It is a peculiar feature of history that acts of lone madmen should have the power to change the course of events, because they explode the comforting myth that rational people are in charge and that things will unfold according to predictable plans. Think of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, or the murder of JFK. One never knows how things would have played out if these events had not occurred — though Henry Kissinger, when asked how he thought history would have been different had it been Khrushchev and not Kennedy who was killed, famously noted that ‘there is one thing of which we can be certain … Aristotle Onassis would not have married Nina Khrushchev.’

Counterfactual quips aside, last week’s massacre — there’s no other word for it — of 16 Afghan civilians, mostly women and children, by what appears to have been a lone, unhinged US serviceman, deserves to be counted as another such event. As awful as the thing was, it also gives Australian policymakers a brief window in which to change course and get out of a conflict whose course toward disaster suggests Hemingway’s description of going bankrupt: first slowly, then all at once.

That is why it is time for Australia, the US and others to begin a quick and orderly drawdown of forces and withdrawal from Afghanistan. The original purpose of the war — fighting terrorism and disrupting al-Qa’eda — has been accomplished. Sticking around in the hope of reforming a tribal, obscurantist culture into a simulacrum of Western liberal democracy is a fool’s errand.

The deliberate killing of Afghan civilians threatens to add a new dimension of deadliness to a long and drawn-out conflict, even as it inflames opposition to the West’s presence in the country both inside Afghanistan and out. It has outraged moderates and represents a huge propaganda coup for the Taleban. Revenge attacks are all but certain. It is hard to see how there is a way to stay after such a disaster, just as it is hard to see how local Afghan forces could be trained to beat back the Taleban in time for the US deadline for a 2014 drawdown.

Yet, like one half of a bad marriage, Julia Gillard — at least publicly — has convinced herself that as bad as things are, leaving would be worse. This is, of course, the same Prime Minister who in 2010 suggested that Australian troops could remain in Afghanistan for another decade. Perhaps it is a Labor thing, and the government is terrified of being portrayed as weak or alienating the Australian Defence Forces any further. Thus, speaking to reporters in Canberra after the shooting, Gillard said, ‘Of course, an incident like this is a truly distressing one but it’s not going to distract us from our purpose in Afghanistan and our clear sense of mission in Afghanistan.’

And that mission would be what, exactly? Fighting al-Qa’eda? Osama bin Laden is dead and the most his hapless acolytes can accomplish is occasionally sneaking a shoe or underwear ‘bomb’ on board an airplane, only to be tackled not by the burly forces of the security apparatus but by alert passengers.

Indeed, while US, Australian and other Western services obsess over new ways to make life unpleasant for ordinary citizens (as anyone who has flown domestically in the US lately can attest), Islamism is no longer about bomb-throwing jihadis. Fantasies that see blown-up railway stations and hijacked airliners leading to
a restored Islamic caliphate have given way to a new reality.

Political Islam has moved on, even if the West has not. Like Sixties radicals in the US who worked out that taking over universities as presidents and professors was a better way to spread their ideology than burning them down, radical Islam has figured out other ways to grasp the reins of power. Across the Arab world, the so-called Arab Spring has put the Muslim Brotherhood in the driver’s seat in Egypt; revolutions (at times aided by a West that sees altruism rather than realism as its key foreign policy driver) in Libya and quite possibly Syria look likely to see the same result. Turkey has radicalised and Iran is on the verge of getting the bomb. And we’re still fighting al-Qa’eda?

This has not stopped the creation of vast security apparatuses (including expensive and potentially dangerous full-body scanners being rolled out in Australian airports at a cost of $28 million), which have done little to deter or detect would-be terrorists, who these days seem like a bunch of hapless losers anyway. Yes, there is always a risk, but one which could be managed in other ways. In this sense, terrorism is a bit like climate change: an amorphous yet potentially existential threat, never to be disproven (because anything could happen tomorrow), upon which billions of tax dollars and tens of thousands of jobs depend.

In the meantime, Australia carries on, supporting a project that is expensive in terms of blood (32 Diggers killed and more than 200 wounded thus far) and treasure ($1.3 billion this financial year alone). Over the past few years, the war has morphed from a worthwhile effort into a costly distraction that is sapping Australia’s and the West’s ability to manage threats elsewhere in the world, if it is not exacerbating them. There is no dishonour in being proud of our accomplishments and coming home. But to stay while things get worse would be a shame.

James Morrow blogs about food and culture at prickwithafork.wordpress.com.