Thursday, 6 September 2012

Afghanistan: time to ask the hard questions about the war we can't win

One of Noam Chomsky’s favourite thought experiments is to invite his readers to imagine some facet of what a genuine democracy would look like. He asks us, for example, to picture a local MP’s appearance at a community meeting. Instead of grand speeches and shallow promises, the MP would ask the community what they wanted from their political representatives and would then go away and attempt to realise some or all of those wishes. If he or she succeeded, or at least made a good fist of it, the community would throw their support behind them. If the needs and wants of the community were not well represented by the MP, the community would endorse somebody else.

What is saddening about Chomsky’s visions of a democracy worthy of the name is that they strike us, in the first years of the 21st century, as rather quaint. That they do so is not a reflection on the value of such thought experiments, but on what has become of the promise of democracy in an age when more and more people feel underrepresented by their leaders and ignored by a system which is supposed to reflect what they feel is important to them, and to their communities and countries.

Our troubled relationship with the true promise of democracy has been thrown into sharp relief by the recent deaths of five Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan. In the wake of increasing public antipathy towards Australia’s continued involvement in the war there, the Gillard government has reiterated its commitment to ‘staying the course.’ This course – which many Australians feel we should never have been put on in the first place – will see ADF troops withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014, by which time it is hoped local security forces will have been sufficiently trained to be able to effectively combat a much-diminished Taliban insurgency on their own.

The biggest problem with this roadmap to withdrawal is that it is dangerously unresponsive to what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan. It fails, for example, to take into account one of the more discombobulating aspects of the recent ADF deaths there: that the Afghan responsible for killing three soldiers in a ‘green on blue’ attack was not affiliated with the Taliban or a supporter of their objectives. There has been talk, instead, of some kind of cultural clash between Australian and Afghan security forces, which cannot be accounted for in terms of conventional understandings of the insurgency in Afghanistan. This incident, though still shrouded in uncertainty, shows one thing clearly: the security situation in Afghanistan is infinitely more complex now than it was ten years ago. To complicate matters further, hundreds of Afghan police and soldiers have now been dismissed due to alleged Taliban links, while officials continue to implicate foreign spy agencies in the insider violence. All of this – whether or not it is possible to even begin to make sense of – is new. If there is one thing that is not in doubt, it is that the country is at its most unsafe and unstable since the days of Taliban rule.

What else has changed after a decade of war? Traditional media and the Internet remain awash with conflicting accounts of the progress made since International Security Assistance Forces toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001. The Pentagon continues to come under fire for overstating the success of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, but the mission’s goals are nearing completion, namely recruiting and training set numbers of Afghan police and army personnel in preparation for the 2014 handover. The efficacy of ANSF forces in combating the Taliban threat, however, remains to be seen, as does the continued viability of their relationship with ISAF troops given the recent spike in ‘green on blue’ killings.

CJ Radin, writing for The Long War Journal website, paints an even more sobering picture of the present security situation in Afghanistan:
    The real tests for the ANSF and the Afghan government will begin this summer. Risk starts to rise with the return of the summer fighting season, the drawdown of US troops, and the further transfers of security responsibility to the ANSF.
    Longer term, risk will continue to increase in 2013 as the US ends combat operations and the ANSF picks up responsibility for more difficult and dangerous areas. It will increase further through 2014 as US and ISAF forces complete their withdrawal, the ANSF assumes responsibility for all of Afghanistan, and US oversight of the government and the monitoring of corruption becomes minimal. And risk will mount even higher after 2014, if a proposed plan to reduce the size of ANSF is implemented. The plan, put forward by the US, would cut the size of the ANSF by a third starting in 2015 in order to save costs. It is based on the assumption the Taliban insurgency will be in decline by then.
That’s one hell of an assumption.

In the meantime, as the US shells out a staggering $2 billion a week to prolong ‘Enduring Freedom’, the civilian toll continues to rise. Between 2007 and 2011, almost 12,000 Afghan civilians were killed. It is almost impossible to get the full measure of the civilian cost of the war, but it is certain that there have been tens of thousands of casualties to date and – despite a 36% drop in civilian casualties this year – many more continue to die and to suffer. A UN report released this week has highlighted the appalling prevalence of malnutrition in the country, likening the situation to those more commonly found in Africa. That this fact does not appear to reflect the hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid which has poured into the country since the invasion began scarcely needs pointing out.

And what, finally, of the famous reconstruction effort, once touted by George W. Bush as the biggest of its kind? Most of the new infrastructure promised under the US’s $400 million Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund has failed to materialise. According to a new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, work has not even begun on five of seven projects, work which will almost certainly remain unfinished by the time of the 2014 withdrawal.

What all of these snapshots of a perennially ruinous war illustrate is that, if any progress has been made in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban, it is progress away from certainty, safety and stability and towards chaos, confusion and further bloodshed. Afghanistan did not look anything like a democracy in 2000, and it doesn’t look like one now. The elections which have taken place in the country have been riddled with corruption, as has the government of Hamid Karzai. The prevailing irony of all this endless bleating about the sowing of the seeds of democracy in Afghanistan is that the war has deeply compromised democratic ideals in the West. The Afghanistan war, sold as a ‘good war’, was always more popular in Britain, America and Australia than the Iraq war, for reasons too obvious and too numerous to go into here but the tide is swiftly turning.

This week, military services and funerals were held around the country for the five ADF soldiers killed in two separate incidents in Afghanistan. It was widely reported as the ADF’s darkest day since the Vietnam War. Just as in that unjust and unpopular conflict, the government’s rhetoric about getting the job done is looking increasingly hollow, desperate and dishonest. Something is going badly wrong in the partnership between Afghan and Coalition troops, in the training process which has manifestly failed to adequately address the cultural divide, and in the vetting system which it seems has let through perhaps hundreds of recruits with links to the Taliban.

What, Julia Gillard and her government must now tell the Australian people, is to be achieved by keeping Australian soldiers in harm’s way in Afghanistan until 2014? How many more must be brought home in body bags before this government’s policy reflects the reality of what is happening on the ground there? The reality is that the Afghanistan experiment has failed, just as every other foreign occupation of Afghanistan has failed, just as every other attempt to impose ‘democracy’ on a sovereign nation has failed. We must not let talk of honouring our war dead prevent the debate that needs to commence now on the continued deployment of ADF troops in Afghanistan. Nobody is talking about the war in Britain or in the US, where candidates for the US presidency would rather talk about their right to dominion over womens’ bodies. It is a sick society indeed that dishonours its dead by refusing to ask the hard questions about what they died for. We cannot allow the same silence to reign in this country.

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