Afghanistan war 'debate' needs to reflect majority view

Anti-war activists held a protest outside federal parliament in Canberra during Barack Obama's Australian visit. Photo: Pip Hinm

“Gillard and Abbott fly in and out of Afghanistan under heavy protection from harm. Both curry political advantage from the khaki vote. The rest of us see young Ozzie lives ripped apart without any obvious gain to ordinary Afghans. Let the pollies go and fight their own useless war …”

“Dan51” from Sydney, who made this comment under a November 22 Sydney Morning Herald article, is part of the majority (64% in the November 21 Essential Poll or 72% according to Roy Morgan), who want Australian soldiers out of Afghanistan.

These poll results show significant opposition to Australia’s involvement in the 10-year long war in Afghanistan. But the big parties are pushing for it to continue even beyond 2014, the year nominated by NATO for “turning over Afghan security to the Afghan government”.

PM Julia Gillard told parliament on November 21 that special forces soldiers may be in Afghanistan well after the “draw down” of US-NATO troops in 2014.

“Training [the Afghan army and police] is pivotal to [our] mission,” she said. “The government will keep under consideration a continued Australian special forces presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.”

She said much the same during last year’s parliamentary “debate”. At the same time, US President Barack Obama, under growing pressure in the US, was talking up an “exit” strategy. Labor is not immune from the pressure, however. Defence minister Stephen Smith contradicted the PM on November 22 by saying that the troops may leave in 2013.

Opinion on the war has become more sharply polarised this year, and particularly since at least four of the 32 soldiers who have died were killed by the people they were training.

A jingoistic mass media means very little real news about the war’s real impact gets out. But it’s now being reported that Afghan army chief Brigadier-General Mohammed Zafar Khan has repeatedly asked for Australian troops to leave, saying the Afghan National Army soldiers should be given a chance to take over security in Oruzgan province.

Australian-supported war-lord-turned-chief-of-police in Oruzgan, Matiullah Khan, has been implicated in serious human rights abuses.

Anti-war campaigner and former Afghan MP Malalai Joya says all hope that the foreign troops would eradicate the Taliban fundamentalists has gone. “The Afghan people have lost all trust in the foreign troops: they see that they are making things even more complicated”, she said on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion.



Some from the pro-war camp, such as General Allan Stretton and former officer Clive Williams, now say the war is “unwinnable”. Others say the war is unjust and immoral.

Whichever angle, the polls show most Australians no longer think the war is about “bringing democracy” to Afghanistan.

Stretton has been a thorn in the government’s side for some time. He and Williams wrote in the November 14 Sydney Morning Herald that the troops should leave because “it seems doubtful that the Afghan National Army will be capable of taking over security by 2014”.

Large audiences for Joya, who has now visited Australia three times, show that there is an opportunity to ramp up the political pressure. But it takes courage to speak out when jingoism abounds — and when the US president is in town.

The Greens missed an important opportunity on November 17 when Obama addressed parliament. As the only parliamentary party to call for the troops to leave, the Greens could have talked up the huge dissent against the war. But they, along with the rest of the MPs, seemed more concerned about respectability.

However, a group of anti-war activists on parliament lawns that day, including Christine Assange — mother of WikiLeaks founder Julian — and war veterans opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, aired the real impact of the war and militarism.

Whatever the reason, Greens MPs’ decision not to join the protest — even after having agreed to speak at it — helps obscure Barack Obama’s imperial aims in Afghanistan, the Middle East and south east Asia. It makes it harder to transform the still largely passive, but overwhelming, anti-war sentiment of people like Dan51 into something more potent.

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