And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
It’s 45 years since Country Joe McDonald penned his classic anti-Vietnam war protest song ‘I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die’. It’s high time the record was reissued and a copy got sent to Julia Gillard, who thinks Australia should spend another decade fighting a war that makes even less sense than the one which so enraged Country Joe and his fellow peaceniks back in the Sixties.
For while US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron are looking for the quickest way out of the Afghan quagmire, Australia’s former secretary of the Socialist Forum can only promise us yet another decade of bloodshed. When you have an Australian Labor Prime Minister who’s more keen on a certain war than the leaders of Britain and the US, you know you’re living in very strange times.
It’s one thing to support what Sir Robert Menzies called ‘our great powerful friends’, as we did in both world wars, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf. It’s another thing altogether to out-hawk them and commit to another decade’s involvement in what even leading American neocon Fouad Ajami concedes is ‘a hopeless undertaking in an impossible land’.
Not that you’d know it if you heard this week’s parliamentary ‘debate’. Virtually all members of both major parties, especially the Prime Minister and the opposition leader, want to keep up to 1,500-odd diggers indefinitely in this immensely costly war, for which even the most ardent supporters in the US and Britain have lost their appetite.
The ironic thing is that we’re sure if Gillard had been old enough to join the protests in the Sixties she’d have been right up there at the front of the march, no doubt blaming the male-dominated world for the US-led imperialist aggression against the Vietnamese people. Why, then, is this former student radical, who lists anti-war socialists Aneurin Bevan and Jim Cairns as her heroes, so keen to spend more Australian blood and treasure on the Afghan mission? Why are her political opponents unashamedly supporting this madness? And why are media commentators here so reluctant to condemn her hawkish stance?
We don’t pretend to know the answers, but one thing seems clear. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the action, it could at least be said that in Vietnam the US and Australia were fighting for a clearly defined aim: the defeat of the communist Vietcong. There is no such clarity of purpose regarding the Afghan operation. Gillard says: ‘We’re there to make sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a safe haven for terrorists.’ Yet there is no substantial Al-Qa’eda presence in the country anymore: according to CIA estimates, only 50 to 100 Al-Qa’eda fighters are left there. To the extent that Osama bin Laden’s network remains operational, it is far more likely to be based in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan than in Afghanistan. Besides, as Alexander Downer pointed out in these pages last week, the original objective was to destroy Al-Qa’eda, not fight the Taleban; that aim has been accomplished.
Gillard says she wants ‘democracy and a functioning government to take hold’. But after nine years it should be clear to anyone that democracy is not an exportable commodity to such a tribalised and xenophobic land. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest and most primitive societies. Its terrain is more difficult than even Iraq’s. Poppy fields are in bloom. Elections have been deeply flawed. The local army can’t stand up to the Taleban for long. Indeed, the corrupt Karzai government is negotiating with the Taleban — not surprising, given that the Taleban will still be there after Western forces turn tail and run, as they will eventually will.
No wonder leading political and media figures in Washington and London can’t wait to end what is the longest war in American, indeed Australian, history. In the US, hardly a week goes by without prominent commentators Eugene Robinson (the Washington Post), Bob Herbert (the New York Times), Tony Blankley (the Washington Times), Joe Scarborough (MSNBC) and Pat Buchanan (Creators Syndicate) calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops. (Even Anne Coulter, the fiery right-wing talking head and pundit, wants out!)
Michael Steele, chairman of the National Republican Committee, recently deemed Afghanistan ‘unwinnable’, warning that the US should not get bogged down in a place where ‘everyone who has tried over 1,000 years of history has failed’. A growing number of US congressmen on both sides oppose funding for the operation. Tea Partiers, animated by opposition to the exorbitant level of federal spending and indebtedness, almost sound like the second coming of George McGovern. Meanwhile, as Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars makes clear, the officials who are planning and prosecuting the war recognise that the prospects for a happy ending are increasingly grim. Indeed, President Obama and his dovish advisers, as opposed to the Pentagon, have imposed a July 2011 deadline to begin pulling US troops out.
In Britain, the war has been opposed not only by the usual suspects, such as the 85-year-old former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn, but also by figures on the conservative Right. One of the most powerful speeches in Parliament against British involvement was made not by an anti-war Leftie, but by the solidly Tory Sir Peter Tapsell — the Philip Ruddock of the Commons — who questioned the logic of cutting back on counter-terrorist units at home while continuing to ‘sacrifice the precious, heroic lives of our young people in an unnecessary and unwinnable war against the Pashtun tribes’. (For his part, Ruddock does not welcome any debate on Afghanistan!)
The UK Daily Telegraph’s Peter Oborne believes that David Cameron’s support of the war could prove a ‘catastrophic mistake’. In the Tory-supporting Daily Express, chief political columnist Patrick O’Flynn insists ‘it is blindingly obvious that it is beyond the power of Western forces to defeat the Taleban outright’. The staunchly conservative Daily Mail has, like the Express, been highly critical of the war, and has run a succession of articles calling for direct talks with the Taleban to begin. The Mail’s veteran right-wing columnist Andrew Alexander has been one of the fiercest critics of Western intervention, arguing that it has only increased the threat of terrorism by inflaming Muslim opinion.
Even among Britain’s gung-ho Tory leaders there are signs that enthusiasm for the war is waning. When he visited Washington in July, for example, Prime Minister Cameron flagged the idea of a withdrawal of British troops within the next two years. Meanwhile, the Dutch have quit Afghanistan for good. The Canadians are withdrawing next year.
So where does all this leave Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Australia? We’ve been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, and like America and Britain today, are out of both patience and public support. When you find yourself in a hole after nearly ten years, stop digging. If we don’t, we might find that in another ten years Australians will be in this hell hole all alone.
Tom Switzer, editor of The Spectator Australia, is with the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University. Neil Clark, a contributor to the UK Spectator, is with the Oxford Tutorial College.