Afghanistan needs us to decide if we’re fighting on
An evocative photograph taken last week underscored that old utterance about a picture being worth a thousand words, and prompted at the same time some perennial questions about war in general, and about the particular war being waged at present in Afghanistan.
The AP photograph showed a small boy in the Afghan province of Helmand, standing on top of a small mound, his left hand reached out to clasp the right hand of a uniformed and heavily-equipped US marine.
Just what the two of them might have said to one another was not recorded in the caption, nor in the report below, which detailed a call from the UK Minister for International Defence and Security, Baroness Ann Taylor, for Australia to commit more troops to the NATO effort against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
But the nature of the exchange between the two subjects of the photograph was most graphic.
Leaning forward, his face bearing an expression of uncertainty, perhaps even of fear, the child seemed none-the-less to be extending a hopeful hand of welcome to the marine.
The soldier - on the other hand, was captured in a confident pose - coming up the incline towards the child in a purposeful and resolute manner. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.
The child, asking timidly for help and reassurance; the marine offering his powerful presence as protection. It was an image tailor-made for military PR; the might of the NATO allies, embodied by the marine, striding in to offer a future for the next generation of Afghans.
And that is surely a noble, and moral, ambition.
But is that the way things have panned out in Afghanistan, where it seems the war effort - of which Australia has been a part since the beginning and in which we still have 1400 troops engaged in training roles and in actual combat – is yet to produce clear evidence that “the good guys” are gaining the upper hand?
Certainly, that’s the view of the top US military man in the region, General Stanley McChrystal, who fears the war effort is stalling.
In recent weeks McChrystal has been on the front foot trying to persuade President Obama that as many as 40,000 additional troops should be committed to the campaign.
Which gets us back to that photograph, and back to our own involvement in the conflict. Perhaps it’s time for us to clarify exactly what we are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan, and to evaluate the level of our involvement.
The picture summed up what has been at least fifty percent of the officially promulgated justification for our engagement in the Afghan war – namely, to offer hope for the future to ordinary Afghans, who are entitled to the same expectation of peace in their lives as we. (The other justification, of course, is that if the Taliban is allowed to rebuild, it will continue to offer support to the Al Qa’ida terrorists.)
So do we believe we have a moral obligation to the ordinary men and women of Afghanistan? And if we do have such a belief, how deeply are we committed to it?
Baroness Taylor essentially asks the same question. Britain, with a population of about 65 million, has a contingent of 9000 servicemen on duty in Afghanistan. We with our population of 22 million have committed 1400 troops to region. The proportions would appear to be – well – disproportionate.
Or perhaps we don’t really believe we can realistically offer that little boy - emblematic of his entire nation – anything more than limited support.
But we ought to make up our minds - us, the US, the UK, all of us.
If the collective view is that there is no military solution in Afghanistan – which may be the view towards which the US is tending – we should withdraw speedily.
If, on the other hand, the best advice is that the Taliban and its vile associates can be exterminated, given sufficient effort of will, then Australia ought to heed Baroness Taylor’s call.
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