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Published: Online Opinion

Authors: Bruce Haigh and Kellie Tranter

Link to article and comments: http://bit.ly/bOa2bj

With ongoing investigations into the tragic deaths of six Afghan civilians killed last year in a raid by Australian forces, alleged “warnings” by US General Stanley McChrystal that Australia’s restrictions on the deployment of its troops in Afghanistan is impairing the US-led war effort and the upcoming visit to Australia by President Barack Obama, perhaps now is the time for Australians to reflect and think about the legitimacy of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan at all.

For those of us who lived through the pain, dishonesty and frustration of the war in Vietnam, Afghanistan is shaping up as a passable re-creation.

The war in Vietnam consumed an earlier generation in a decade of protest, fear of conscription or service in the Army. There was wall-to-wall media coverage with anti-war songs, literature and movies. The mistakes were there for all to see, except the US Administration and the military leadership. As always Australian politicians, the military, significant sections of the media and the churches, particularly the Catholic Church, went along with the US establishment.

At the time, the US said the war in Vietnam was to contain the spread of communism and thwart Chinese and Russian ambitions in South-East Asia. Never mind that the two were deeply suspicious of each other, the US had them in bed together. For the US, communism was monolithic and was controlled from Moscow.

Nowadays the fight is against so called “enemies of freedom”.

Bush let his dogs off the lead and they tore into Afghanistan, crushed a very surprised and unprepared Taliban and hastily departed Afghanistan for Iraq with blood in their nostrils, but without the scalp of Osama bin Laden.

The Inter Service Intelligence Agency, ISI, recovered their balance and began training a new generation of Taliban fighters, which like the Mujahideen before them, had many diverse reasons for fighting but eventually were loosely united through the common enemy of a foreign occupying army, of which the US was the largest and driving force.

We will rue the day when the then Prime Minister John Howard committed our country to this “war of aggression”. In his address to the Australian Defence Association on October 25, 2001 Howard said, “The UN Security Council unequivocally condemned the attacks in New York and Washington, and affirmed the need for all nations to combat by all means the threats to international peace and security caused by such terrorist acts.”

The public protests that did occur were simply ignored. Where was the silent majority? Sitting silent in the audience.

In 2003, the then Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd delivered The Annual Castan Lecture at Monash University. In it he not only gave a damning assessment of the Howard Government’s decision to invade Iraq, but he also said:

… The relevant Security Council resolution on Afghanistan post September 11 explicitly drew on Article 51 in authorising military action by member states. Furthermore, we had direct alliance obligations at stake because the metropolitan territory of our American ally had been attacked. But when it came to Iraq, no linkage could be established between Saddam Hussein and September 11 …

Where was the silent majority? Still sitting silent in the audience.

In fact, Rudd didn’t look carefully enough at the legitimacy of the invasion of Afghanistan. In February this year a paper prepared for Members of Parliament in the House of Commons “The legal basis for the invasion of Afghanistan” confirms that:

The military campaign in Afghanistan was not specifically mandated by the UN, but was widely (although not universally) perceived to be a legitimate form of self-defence under the UN Charter. … The initial invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was therefore not conducted with the authorisation of a specific UN Security Council Resolution. Instead, the United States and the United Kingdom said that military action against Afghanistan was undertaken under the provisions of Article 51 of the UN Charter, which recognises “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence” if an armed attack occurs, and requires states to report such actions immediately …

Phyllis Bennis, Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, said in a recent interview:

… Article 51 of the UN Charter that determines what is and is not self-defence does not apply here … They [United States] got a UN Resolution within 24 hours … but [it] did not authorise the use of force …

Her opinion is reinforced by the carefully worded House of Commons report.

The ongoing justification based on “self-defence” is over the top: neither our actions nor those of the US are even remotely proportional to the harm threatened by terrorists on Australian or American soil.

Where is the outcry about this conduct? Where is the outrage? Where were and are the media? The Australian public has been lied to and still the silent majority sits in complacent silence. Why are our members of parliament not calling for an immediate inquiry into the legality of the invasion of Afghanistan? Isn’t it about time we had a serious public debate about the need for parliamentary approval before governments send Australian troops to war? The war continues, the death toll of young Australians and innocent civilians continues to grow and we accept it.

Instead of focusing on real issues and root causes our politicians distract us with a shameful hysteria surrounding “boat people”, people who in many cases have been driven from their families, their homes and their land because of our very own actions or inaction.

The blanket of silence, the de facto censorship surrounding the facts and circumstances of “the war in Afghanistan” is obscene. Every Australian who chooses to remain ignorant or sits silent in the face of this orchestrated and unjustified and murderous invasion is complicit by his or her failure to speak or act.

Of course, it doesn’t help that media reporting is so shallow. Where have we heard in the “news” about the International Criminal Tribunal for Afghanistan in Tokyo where George Bush was charged with crimes against Afghanistan? In March 2004 the ICTAT found George Bush guilty of attacking civilians with indiscriminate weapons and other arms during the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and issued orders banning depleted uranium and other weapons.

Even though the findings of this “unofficial people’s tribunal” are not binding the information unearthed by its investigations is disturbing to say the least: blatant lies, concealment of information, and death and destruction writ large. The Tribunal’s determination warrants close examination, particularly in relation to its findings about the use of depleted uranium weapons, the use of Cluster Bombs and Daisy Cutters and the torture of prisoners. All conduct that is disturbingly reminiscent of the horrors that led to large scale global protests to end the war in Vietnam.

It was particularly interesting to note that Major Doug Rokke, Director of the Depleted Uranium (DU) project from 1994 to 1995, told the Tribunal that:

… military officers from the UK, Australia, Canada and Germany participated in the project to study the risk of DU weapons and I was directed by the Army to direct the team …we submitted recommendations which were completely ignored … the US army has not taken any measures to protect soldiers. Although we made a proposal that clean-up is essential, complete clean up is impossible. Therefore we proposed not to use DU weapons any longer. However our proposal was ignored by the upper level of the government and completely ignored by NATO, UK, Australia and others.

Is that true?

Late last year Senator Ludlam asked a Senate Standing Committee “Have any of our coalition partners used Depleted Uranium munitions to Afghanistan at the time or since their deployment in the country?

The response:

There is no specific prohibition in international law on the use of Depleted Uranium munitions. There is considerable international controversy over the alleged health effects of Depleted Uranium. Therefore, as with any weapon system the intended use of Depleted Uranium munitions must be assessed by the State proposing to use them in accordance with its obligations under the laws of armed conflict and other international law.

Use of Depleted Uranium in Afghanistan is at the discretion of other nations, after considering the implications under international law. It is understood that some foreign defence forces may use or reserve the right to use, Depleted Uranium ammunition in Afghanistan, however others do not, based on their own National policies and international agreements.

Coalition partners have not provided any information on their use of depleted uranium munitions.

I think we can take it that’s a “yes”.

Are the same governments that permit the use of depleted uranium going to accept responsibility for the long term health consequences exposed civilians and service personnel are likely to suffer? Not if the denials and “defences” that were trotted out against calls for compensation by victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam are any guide.

There are many other disturbing similarities. The war in Vietnam produced search and destroy, which saw civilians killed, while the Vietcong and North Vietnamese regular troops went underground or in other ways made themselves scarce only to re-emerge once US troops had moved on. The US troops were able to hold towns and villages for as long as they could be supplied, but they were unable to hold the countryside. The best they could do was patrol.

The democratic regime in South Vietnam was corrupt, so corrupt it was rotten. Young men did not want to fight for it. Torture of prisoners was common.

Afghanistan’s the same.

The US and its reluctant allies are locked into a war with no exit strategy. After 9-11 the US decided to go to war against global terrorism of the kind driven by radical and fundamental Islam. It is a rebirth of the mindset that fought radical and fundamental communism: America, the knight in white armour, freed the world from the evils of the Kaiser, the Third Reich and Japanese militarism, and with those not inconsiderable successes it took on world communism. The Soviet Empire collapsed, but Vietnam was a disaster and China lives on and prospers. Even so America has opened another front by taking up arms against international terrorism. Maybe it can win that war, but Afghanistan is not the place it’s likely to do it.

Afghanistan’s topography, lack of infrastructure, climate and tenacious people defeated the British and the Russians: they were reduced to living in forts, which is what the US forces, NATO and other friends are forced to do now in Afghanistan. That also was an aspect of the war in Vietnam.

The government in Kabul is chronically corrupt and would not survive the pull out of foreign forces. Yet one aspect of the hackneyed “mission statement” is to bring freedom and democracy to the people of Afghanistan. The Kabul government doesn’t give a toss about that and neither does the US, otherwise they wouldn’t be droning to death innocent women and children, and as in Vietnam, thereby creating new recruits for the forces they are fighting.

The US is looking for an exit strategy which involves everything but talking to their loathed enemy. For years it was the same in Vietnam.

This is a war of the insurgent, which means they live among and draw sustenance from civilians both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is little the US can do about that, other than kill civilians. Many civilians flee as refugees to avoid that, but that concept is beyond the comprehension of government in Australia even though they have eyes and ears on the ground in Afghanistan.

Denial was a feature of the war in Vietnam and it’s exactly the same in Afghanistan.

America learnt little from the war in Vietnam. Operation Moshtarak in Helmand Province in February 2010, which entailed the “occupation” of the town of Marjah, is a case in point. A “classic” search and destroy, where the Taliban fade away only to return when US and NATO forces withdraw to their vending machines at the Bagram military and air base.

In both Vietnam and Afghanistan the guiding principle is that military might just succeed, and that there is no alternative. If the government’s hands are clean and its actions legally and morally justified what does it stand to lose by holding an inquiry into the legitimacy of Australia’s participation in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and into the conduct of each of those “wars”?