Despite the April 27 death of Lance Corporal Jason Marks, the fifth Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion, and subsequent allegations of the mistreatment of Afghan prisoners of war by Australian troops, the there are no plans to withdraw any of the 1000 Australian troops from Afghanistan.
Since being elected in November, the Rudd ALP government has downsized the Australian contingent of the US-led occupation forces in Iraq. While most troops deployed to Iraq remain, the removal of 550 front-line soldiers was an acknowledgement that anti-war sentiment was a factor that helped the ALP government get elected.
While opposition to having troops in Iraq is greater, a majority of Australians also oppose the presence of Australian troops in Afghanistan.
However, ALP policy reflects a myth that is widespread in the Western "liberal" media, and likely to influence a future Barack Obama administration in the US. The myth is that while the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, and the bloody war there a "policy failure" by the US and its allies, the war in Afghanistan is part of a real fight against anti-Western terrorism that has also liberated the country from the nightmare of rule by the theocratic Taliban regime.
This myth obscures a military occupation that has caused at least as many civilian deaths as that of Iraq — and possibly a lot more.
Australian military and political leaders, including foreign minister Stephen Smith, have said that allegations that four Afghan prisoners of war were stripped and beaten by Australian troops, in apparent revenge for the combat death of Marks, are being taken seriously. On May 10, however, the head of the defence forces, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, announced that the military had already found there to be no truth in the reports.
The May 11 Sunday Age reported that there were also allegations that Australian forces regularly handed prisoners of war to Afghan forces who tortured them.
Allegations of prisoner abuse, many proven, have been consistent throughout the occupation. However, a far greater human rights catastrophe is the occupation forces' reliance on air strikes.
While the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was ostensibly a response to the killing of about 3000 civilians in the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, by December 31, 2001, ABC Radio National was reporting that Western bombing had already taken a higher toll of Afghan civilians.
Since then civilian deaths have not been counted: some are reported as deaths of Taliban fighters while others are not reported at all. In addition to air strikes, civilian deaths are also caused by crossfire and arbitrary violence and terrorism by both pro- and anti-occupation militias. Some estimates put the number of civilian deaths in the millions.
The direct intervention of the US-led forces in 2001 was not the start of Western involvement in Afghanistan. Following a leftist revolution in 1978, whose social base was in the small urban population, the US began arming an Islamic fundamentalist insurgency based on the rural tribal aristocracy, as part of a covert Cold War strategy to draw the neighbouring Soviet Union into an unwinnable war.
The strategy was successful. The Soviet Union invaded in December 1979 and for 10 years was militarily held down by the Mujahideen — as the coalition of rival Afghan Islamist militias were known — and a Saudi-led multinational Islamist force headed by Osama bin Laden. Both forces were run by Pakistani military intelligence (the ISI) under the direction of the US.
This operation, which was financed by the US and Saudi governments and by Afghan heroin exports, directly contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union and US victory in the Cold War.
The leftist government of Afghanistan outlasted the Soviet Union, however in 1992 it was overthrown by the Mujahideen warlords, who then turned on each other in a devastating civil war. Murder, looting, abduction, torture and rape were combined with an ultra-violent version of religious law that actually owed more to local traditions and the brutalising effects of intergenerational war than to Islamic theology.
In 1996 the Taliban, a religious militia created by the ISI, took control of the capital, Kabul, and 80% of the country. At first people welcomed them for reducing inter-warlord violence but their corrupt and brutal theocracy rapidly alienated the population.
Initially, the Taliban was seen as close to Pakistan and the West, while the rival warlord coalition, the Northern Alliance, was closer to Russia and Iran. The West turned against the Taliban because of the presence in Afghanistan of Osama in Laden, who — in response to the US deciding that his international terrorist network was no longer needed as a proxy — attacked US targets in the Middle East and Africa.
The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan was motivated by the now discredited neo-conservative agenda to use the September 11 attacks to justify direct military control over the oil-rich areas of Central Asia and the Middle East.
Despite the stated war-aim being the capture and elimination of Osama bin Laden, the US-led forces allowed the Pakistani military and ISI to disentangle themselves from the Taliban, which enabled bin Laden and the leadership of his network to escape.
The invaders bought the loyalty of the Northern Alliance and some previously pro-Taliban warlords with arms, money and a free hand in the heroin industry.
While the Western media makes much of Taliban involvement in heroin production and trafficking, only US$20 million goes to the Taliban from an industry which creates an estimated $4 billion profits annually.
However, drug eradication campaigns by the occupation forces — which ignore the warlords and criminals who control the trade but target farmers with no other source of livelihood — have been politically exploited by the Taliban, who have been arming farmers to defend their crops.
Before the invasion, the Taliban had actually eliminated the drug industry in the 80% of the country they controlled in the mistaken belief that this would return their regime to favour with the West.
Because of their reliance on air strikes and local warlords, the occupation forces have kept their own casualty rate lower than that in Iraq. Since 2001, 816 Western soldiers have died in Afghanistan, 505 of them from the US. However, 300 of these casualties have been since January 2007. The occupying powers do not have the capacity, or any strategy, to militarily control the country but their withdrawal — which would probably see the allegiance of most of the warlords revert to the Taliban — would be a political defeat.
For the Afghan people, the occupation has in no way diminished the depredations of religious fundamentalist and criminal militias. It has simply added the horrors of aerial bombardment.
The withdrawal of the occupation forces would not end the violence in Afghanistan. However, it would end the greatest cause of civilian casualties and, if combined with the cessation of military support for all the warlord forces and financial reparations to facilitate reconstructions, may allow space for the secular and democratic forces who, although decimated since 1992, have never been entirely wiped out.