Defence minister Senator John Faulkner has joined the list of cabinet members who, since Julia Gillard became prime minister, have said they will resign from the front bench after the upcoming elections.
He dismissed suggestions that this was because he had doubts about the unpopular war in Afghanistan, which he has the task of promoting.
On May 21, I met with Faulkner as part of a delegation from seven anti-war groups. We lobbied — unsuccessfully — in support of legislation proposed by the Greens to prevent governments involving Australia in any war without the approval of parliament.
At the time of our meeting, the number of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001 (when then-PM John Howard signed Australia up to the US-led war) was 11. Since then it has risen to 17.
The latest Australian casualty was 23-year-old Private Nathan Bewes, killed by a roadside bomb on July 9. The July 12 Australian said: “Gillard and Foreign Minister Stephen Smith have urged Australians to brace for more casualties.”
Sixty one percent of Australians think that the troops should be immediately withdrawn, but ALP and Coalition politicians have used the recent deaths to argue that Australian soldiers, “knowing the risks”, choose to put their lives on the line to defend Australia from terrorists.
The politicians have been helped by the media.
The reality, of course, is that soldiers do not choose which war they are sent to. Emerging evidence suggests low morale among the Australian troops in Afghanistan.
On May 28, an unnamed Australian special forces soldier was found unconscious — he apparently overdosed opiates, alcohol and pharmaceuticals.
The June 4 Australian said Australian Defence Forces chief Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston “had said the private was a courageous and professional soldier who had helped rescue a fellow soldier under fire”.
The 300 Australian special forces troops in Afghanistan were all drug tested and the private was flown to Germany in a coma. “Senator Faulkner said Air Chief Marshal Houston should investigate the extent of the use of any prohibited substances in Afghanistan and find out how personnel might obtain drugs there”, the Australian said.
No great powers of deduction are required to find out how soldiers may obtain illegal drugs in Afghanistan.
Houston told Radio Australia on June 3: “Afghanistan is a place where there’s a lot of narcotics, they are grown there and they are manufactured there and this is a place where narcotics are more freely available probably than anywhere else in the world.”
Dr Alex Wodak, director of the alcohol and drug service at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney told Radio Australia on June 4: “There are reports coming out of the United States in the last few months of large numbers of US servicemen coming back to the United States with severe heroin dependence.
“The heroin of course is very easily available, very cheap in Afghanistan, and many of them have been turning to heroin to cope with the unbearable realities.”
The number of US soldiers undergoing substance abuse counselling rose sixfold between 2004 and 2009, Radio Australia said. Afghanistan has become the centre of the global drugs trade (supplying more than 90% of the world’s illicit opiates) since the US-led military occupation began.
Between the 2001 invasion and 2009, opiate production rose 4500%.
The July 10 Weekend Australian said Australian air force pilots had complained about becoming addicted to pharmaceuticals such as Stilnox that were prescribed to counter fatigue created by the pilots’ flying schedules.
This was revealed in a supposedly confidential defence department health survey of former and current military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Weekend Australian found the survey on the internet. The survey also contained allegations of “an underground trade in illicit substances and sex, complaints about a lack of support, poor leadership and the constant fear of death”.
At the core of the malaise is that the war is as pointless as it is brutal. The most commonly used justification, that the occupation forces are defending the West against terrorism, simply doesn’t add up.
CIA director Leon Panetta estimated the number of Al Qaeda operatives currently in Afghanistan at “maybe 50 to 100, maybe less”, AFP said on June 28. None of the 9-11 hijackers were from Afghanistan.
Equally unconvincing is the argument that the occupation is bringing democracy and enlightenment to Afghanistan. The Taliban alienated most Afghans with its violent and repressive rule between 1996 and 2001, but the US-led invaders chose a fractious coalition of war lords, drug barons, religious extremists and corrupt puppet politicians as their local allies.
For Afghans, there’s little difference between these forces and the Taliban.
The US-led forces’ reliance on air strikes, artillery and night raids against villages is ineffective against the Taliban, which mostly uses hit-and-run tactics such as roadside bomb attacks.
However, the toll on civilians is horrific.
No records are kept of the civilian death toll. An indication of its extent came to light with the reported acquisition by Wikileaks of a video showing a May 2009 air strike that killed 140 people, including 92 children.
The result of the civilian deaths has been a revival of support for the Taliban. US President Barack Obama’s troop surge has raised the number of occupation troops to 150,000. This has not weakened the insurgency, but has created the surge in casualties for the occupation forces.
Australia’s 1500 soldiers make just a small part of the US-led force. Australia’s military death toll is also relatively low. US soldiers account for most of the occupation force and most of the casualties: about 1200 deaths.
The second-largest contingent is the 10,000-strong British force, which has suffered 300 fatalities.
The three most recent British casualties reflect the futility of the occupation’s attempts to create an Afghan puppet security force: they were deliberately killed by one of the Afghan soldiers they were supposedly mentoring. Another five British soldiers were killed in a similar incident in November.
Australian politicians sometimes let slip the real reason for keeping the troops in Afghanistan: to maintain the US alliance. For its part, the US was committed to the occupation by the previous Bush administration with its grandiose plans for a “new American century”.
The Obama administration is afraid to end the occupation without creating a stable puppet regime because of the damage this would do to US prestige.
Gillard is following her predecessor Kevin Rudd by making Australian withdrawal contingent on US withdrawal, which the Obama administration has made contingent on unachievable objectives.
This could translate into another nine years of carnage if the anti-war majorities in Australia, Britain and the US do not become an active movement demanding troops out now.
[Pip Hinman is an activist with the Sydney Stop the War Coalition and Socialist Alliance candidate for Grayndler.]