Nine years on, it could be another ten in Afghanistan
The beginning of the debate into Australia’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan is a refreshing exercise.
For a cynical electorate it has provided impassioned and well reasoned political debate - albeit one in which the major parties agree – and the best thing the new paradigm has provided to this Parliament.
While Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott agreed to the need for Australia to stay in Afghanistan there were subtle differences in the arguments that they made in support of it: one given by somebody with the responsibility for the military commitment, the other from somebody with a firm belief in its ideological commitment.
Gillard’s speech was the clearest indication yet that the Government doesn’t expect our soldiers to be in the Afghanistan for just 2-4 years, but an indeterminately longer period than that. Ms Gillard told Parliament:
Our aim is that the new international strategy sees a functioning Afghan state become able to assume responsibility for preventing the country from being a safe haven for terrorists.
Australia’s key role in that mission, training and mentoring the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan, is expected to take 2 to 4 years, and President Karzai has said the Afghan Government expects the transition process to be complete by the end of 2014.
But let me be clear – this refers to the Afghan Government taking lead responsibility for security. The international community will remain engaged in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and Australia will remain engaged.
In other words we can’t tell you how much longer this will go on for, but we’ll be there till its over. How much longer? Well according to Gillard it could be at least another ten years:
We expect this support, training and development task to continue in some form through this decade at least.
Our mission in Afghanistan is not nation-building. That is the task of the Afghan Government and people. With international aid and development, we will continue to help were we can, but entrenching a functioning democratic Afghan state could be the work of a generation of Afghan people.
This is a pretty incredible admission - especially given that it has been nine years since our forces went to Afghanistan and only now are we having the first parliamentary debate.
It is also a pretty realistic commitment. To give a deadline creates the impression of a war that can be won or lost in a conventional sense. There will be no surrender ceremony if and when the Taliban eventually pack it in.
As someone who cannot say whether we will stay or go within the next few years, Abbott’s speech cast the war in a more ideological shade of khaki green:
No country should lightly commit its armed forces to combat and a democratic electorate would almost certainly punish any government that did. Still, a country that was not prepared to defend itself against an aggressor could hardly be taken seriously. If self-defence is justifiable, mightn’t the defence of others be even more so? War should never be glamorised or idealised but might there not be at least some nobility of purpose about a military campaign to defend other people against their persecutors?
We shouldn’t forget that the military expedition to East Timor was to stop defenceless people from being brutalised. It’s hard to see the moral difference between our military campaign there and the campaign in Afghanistan just because the latter is yet to come to a more-or-less-satisfactory conclusion.
Abbott also liberally smattered his speech with references to Islamic fundamentalism being the cause of this conflict, something that Gillard held back on, no doubt out of fear of being labelled a neo-con crusader. Abbott had no such apprehension:
Our objective is to allow Afghans to choose what they think is right for them. The Taliban’s objective is to impose what it regards as the one right system. We are prepared to accept choices by the Afghan people that we don’t like. Our key stipulation is merely that Afghanistan should never again become a base for international terrorism. By contrast, the Taliban and even more so their al Qaeda allies insist that their version of Islam is not only right for Afghanistan but mandatory for the whole world. To them, it’s not enough to execute women in a sports stadium for moral transgressions; this is the law by which the whole world should be ruled.
Abbott (correctly) also made more of the threat of Pakistan imploding as a result of any withdrawal from Afghanistan. The nightmare scenario is not so much the Taliban retaking Afghanistan, but success of the Taliban in Afghanistan acting as a bridgehead for the fall of Pakistan – along with its 60 nuclear weapons.
Still the overriding message from both leaders was the same. While Gillard played more the dove to Abbott’s hawk they both ended up in the same place: sticking around in Afghanistan for a long time.
The muted screams of a female protestor taken out of the House just moments into Gillard’s speech, were a reminder that while the stance taken by neither leader is particularly popular - and they’ll be plenty more to disagree with them in the coming days - at least she can no longer complain we’re not talking about it.
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