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Leading article Australia

A pre-emptive withdrawal

23 February 2013

9:00 AM

23 February 2013

9:00 AM

Last October, Julia Gillard stated that under her policy of transition there would be a ‘gradual and measured’ withdrawal of Australian troops from Afghanistan until the end of 2014, with some forces possibly staying beyond that date. At one point, the Prime Minister even suggested Australians could be in Afghanistan for a decade. Thus far, Tony Abbott has largely concurred. ‘We must count the cost of our continued commitment, but we must also count the cost of prematurely abandoning that mission,’ he said last year. Meanwhile, in his State of the Union address, President Obama announced a speeding-up of his own withdrawal, with more than half of US forces now due to quit Afghanistan by the end of this year.

In light of announcements from Washington, it’s time Australia’s leaders re-thought our own commitment. The die is cast on Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is dead. Chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley says al-Qa’eda has been ‘largely neutralised’. And Afghanistan’s forces are increasingly capable of taking the fight to Taleban insurgents. We have done our bit. The cost so far is the lives of 39 brave Australian soldiers and more than $10 billion.

Shortly, Canberra is due to send a new rotational contingent of troops to the Oruzgan province. As alternative Prime Minister, Mr Abbott should seize the moment to announce that the Coalition deems our mission accomplished, that if elected he will not send further reinforcements and will bring home our 1,550 troops earlier than expected. Leave Afghanistan to the drones and the US elite and specialised forces, and search for a negotiated political settlement on the ground.

This would not amount to cutting and running. But the creation of a viable liberal democratic state in the ‘graveyard of empires’ is beyond our reach. Besides, the Afghanistan Taleban does not yearn for global martyrdom; they merely want to restore Pashtun rule. That may not be ideal for the people of that unfortunate country, but it hardly represents a threat to Australian national security.

An Abbott proposal to withdraw our troops is both sensible policy and smart politics. In 1971, Gough Whitlam skillfully wrong-footed Billy McMahon by visiting China’s Communist rulers only days before Richard Nixon’s announcement that he, too, would visit Peking. In 2007, Kevin Rudd pledged to withdraw our Diggers from Iraq only days before Tony Blair — John Howard’s ally — did the same. Mr Abbott should take a page out of their book, jump the gun on Ms Gillard and announce a total withdrawal by the end of 2013. After all, the Americans are coming home, too.

Eyes of the world

During the Howard years, it was fashionable for some people — and in particular those who took it upon themselves to represent the nation’s conscience — to complain that Australia was in the doghouse. We were, according to Phillip Adams, Bob Ellis and Paul Keating, the ‘new South Africa’. One Sydney newspaper used the Tampa asylum-seeker stand-off to editorialise: ‘Once again, we are being condemned at the court of world opinion as callous and inhumane.’(Never mind that this denunciation amounted to a few opinion pieces in the Guardian.)

Which makes it very strange that in his retirement, John Howard is regularly invited to share his insights on international networks, from the BBC to CNN to Fox News. Global demand for our second longest-serving PM has intensified since mid-December, when a lone gunman massacred 20 children and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As the US has been forced to confront yet again the issue of gun control, with all of the political and constitutional conundrums it throws up, a newly re-elected Barack Obama finds himself in a situation not dissimilar to that of Mr Howard in April 1996 following the Port Arthur massacre. Eager to learn how he successfully stopped the proliferation of assault weapons on our shores, the world’s news media have sought out Mr Howard. He was recently commissioned to write an op-ed for the New York Times and he is scheduled to appear on (of all things) Comedy Central’s Daily Show, hosted by popular left-wing satirist Jon Stewart.

What makes Mr Howard’s insights particularly appealing, and noteworthy, is his ability to resist point-scoring and reframe the debate away from the old paradigms. ‘This is not a conservative-liberal issue, [nor] a left-right issue. We’ve always seen it as being a question of public safety,’ Mr Howard told the distinguished New York-based journalist Fareed Zakaria. ‘The sad fact is that it’s the ready availability of guns that results in mass murder.’

For the first time since Menzies, it seems we once again have an ex-prime minister whose opinions the world wishes to hear. Keep the sharp objects away from Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser.

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