Whatever the wrongs, Blair is still right on Afghanistan
It is fair to say that there is a growing sense of unease in Australia about our commitment in Afghanistan. Twenty-one Australian soldiers have now died.
The latest casualty, Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney, was laid to rest just nine days ago. Five hours after his burial his widow Beckie gave birth to their second child.
Beckie’s friend, Courier Mail journalist Jane Fynes-Clinton, wrote a heartfelt but forthright column about the broader meaning of this family’s private tragedy. She argued on behalf of her friend that Australia should honour Jared’s memory by staying the course in Afghanistan.
“As rumbles about the part Australia and her allies play in Afghanistan become more audible, Beckie could not be more sure that the cause he fought for, defended and gave his life for is noble and just,” Fynes-Clinton wrote.
“Australia must stay until Afghanistan has learnt to help itself, she has told me. Australia must stay until its job is done, until Afghanistan has the training and the abilities to take on its foes on its own.
“Australia must stay or Jared will have died fighting for something that will never be. And that would break her heart all over again.”
Many readers queried this assertion, arguing that the private loss of one family should not provide the basis for an open-ended national commitment to fighting a possibly unwinnable war.
In a piece demanding a wider public debate about the purpose and conduct of the war, News Limited columnist Paul Toohey said the loss of troops should not automatically translate into emboldened support for our commitment in Afghanistan.
“The problem with this thinking is that it sets forth an emotional strategy of continuing the war based on respect for those who have died. It inadvertently proposes that we never stop losing our troops until there is a form of victory in Afghanistan.
“The chances of that happening appear, at this point, very faint. The war is being conducted like a seasonal blood sport, with a playing season and an off-season. And our team captain, the US president, is not convincing when he talks of the value and strategy of the war.”
These two columns, both published on our website The Punch this week, book-ended the emerging debate in Australia about the chances of victory in Afghanistan set against the growing human cost of continuing to fight.
This same week saw the publication of the candid and self-critical memoir by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, entitled A Journey, where he talks at length about the event which got us into both Iraq and Afghanistan, and the mistakes the western world made as it entered those conflicts.
Blair admits that the decision to go into Iraq and subsequently into Afghanistan was not just a matter of principle but payback. And rightly so – what happened could never have gone unpunished. But the bigger question which Blair canvasses retrospectively is – the payback of whom, as it is now quite clear that we are not up against a small band of would-be hijackers, who could be rounded up and dealt with like some IRA terrorist cell:
“The history of Islam – its origins, its rise, its present predicament – is essential to understanding the significance of the events of September 11. It is precisely here that I made a mistake: I misunderstood the depth of the challenge. I was ignorant of the pervasive nature of the phenomenon. As at September 11, 2001, I accepted what most accepted: this at was perpetrated by a small group of fanatics wholly unrepresentative of Islam who could and would be crushed.
“If I had known then that a decade later we would still be fighting in Afghanistan, I would have been profoundly perturbed and alarmed….Back in the instant following the cataclysmic act of terrorism that stunned, shocked and appalled the world, the issue was clear: the madmen had declared war. They would be rooted out and eliminated. No one – or very few – disputed it, or the action that followed.”
From where Australia stands, there are two issues with Afghanistan which are obviously intertwined – the first is winning the war on the ground, and the second is maintaining support for the war at home.
Our ability to achieve the second is hampered by the failure of Blair and, particularly, former US President George W Bush to make out and maintain a compelling moral case for the war in Afghanistan.
This war should by rights have the same galvanising effect as the battle against Nazism in the 1930s and 1940s.
For the Left, in particular, it should be every bit as compelling a cause as the Spanish Civil War, as in the Taliban we have an enemy which aside from its violent opposition to democracy, pluralism, freedom of assembly and worship, is also committed to a bloody and active brand of misogyny which kills teachers for daring to educate girls.
As Blair writes in his memoir, in the aftermath of September 11, both Iraq and Afghanistan were regarded as conflicts with a readily identifiable fanatical core which could be quickly identified and eliminated.
His ominous but accurate assessment is that the greater struggle now is within Islam, to see that the extremists do not prevail.
“Such struggles don’t last an electoral cycle,” he writes. “They last a generation.”
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