Published in ABD The Drum 1 May 2011 and Canberra Times 2 May 2011
The Gillard government’s response to the latest deaths of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan underlines all that is wrong with this mediocre, do nothing government.
Faced with the need to tell the nation of more needless deaths in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister fronts the media and with the face of a poker player grinds out the Gillard mantra that Australia will stay the course in Afghanistan – whatever that means.
Let us take the two most recent deaths on 31 May that of Lance Corporal Andrew Jones and Lieutenant Marcus Case, both young men in their prime of life, they died for what?
Gillard and her government’s lack of comprehension of the nature of the conflict they are engaged in and sending young men and women to die and get injured in, is criminal in its mindlessness.
Lance Corporal Jones was shot by an ‘allied’ Afghan soldier within an Australian base. Not only did he shoot and kill Andrew Jones he also managed to get away. The local commander of the Afghan army claims that he is likely to have been a member of the Taliban inserted into the Afghan army. That is unlikely. Why shoot one soldier when you are in a position to take out many?
Dr. William Maley of the ANU has speculated, amongst a number of reasons, that maybe the Afghan soldier had relatives killed in an air strike or abortive military attack on a village. That is a more plausible explanation, but it does not need even to be that. NATO, the US and Australia are now perceived to be an occupying force and as such they are not liked or respected by the peoples of Afghanistan. The Russians found themselves in a similar situation.
Afghanistan is amongst the poorest nations in the world. If that requires that people need to play a double game they will. The occupying forces have money, if that means behaving like Shylock many people in Afghanistan will. They play any game that allows them to survive, including supporting the Taliban and NATO forces at one and the same time.
The war in Afghanistan is not about religion it is about survival. It is a harsh country located at the cross-road of trade between Asia and Europe and this one advantage has been played with great guile and ruthlessness for the past millennium. Religion is the cohesive force that enables a common threat to be met.
Without that threat, but against the background of a fierce competition for scarce food resources and trading income, the various ethnic groups revert to loyalty to family, village and tribe in that order.
The Pashtuns are the dominant tribal group and thanks to British colonial boundaries they exist in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. For as long as Pakistan exists they will train and supply the Taliban, which is dominated by the Pashtuns. The putative government of Afghanistan, which in reality is the government of Kabul and a handful of other cities, is a majority Pushtun government. Both the government and the Taliban persecute the Hazaras, arbitrarily depriving them of life and limb and of the means of earning a livelihood when members of the dominant tribe want something the Hazaras might have.
The Pashtuns also believe the Hazaras to be inferior. They are originally of Mongolian extraction, they are Shia in their religious orientation (the Pashtuns are Sunni) and they speak Farsi, the language widely spoken in Iran. They are persecuted as refugees in Quetta and Peshawar by Pakistani Pushtuns.
All of this is known to the Australian government yet still they turn them back.
The Russians trained a large Afghan army. When they withdrew that army dissolved into the various armed forces of the war lords. The same will happen when NATO withdraws. Officers and soldiers owe no allegiance to the President of Afghanistan; their real loyalties are as described above. They will remain loyal to Kabul for as long as the money flows into their pockets.
The Taliban is a complex alliance of competing forces held together to rid themselves of a common enemy. Whether they show it or not most Afghan soldiers on the ‘side’ of the western coalition share those feelings. By long necessity the Pushtuns are traders and that is how, at one level, they are playing the western presence.
We are told by defence that Lieutenant Marcus Case was killed when on a helicopter which crashed. Helicopters don’t just crash. There is always a reason, bad weather, poor maintenance, poor piloting or ground fire, which is it?
I for one am fed up with the half truths and lies emanating from senior defence officers over all aspects of Australia’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan; a war which in which the original objectives have long since disappeared.
There are many countries in the world that have the potential to be a breeding ground for terrorism. The preconditions are poverty, corrupt and non democratic elites, holding most of the wealth, and anger on the part of sections of the population at this state of affairs and with the United States and other powerful countries for supporting and/or propping up those regimes.
One of those regimes is that of Mohammed Karzai, President of Afghanistan. For as long as the United States is in Afghanistan, maintaining Karzai in power, expect the terrorists, aka the Taliban, to flourish.
Sadly for the people of Afghanistan, once the western alliance withdraws, the various components of the Taliban will fight amongst themselves, in a medieval conflict that will not auger well for women and children. But the people of Afghanistan with the help and interference of their neighbours will have to work that out.
The limits of US power and influence have been reached, thanks to George Bush. The tide is ebbing for the US. It cannot police the world on borrowed money and Australia needs to look after its own real interests closer to home. It might start with a complete overhaul of the department of defence.
Both major parties will suffer politically if Australian casualties continue, throughout the summer fighting season, at the level of the past week.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972/73 and 1986/88.