate in Europe and North America. Germany’s media gives daily coverage to the conflict about the military presence in Afghanistan. Condemnation of the campaign is becoming louder and the language used to describe Western military operations is shifting to terms such as "invasion" and "mistake".

In Canada, the Afghan war is an issue of conflict between the major parties. While the ruling Conservative Party has proposed a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by 2011, the New Democratic Party is winning support for their call for an immediate end to Canadian military involvement in Afghanistan.

In Britain support for the Canadian position of setting a date for troop withdrawal is growing. Dissent within the Government on the war effort has been on public display with the outgoing Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown disagreeing with Prime Minister Gordon Brown in asserting that the fight against terrorism should concentrate not on Afghanistan but on Pakistan and Somalia.

In Australia, while opposition to the war is strong, public debate about this country’s military presence in Afghanistan and our tactics in fighting terrorism is muted in mainstream political circles.

An AC Nielsen poll found 51 per cent of voters opposed to the war, and Essential Research identified 50 per cent support for the withdrawal of Australian troops.

After eight years it is time Australian politicians engaged in frank and open debate on this war that costs $1.2 billion annually.

Last month Hugh White, a defence specialist with the Lowy Institute, speaking on the 7:30 Report challenged Government ministers over their responsibility to lead on this: "I’m sure there comes a point at which the public starts to ask questions, but, frankly, I think our ministers should start asking the questions much sooner than the public do. In the end, it’s ministers in Cabinet who take responsibility for sending Australians into circumstances where now, unfortunately, deaths in action are becoming routine."

The stand-out question Australian politicians need to engage with is: Is the war achieving the objectives set by Western leaders?

While the main, publicly stated aim of the first invasion in October 2001 has mostly been to fight terrorism, in recent years the objectives have been extended to include civil society reform and putting Afghanistan on the path to democracy.

Yet the "war on terrorism" tactics that still dominate Western interactions with many Muslim countries is a losing strategy. The failure of this approach goes far beyond the abuse of human rights in countries occupied by foreign troops. For years now there has been growing evidence that the Western military adventure in Afghanistan radicalises the population and helps terrorist organisations recruit. There has never been a satisfactory answer from the pro-war camp to the concerns many people have over this consequence of our military actions.

Meanwhile the aim of bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan is also looking shaky. So much depends on how today’s Afghan presidential and provincial council elections play out.

Defence Minister John Faulkner has already said that the elections will be a litmus test for both Afghanistan and the international community. If he is correct in that, then things do not look good at all, with widespread violence already being reported before the polls opened, and many observers are predicting massive electoral rorting.

But even more revealing of our effect in Afghanistan is the actions of the regime that we have helped to install and which we continue to prop up. President Karzai, who is expected to be re-elected today, is widely seen as an ineffectual leader of a corrupt regime. There are many extremists in the Government ranks who are hard to distinguish from the Taliban on many issues. A number of MPs were involved in crimes against the Afghan people during the 1990s civil war.

Is this what the Australian people think they are giving their support to? Is this what Australian soldiers should be fighting and dying for? Political leaders in Australia should put on the public record their views on the current regime that Australian soldiers are defending.

In recent weeks the Afghani Parliament gazetted some legislation on the status of women — legislation that any Taliban leader would be proud of. Despite worldwide condemnation of the legislation when it first became public earlier this year President Hamid Karzai has passed the law.

In Afghanistan Shia men can now deny their wives food if they refuse to obey their husbands’ sexual demands, guardianship of children is granted exclusively to their fathers and grandfathers, women have to obtain permission from their husbands to work and rapists can avoid prosecution by paying money to a woman injured when raped.

If the position of women is taken as a test of the success of the Western presence in Afghanistan the only way to describe that presence is as a terrible failure. Not only are the laws governing women’s daily life some of the most offensive ever passed but the voice of women in the Afghan Parliament has been muted.

In 2007 Malalai Joya, an Afghan MP and women’s rights campaigner, was suspended from Parliament as she was accused of insulting her political colleagues in a television interview.

But how does our Government feel about it? Australians should be informed of what the Rudd Government’s response to these developments are. If Australia’s political leaders would voice opinions on the status of women in Afghanistan it would help open up the wider debate about the legitimacy of the Western military operations in that country.

This is an issue our Government can’t ignore any longer, and it’s one that I will certainly be taking up in Canberra if my run for a NSW Senator seat at the next federal election is successful. The silence within our own political conversation on this issue means that no longer is it just the Taliban who show contempt for democracy. When the regime that we are supporting passes such demeaning laws, we join them in making a farce of any attempt to portray our military involvement as a commitment to promoting democracy and humane values.


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.