Afghanistan: the 'other' occupation must end

The death, on October 25, of the second Australian SAS soldier in Afghanistan this month, Matthew Locke, in the province of Oruzgan in southern Afghanistan, has again focused attention on the hidden military occupation that has bipartisan support in Australia. David Pearce was killed in the same province by Taliban forces on October 8.

Some 82 British troops have died in Afghanistan since 2001. Associated Press reports that at least 3800 Afghans have been killed by international forces since January, a 55% increase compared to last year (although no records are kept so no-one knows the true scale of the killings).

On Iraq, the ALP is keen to present an alternative to the Howard government's "stay the course" line. Robert McClelland — the ALP's foreign affairs spokesperson — explained on October 3 that a federal Labor government would "initiate a phased withdrawal of our troops, in consultation with our US and British allies". That is, Labor in government would withdraw the 550 Australian combat troops from southern Iraq, but only after consulting with the White House.

The current six-month troop rotation for the 550 troops is scheduled to end in December. But McClelland pledged that Labor, in government, would "allow time for responsible consultation with our allies" and "provide an additional troop rotation taking the deployment through until mid-2008".

Labor is also pledging to keep military assets in the Middle East, including: a security detachment protecting Australian diplomats in Baghdad; a frigate in the Persian Gulf; a transport aircraft based in the Middle East that also services Australian operations in Afghanistan; and Middle-East-based surveillance aircraft.

The arguments by ALP leader Kevin Rudd for an "exit strategy" are being advanced in the framework of a "failed" military strategy by the US-led occupation forces. Rudd's reference point has been the December 2006 Baker report issued by the US Iraq Study Group.

As Rudd argued on ABC radio in February, "The question, which arises from that is, how do you best ensure that Iraq does not turn into a strategic defeat for the United States?" Not a word about democracy for the Iraqis, the majority of whom want the occupying troops to leave.

There is no question that the Labor's pledge to withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq, if realised, would be a political victory not only for the majority of Australians who want them out, but for the Iraqis who want the same. It would also ramp up the pressure on whomever succeeds George W. Bush as US president, and boost the international movement's struggle to end the brutal, unjust and illegal occupation of Iraq.

However, on Afghanistan, where Australia has 1000 troops, Rudd has not just backed continued Australian support for the NATO/US occupation, he has tried to out-flank the Howard government from the right. A September 2 ALP statement argued that, "Despite the Howard Government prematurely withdrawing Australia's troops from Afghanistan in 2002, it has always remained central to Labor's national security focus".

McClelland is repeating the line, put by former ALP leader Kim Beazley, that Australian combat troops in Iraq have "been a massive diversion of security and diplomatic resources from fighting terrorists in Afghanistan".

On October 9, Labor leader Kevin Rudd explained: "As I indicated in discussions with the United States president and earlier with the United States vice-president, our position is a bipartisan position with the Australian government on Afghanistan ... Australia is committed in Afghanistan to the long haul and, therefore, we will always be attentive and responsive to requests made by our friends and allies in Afghanistan in terms of future needs."

Supporting the US/NATO-led occupation in Afghanistan allows the ALP to highlight its support for the Australia-US military alliance, adding to the growing list of its "me too" policies.

War of 'liberation'?

Opposition to the Iraq war is clearly the majority opinion in Australia, but opposition to the war in Afghanistan is less clear cut. For instance, an October 4 Associated Press article reported that a recent survey found that while 64% of people oppose Australia's involvement in Iraq, only 51% oppose Australia's involvement in Afghanistan.

While these figures should give the anti-war movement heart that despite Labor's support for the war on Afghanistan, the majority of Australians still oppose it, nevertheless it shows that many are still convinced that the occupation in Afghanistan is somehow more "just" than the war in Iraq.

They may also believe that because the reactionary Taliban regime has been ousted, it is a war of "liberation", not occupation and conquest.

In this federal election, anti-war campaigners and progressive parties, therefore, have to explain why both the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan must end. We must campaign for the incoming Australian government to immediately withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and for an end to both occupations.

According to Canadian trade unionist Michael Skinner, who visited Afghanistan in mid-2006, the occupation is bringing neither peace nor social benefits to Afghanistan: inflation is spiraling and, after six years of occupation, only 29% of people in Kabul have access to safe drinking water, according to the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.

"We witnessed desperate people in Kabul forced to draw their drinking water from beneath cesspools of raw sewage and in one location even from beneath a cemetery. We witnessed sewage flowing in the streets of Kabul, where it bakes in the sun, turns to dust and is picked up by the wind to blow disease-laden fecal matter about the city", he wrote in the October 22 Bullet.

Skinner also noted that far from liberating Afghanistan, the military occupiers are helping keep the country a theocratic state. Afghanistan was a secular state until 1992 when it became the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan with the support of the US.

Hamid Karzai, a ruling class figure from a powerful Pashtun family from Kandahar, was installed as chairperson of the post-Taliban "transitional" administration in 2001 at a conference in Bonn, Germany. In 2004, he was subsequently "elected" president in 2004. With the backing of the West, he is supposedly fighting the Taliban, even while attempting a power-sharing arrangement with them. His backers include warlords responsible crimes that match, and exceed, the Taliban's human rights abuses

Earlier this year Afghanistan's parliament, well-stacked with warlords and drug barons, passed an amnesty for all those involved in the last 25 years of civil war. This amnesty included Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Under Karzai's watch, opium production has reached record levels, and he has appointed drug bosses and militia leaders as senior police commanders.

US supporting reactionaries

Understanding the history of the forces that created the current theocratic military regime of Afghanistan is essential to understanding why the Australian and other foreign troops should leave.

The Mujaheddin forces, supported throughout the 1980s with billions of dollars of US military aid channeled through the Pakistani secret service, declared an Islamic republic in 1992. A civil war broke out, for the next four years, between competing Mujaheddin factions vying for power. During this time, most of Kabul was leveled and thousands of Afghans were killed, with many more thousands becoming refugees in the border camps in Pakistan.

In 1996, the Taliban defeated the competing warlord factions in Kabul, and forced them to retreat to the north and the east of the country. The Taliban's reign was marked by a repressive regime of sharia law.

Two of the most powerful Mujaheddin factions united to form the Northern Alliance to control northern Afghanistan. In 1998, the US brokered a treaty between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, hoping to ensure that Afghanistan would serve US political and economic interests, including a trans-Afghanistan pipeline.

After the 9/11 terror attacks, the US used the Northern Alliance as its ground forces to overthrow the Taliban. As Skinner noted: "The military leaders of the Northern Alliance — the same leaders accused of multiple war crimes and crimes against humanity and who instituted the repressive and misogynist Islamic republic of Afghanistan — now form the core of the ruling and business class of Afghanistan."

Australian SAS officers, returning from their mission in the south of Afghanistan, have admitted that they are killing young peasant farmers, suspected of collaborating with the Taliban. According to Skinner, the occupying forces are recreating an intense hatred of foreign troops and, increasingly, the Taliban are being rehabilitated as patriots in the eyes of many Afghans.

The Socialist Alliance believes that the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are unjust and must be ended. Karzai has said he wants the foreign troops to remain in his country well into the future, and Rudd has hinted that if he wins government he will send more. On October 24, NATO announced an extra 1000 troops will be sent. Currently, more than 40,000 foreign troops participate in the occupation.

The same rationale for why the troops should leave Iraq apply to Afghanistan: the peoples of both countries have the right to determine how their country should be run — without outside interference. The goal of the foreign forces is not liberation of these countries, but subjugation.

The idea, pushed by the Coalition and the ALP, that the conflict in Afghanistan will be solved by sending more troops is deluded. The principle of self-determination remains an important one that the anti-war movement must campaign strongly for in these elections.

[Pip Hinman is a member of Sydney's Stop the War Coalition and a candidate for the Socialist Alliance in the NSW lower-house seat of Grayndler. To find out more, visit]