Myself and eight other people were arrested at the gates to Swan Island defence intelligence training base near Queenscliff in Victoria on June 16. We did this to protest the Australian government's continued participation in the occupation of Afghanistan.
Our day began with 40 people outside the Geelong Magistrates Court showing solidarity with the Bonhoeffer Peace Collective who were on trial for entering Swan Island in March. Despite pleading guilty to the charges of trespass on Commonwealth land, the magistrate dismissed their charges on the grounds that their cause was justifiable.
While not a legal precedent, it is a precedent for the activist community who have undertaken “non-violent direct action” to highlight the crimes of the war machine or for environmental causes.
Why were we arrested? Because we blockaded the security gate, stopping all traffic from entering and exiting Swan Island. Swan Island trains Australian intelligence and special operations agents. It also houses a communications centre for overseas special operations. The base is central to Australia's role in the Afghanistan war.
The protest's aim was to take direct action against the training centre in the hope that it would draw attention to the worsening situation in Afghanistan, and put pressure on our government to bring the troops home.
Probably the most accurate statement about the war came last week from General Stanley McChrystal, commander of the “troop surge” in Afghanistan. He said at a NATO conference in Brussels on June 10, “when you go to protect people, the people have to want you to protect them.
Deaths rise every year, and four of every five Afghan casualties are civilians. This is why most Afghans want occupying troops to leave their country. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has estimated that 4530 civilians died in 2008 and 2009, but total deaths for the eight-year war have not been collected. On top of this, US-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai is growing increasingly unpopular, and the government is widely seen as illegitimate.
Karzai was literally flown into the first Loya Jirga (constituent assembly) by the US in 2002. He was a well-known warlord who was previously an adviser for the CIA. He was chosen because he could unite the various interests in the “Northern Alliance”, a group of warlords who the Afghan people consider to be no better than the Taliban. Karzai had no interest in democracy, a fact confirmed by his grossly obvious fraud in the 2009 elections.
The June 11 New York Times said Karzai has started negotiating with the Taliban in a bid to shore up his position of power. What wasn't mentioned in this article was that the US has already shown interest in negotiating with so-called “soft-line” Taliban.
Karzai's interest in the Taliban comes as no surprise to the Afghan people, who see no difference between the warlords in government and the Taliban forces.
There is no doubt that Afghan people are worse off because of the war. Life expectancy is only 43 years; only 31% of households have access to water and only 24% of adults are literate. Worst of all, 50% of Afghan children are malnourished, and many die without being counted as war deaths.
But while the Afghan people languish in poverty the warlords are getting richer.
The Medical Association for the Prevention of War (MAPW) released a June 6 discussion paper on the Afghanistan war, which said “latest figures from the UN estimate that Afghan opium generated [US]$4 billion income in 2007, 93% of the world's supply and equivalent to over half of the official economy”. This is up from only 11% before the war.
Hamid Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai is one of the largest drug profiteers in the country. Khalil Nouri wrote in the May 23 Salem-news.com that “Wali Karzai controls a network that pushes over $3.5 billion worth of heroin each year, and controls politics at the regional and district levels”. Wali Karzai was implicated in printing hundreds of fake ballots during the 2009 elections and held meetings with the Taliban earlier this year.
While the warlords line their pockets, the governments of the occupying countries are rubbing their hands in expectation over the recent news of more than $1 trillion in mineral wealth discovered in Afghanistan.
The US government claims this wealth will help rebuild the Afghan economy and create wealth and jobs for Afghans, but it’s far more likely the US government and corporations intend to remain there to exploit it for themselves.
But the war also comes at our expense. On May 30, the US government's combined costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan war reached $1 trillion. The MAPW discussion paper said “since 2001 the US has spent $100,000,000 per day on the [Afghanistan] war”.
In Australia, while the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd restricts public spending, the Afghanistan war is budgeted to cost a total of A$1.6 billion for the next year. The total defence budget was $25.7 billion.
Spending billions of dollars in a war for imperialist interests, which kills both Afghan civilians and Australian soldiers, can only be described as criminal.
I may have been only one of 40 people taking action on June 16 against the Afghanistan war, but I know that we were not alone. With Britain approaching 300 military deaths in Afghanistan, an April ComRes poll found that 77% of Britons backed immediate withdrawal of troops.
It is also clear that the war affected the results of the elections. Now Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has had to suggest that British troops need to be withdrawn “as soon as possible” and has even downgraded the threat of terrorist attacks from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The 2010 Lowy Institute Poll found that 54% of Australians think we should withdraw from the war, and 55% are not confident that Australia has clear aims in Afghanistan. A Research New Zealand poll conducted in May found that 77% of New Zealanders wanted some form of withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, with 40% supporting a complete withdrawal.
The deaths of two Australian soldiers on June 7 should bring this home. This is the largest number of Australian soldiers killed in one day since the Vietnam war, but the Australian government has indicated that troops are likely to be in Afghanistan for the next three to five years.
This makes it clear that just like Vietnam, our demands for troop withdrawal will only be obtained if ordinary people continue to take action and physically or symbolically stand in the way of the government's plans for war.
[Trent Hawkins is the Socialist Alliance candidate for the seat of Wills in Melbourne.]