Julia Gillard will today announce the withdrawal of Australian forces from Afghanistan, although Australia will retain a presence in the area until at least 2014. The announcement marks the beginning of the end for a decade of war waged under a spurious moral purpose, ambiguous and changing military aims and the coward’s desire to prosecute war without friendly casualties, avoiding risk, the emblem of which is the rise of drone warfare.
The ongoing media spectacle of our latest casualties belied the fact that every downed soldier was itself a threat to the mission continuing; one friend currently serving a tour in the "sandpit" told me last year that if we lost even a half-dozen diggers in one skirmish he’d put money on a complete Australian withdrawal. So even as a well-coordinated Taliban attack is wreaking havoc in Kabul it’s for the best that the end of our involvement wasn’t catalysed by Australian deaths.
It’s surprising that the ALP has allowed troops to remain given that the previously open question of the war’s true, cynical justification, a rich seam for conspiracy theorists and armchair generals, was put to rest long ago.
Last night on the ABC’s 4 Corners former PM John Howard repeated a claim he had previously written in his memoir Lazarus Rising:
"I mean, I want to see democracy everywhere, but I’m not starry-eyed enough to think you’re going to have it flourish in Afghanistan in ten years time. We were never into that — we were always into retaliating [for the September 11 attacks]and denying the capacity for al Qaeda to come again, and we were successful in that. Very successful."
So much for the assurance in his original moral justification for the war, outlined in an address to the Australia Defence Association in October 2001:
"The cause with which we are allied is just. It is no simple act of revenge. It is no knee-jerk response to combat terror with terror in return."
Even if Howard now reneges on the Bush Doctrine’s moral foundation, the line we’ve been fed on the War on Terror — that the West is at least tangentially interested in democracy and nation-building in line with the Fukuyama/Huntington "End of History or Else" model — his claim that the Afghanistan war has been successful in smashing al Qaeda is a fatuous one.
Republican Analyst Mary Habeck addresses this kind of boosterism in the well-respected Foreign Policy magazine. "If the main objective for al Qaeda were to attack the U.S., then it is obvious that the group has been an abject failure," she writes.
But in terms of aggravating the current schisms in the Muslim world, establishing franchise organisations in vulnerable countries and expelling secular leaders, let alone committing acts of violence against their fellow Muslims, al Qaeda is going gangbusters, especially in the Sahara, Horn of Africa, Yemen, Pakistan and Iraq, which has transformed from a dictatorship to a failed state. Whether this is a better outcome is impossible to say definitively for anyone other than Christopher Hitchens, who’s unfortunately unavailable for comment.
"Any evaluation of al Qaeda’s progress in achieving [these objectives]," Habeck says, "…would have to admit that the group has done far better here than expected, is a real threat in many of these countries, and will require far more effort than the U.S. or its allies is currently willing to exert if the extremists are to be stopped."
This is to say nothing for the Afghanistan’s endemic corruption or the resurgent Taliban.
So if we acknowledge that Howard at least was never interested in democracy building and in any case thought it was a waste of time, didn’t achieve his aim of knocking al Qaeda on the head and despite rattling sabres with G.W. Bush never had the guts or patience to prosecute the Afghanistan/Iraq/Pakistan war properly as a giant counter-terrorism operation, what has been learned? More specifically, what has the Liberal Party learned, given that they’re on the verge of taking government?
Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop recently wrote an op-ed titled "The Day After Iran Goes Nuclear" castigating Foreign Minister Bob Carr for not agreeing with the US on a potential military strike against alleged Iranian nuclear facilities. "Australia’s Foreign Minister has directly contradicted the clear position of the US President that no options should be ‘off the table’ including military effort, yet he claims to be ‘at one’ with the United States," Bishop wrote.
Although she qualifies her position, saying that nobody is calling for war, Bishop maintains that we’re obligated to present a united front to the Iranian regime, keeping up "maximum pressure" to avoid "catastrophic implications for the world" — ensuring Iran doesn’t turn Jerusalem into a radioactive crater.
We lack definitive evidence of Iran’s nuclear ambitions (although when I was there last year the newest 100,000 Riel notes had an atom printed over the map of Iran). Diplomatic talks taking place in Istanbul have been hailed as "constructive" by the EU. But despite an atmosphere of mistrust Bishop wants to continue to play the role of tough neo-con well after the now defunct ideology’s major players have quit the field.
In the wake of Australia’s concrete departure from the War on Terror our political leaders should analyse their roles in a decade of cynical war that failed to achieve even its own aim of combating radical Islam. Instead Howard’s legacy, unencumbered even by false moral platitudes, may well continue. Here’s to our next trip to the sandpit.
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