page loader

Link to article:

The only effect of stepping up military action will be the deaths of more Afghans and the radicalisation of the bereaved. (AFP: David Furst, file photo)

For the past week or so the Government has been softening up the Australian public for an announcement that it intends increasing troop numbers in Afghanistan. The pitch has not been enhanced by the death of an Australian soldier from 7RAR in Afghanistan on 16 March.

Sticking firmly to the Gallipoli principle, which is to send Australian troops overseas to die under another nation’s command for a campaign which cannot be won, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon have steadfastly refused to do their own thinking or take independent action. The war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not winnable by the conventional application of arms. The NATO and US troops cannot kill their way to ‘victory’ or into the hearts and minds of the people, particularly when the old, the women and children are increasingly collateral damage. And don’t believe the cover that the Taliban have been using these people as shields for their operations – they are not.

US President Barack Obama has indicated a willingness to engage in talks with moderate elements of the Taliban. That is a start, but the only way progress will be made is by talking to the radical elements, no matter how distasteful that may be. Some commentators in Australia, no doubt out of sympathy with the long-suffering people of Afghanistan, have urged that talks not be held and that military action be stepped up. The only effect of that will be the deaths of more Afghans and the radicalisation of the bereaved. It’s not rocket science, but listening to policy makers and the academic cheer squad you would think it was.

The fear of being branded a cut-and-run advocate has silenced the debate on alternatives. It is not cutting and running to hold discussions with those you are fighting and in the process try and ascertain what their aims and objectives are. It is crude and lazy to claim the Taliban are motivated by an extreme belief in their faith. One of the prime motivators of conflict in Afghanistan is poverty and it has been so for 200 or more years. There are not enough resources to go around. Religion is the opiate of the masses (no pun intended). It helps cope with the death of children and grinding poverty. It is also a vehicle and a network for action and assistance within and outside the country. The culture of violence and payback is long entrenched. Just ask the British and Russians.

The process of negotiation might be used to extract concessions, such as the right of girls to attend school and women to work. Future aid should be tied to objectives such as these.

But don’t expect miracles. Topography, climate, local knowledge and support, and time are on the side of the Taliban. Not so long ago they were known as the Mujaheddin and as such were the friends and allies of the US. Through the 600-plus CIA operatives, weaving a path either side of the border, the US encouraged the growth and sale of opium in order to put money in the pockets of the Mujaheddin and thereby help the US defray the cost of the war against the Russians.

All through the 80s it was an objective of the US to hold the Soviets on the ground and watch them bleed to death. They were in no hurry for the Soviets to leave, arguing the longer the war went on the more it would hurt the USSR – and it did.

It is feasible that might also be an objective of the Taliban with respect to the US and NATO. All the more reason to begin discussions, no matter how difficult that might be, with power and operations spread across a number of different groups and tribal organisations.

Some argue that the Taliban must be crushed as part of the process of crushing fundamental Islam (like crushing communism – remember when that was all the go) and that for as long as the Taliban roams free, Al Qaeda will have a protector. Al Qaeda exists more in the head than it does on the ground, a bit like the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa which had the police and army spooked for over 10 years.

Mr Rudd and Mr Smith have demonstrated a characteristic marked in Australian politicians; that they are most comfortable when being pushed around and told what to do by powerful friends.