It was my third visit to Afghanistan or, rather, to the fortress of Tarin Kot where most of the Australian forces are based. There was the same immense activity inside the base, the same enthusiasm for the task from the soldiers I met, and the same assurances that the security situation was improving. This time, though, there were more supporting statistics: the UN estimates that life expectancy has increased by up to four years during the time of the Australian presence; and there are now 500 girls at school in TK where previously there were none. Although Hercules passengers are still required to don body armour, there is no longer a spiral descent to minimise the risk of incoming fire.
Troop numbers have not yet declined but the Australian withdrawal has already begun. Equipment is going home. A new barracks for the Afghan army is being built inside the main base. Australian infantry are no longer ‘mentoring’ Afghan soldiers on combat patrols but ‘advising’ them on tasks we don’t normally participate in. Our role is to protect our own people rather than to maintain security in the province. Of course, our special forces are still engaged in daily and nightly missions to disrupt, capture and kill active insurgents. Depending upon negotiations with the Afghan government, this role may continue well beyond the 2014 withdrawal date for most Australian personnel.
Australians should be proud of the way our forces have conducted themselves. At home, people often doubt that any gains have been worth the cost, but our troops don’t. Soon, the maintenance of relative peace and the consolidation of social improvements in Uruzgan will depend upon the Afghans rather than upon us. My conviction, after talking with our troops, is that every day that Australian forces have been active is a better day for the Afghan people, and every day that we have been present means a future brighter than it would otherwise be.
In neighbouring Helmand province, British forces are still conducting joint operations with the Afghans although expecting to wind these down over the coming year. Britain has had about six times our troop strength in Afghanistan and has taken about 12 times our casualties, partly because they lacked an armoured mobility vehicle such as Bendigo’s own Bushmaster. Security briefings in London are not especially optimistic: on one hand, elections will continue to be held; an Afghan government will maintain authority over the cities; and al-Qa’eda will not return in force. On the other, towns and villages will largely revert to the traditional mix of feudalism, fundamentalism and warlord-ism. Afghans are doubtless as far from embracing Western liberalism as any people could be. Still, policy ‘realists’ may underestimate the universal yearning for the benefits of modernisation and Afghans’ grasp of the way Western levels of prosperity rest on Western systems of values.
My London visit, including meetings with Foreign Secretary William Hague, Boris Johnson and Sir Mervyn King was a good antidote to facile optimism. Despite the considerable impact of sanctions, sabotage and international disapproval, the Iranians are still working towards a nuclear capability. A nuclear Iran would gravely destabilise an already fraught region and pose an existential threat to Israel. Yet forcibly preventing that could unleash a ‘perfect storm’ of retaliatory attacks, street violence and disruption to oil supplies with seismic economic shocks around the world. It’s a reminder of Churchill’s dictum that ‘jaw-jaw’ invariably beats ‘war-war’.
One purpose of my trip was to attend the Australia-United Kingdom-Israel leadership dialogue convened by Melbourne philanthropist Albert Dadon. It was a good chance to reiterate the Coalition’s determination to support Israel as the only mature, pluralist democracy in the Middle East.
The Eurozone crisis drags from one summit to another with no real likelihood that richer countries will subsidise poorer ones or that improvident countries will embrace fiscal virtue to the necessary extent. It brings to mind another Churchill aphorism about going on in strange paradox, ‘resolved to be irresolute… adamant for drift… and all-powerful to be impotent’. No one ever really explains how it’s possible to have a single currency without a single government. So Germany stays burdened by the need to keep afloat weaker economies and the Mediterranean countries remain hamstrung by an inability to devalue their currency. Europe is an object lesson in the need for governments, like families and businesses, to maximise their freedom of action, live within their means and constantly strive to make their economies more efficient.
Between meetings in London, it was an honour to return to Queen’s College, Oxford, to offer some reflections on my years there. With its white bow ties, academic dress and graduation ceremonies in Latin, Oxford sometimes seems an anachronism that defies change and thumbs its nose at modernity. Yet as I said to members of the local Australian Society, its most important tradition is the contestability of ideas:
There are few problems that are ever finally solved… few subjects on which it can ever safely be assumed that we have heard the last word… (and) hardly any arguments where right is all on one side. Truth is far more likely to be approached than ever finally to be grasped. This insatiable curiosity and ceaseless questioning that Oxford at its best embodies is the hallmark of Western civilisation (especially in its English-speaking versions) and provides our comparative advantage among the cultures of the world.