Friday, 22 October 2010 

BOB BROWN: I think it’s a matter of honouring the troops who are in Afghanistan. What this debate will show is that there is total solidarity in the Parliament, right across the Parliament, in support of our troops and the enormously important work they do for this nation, and as those statistics you’ve just given show, the extremely dangerous work they’re doing.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Except you want them to come home.

The 7.30 Report Monday night

Well at least we know why there hasn’t been a debate on the Afghan war in nine years – there wasn’t really one to be had. Certainly we didn’t get much clarity. Indeed Gillard took the opportunity to cloud the outlook even more by saying that what was already stacking up to be one of Australia’s longest military engagements was set to be twice as long with a presence there beyond the end of the decade. Would troops still be there then? Not sure. How would it be clear when the job was done? Going from what she said on Lateline, not sure.

Yet if it was hard to separate what the government was saying to what the Coalition was saying on the war in Parliament this week, it was the government that especially needed to answer one question: if, as Labor claimed in the past, military action in Iraq made it a hotbed of terrorism, why was military action in the neighbouring hotbed of terrorism supposed to have the opposite effect?

It was the Foreign Minister who got closest yesterday with grappling with this difference between one war, which Labor opposed, from the other, which Labor supports. But before he did, he only confused the differences when he gave his argument why troops should not be pulled out:

A further argument which is now advanced by some is that our continued and collective military presence in Afghanistan is in fact inciting the insurgency rather than effectively combating it. But this argument fails to deal with the counterfactual—that if coalition military operations in Afghanistan were now to cease, the Afghan government’s authority and reach would be undermined. Were that to occur, the ability of a successful Taliban insurgency to again offer support for global terrorist organisations would increase. The costs to the Afghan people themselves, who have already endured 30 years of conflict, would also be great.

This argument by one former Prime Minister of the terrible consequences of pulling troops out of one country is, of course, remarkably similar to the argument used by another former Prime Minister against pulling out of Iraq. But while there were eerie parallels in the justifications for being on the ground, Rudd did eventually get to the real reason behind Labor’s differential view between the two wars:

The government’s policy towards Afghanistan was different for two reasons. Firstly, the UN Security Council authorised the creation of an international security force, which it did not do in the case of Iraq. Secondly, the ANZUS alliance was formally invoked in the case of Afghanistan, which was not the case in Iraq.

This gets to the nub of the issue. The US is leading a coalition of 47 nations in Afghanistan and while the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq was quite a few more than the three Howard liked to portray, the US made a virtue of unilateral action in Iraq. In Afghanistan it was back to leading a coalition and invoking its military alliance with Australia in doing so.

Gillard was asked on Lateline which of the two reasons, fighting terrorism or the US alliance, was more important, and unsurprisingly she refused to give an answer. The problem is neither reason really stands up on its own these days.

The War of Terror as a compelling issue has long faded but calling on the US alliance is not that helpful either when it is becoming less clear what actually it is that the US is trying to do. Bob Woodward in his book Obama’s Wars describes well how Obama is grappling with trying to work out the purpose for a war against terror when all the terrorists have probably long since gone elsewhere.

The reason to pull out of Iraq was clear; the US’s unilateral stance in that quagmire was undermining its political authority around the world. It was the US’s recognition and shift on that which caught Howard out when he accused Obama of being the preferred choice of terrorists and which Rudd rode on the back of in a way that was not possible for Latham a few years before.

But while Afghanistan poses fewer political problems for the US’s world standing, it doesn’t pose many political benefits to its standing either. The US is not getting the benefits of military leadership as it did during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, the first Gulf War. With no compelling reason to leave but no compelling reason to stay, the Obama Administration is left in limbo while it continues to escalate the number of troops.

This is the other reason why there has been no debate on the Afghan war. Not just because both major parties agree, but also there is no real political advantage in making a big deal for it. But neither is there much sense of a case being made against it. The Greens can say what most Australians apparently think, that they can’t see the point of it, but so desperate are they to lock into the sensitivities of Labor that Brown can’t bring himself to say clearly that rather it being pointless, it might be, say, wrong. Instead we get the mess we heard on Monday night.

A war of invasion only ends because the invaders win, lose or are pulled back home. None of these look set to happen, but no one wants to talk about it either. So with no end in sight, no wonder Gillard thought it would be an idea to be reminded of the war once a year, for however long it will go on, in case we forget.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 22 October 2010.

Filed under International relations

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8 responses to “Perma-war”

  1. kymbos on 22nd October 2010 8:47 am

    Is it wrong to think that our defence forces are generally in favour of involvement in military conflicts, including Afghanistan? ie, it justifies expanding budgets, it’s what they’re trained to do, etc etc.

  2. Dr_Tad on 22nd October 2010 10:15 am

    I thought Brown’s performance on Monday night was excruciating.

    We have to remember he initially supported US-led military action in Afghanistan in 2001 and then shifted rapidly to catch the (minority) anti-war mood at the time. Then it took years (and shifting opinion polls) to get him to speak out regularly on the topic. His reflex position seems to be to try to find a nationalist, pro-military line on the conflict rather than say what many of his members and voters think: that the war is just wrong.

    Hence how he stumbled when O’Brien pressed him on what the military chiefs think and whether he’d visited the troops. The war is a political question, not a technical-military one. You can have a clear position without having a single conversation with the military.

    I actually think political mileage could be made out of the disconnect between what the major parties want and the opposition of most Australians. But playing along within the framework set by the major parties and military brass ain’t it.

  3. James on 22nd October 2010 10:45 am

    Brown’s performance on the 7.30 Report should remind his supporters that he is a politician in the mainstream political system and is subject to the perils of human nature, like other politicians. It’s time the Greens recognised that they don’t have a mortgage on the pure, high moral ground. The sooner they realise that, the less disappointed they will be.

  4. GrannyAnny on 22nd October 2010 3:23 pm

    During the great debate speaker after speaker told us how things were now improving. An article in Larvatus Prodeo today suggests this is bunkum as well.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 22nd October 2010 4:43 pm

    Agree with a lot of coments made. Though I think Australian public opinion more reflects the lack of political case made for the war and the feeling it has no point, rather than being wrong, which is a different thing.

    Very much agree with the point about the military, Dr Tad. It is uncomfortable to see the way weak politicians are hiding behind the military to make a point they can’t (Evans with the Senate hearing another case in point). This problem of a weakening political class v the military is also a theme of Woodward’s book. They work for us. It would be nice if there was a politician who could stand up and remind us and the military of that fact.

    Bandt’s speech was better than Brown’s dribble. Afghanistan has the potential to be a touchstone issue for changes in the Greens I suspect.

  6. Amber Dekstris on 22nd October 2010 9:09 pm

    Military exercises in war games don’t compare with military operations in a real theatre so surely the ADF would be pretty content as long as scale of involvement and casualties are both kept low. Howard made sure our troops were not exactly in the front line in Iraq. Our troops are in more danger in Afghanistan and doing some mortally risky work there but on balance not as bad as it could be.

    There’s also the oil theory. I’ve heard there are pipes running across Afghanistan. Does anyone know?

  7. Graeme on 23rd October 2010 4:08 pm

    There’s a wee point of difference to explain Labor’s different take on each war: al Qa’ida was in many respects based in Afghanistan; Iraq had nowt to do with 9/11 except in some fevered American imaginings.

    On the weak pollies vs strong military bosses theme: see Dr Hewson in the AFR Friday. He excoriates the brass for it’s incursions across the lines of the separation of powers, responsible govt and civilian control of the forces.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 23rd October 2010 6:50 pm

    Funnily enough the difference over Al Qaeda was not really mentioned by Rudd. The trouble with that argument after the invasion is that if Iraq had become a recruiting ground it would have been a reason for staying.

    I didn’t see the Hewson article but it sounds misplaced. Army using all the influence it can get is understandable. The problem is the political class backing down and letting them.

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