Afghanistan War shows we need war power reform

September 7, 2021
Australian troops in Afghanistan. Photo: John Collins / Wikimedia Commons

One man, former prime minister John Howard, decided on behalf of 19 million Australians to invade Afghanistan in 2001.

Australia joined the United States’ invasion to seek retribution for the September 11 terrorist attacks. Last week, Howard said the mission was not a failure, as it prevented further attacks on the West.

The human cost of this war, which is not entirely known, is tragic. According to Costs of War, 243,000 people across Afghanistan and Pakistan were killed and hundreds of thousands have been displaced.

Forty-one Australian Defence Force (ADF) officers died, 260 were wounded and more than 500 have suicided. That number is climbing due to post traumatic stress.

The future costs are unknown, but there is no doubt that the vulnerable in Afghanistan — women and girls, the LGBTQIA+ community and ethnic minorities — will bear the worst of it.

The US-NATO troops handed Kabul back to the Taliban, which will govern using strict Sharia law in which punishments include torture, floggings, amputations and mass executions.

Standing in solidarity with the Afghan people means shining a light on Howard’s decision 20 years ago. Sending the country to war is a captain’s call.

Section 50C of the Defence Act 1903 requires the ADF to serve overseas. There is no requirement for parliamentary involvement or approval in the decision.

Howard’s decision kicked off the longest running war Australia has ever been involved in. Parliament has had no oversight over troop deployments to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. 

Former prime minister Julia Gillard, in a deal with the Australian Greens, allowed for an annual debate on the Afghanistan War in 2010, 2011 and 2012. But in 2013, then prime minister Tony Abbott scrapped the process.

The Australian Democrats and the Greens have made six attempts since 1985 to require parliament to approve, or not, Australia going to war. Italy, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands already have such laws.

The Greens’ Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill 2020 currently before the Senate will not pass because Labor will not support it.

Defence minister Peter Dutton has “no plans to amend the current process”. Labor’s shadow defence minister and shadow foreign affairs minister will  commit to an inquiry only if Labor is elected.

In the meantime, the Greens’ bill was referred to a Senate committee that is due to report back on November 30.

A Roy Morgan poll last November found an overwhelming majority — 83.3% — want parliament to decide whether troops are sent into armed conflict. Australians for War Powers Reform president Paul Barrat said that more than 75% of all Labor, Coalition and Greens voters believe that parliamentary approval should be required before Australian troops are deployed.

“The disastrous Iraq conflict and the drawn out Afghanistan deployment have made people rethink how we as a nation view overseas wars", he said. "This survey result is an overwhelming demand for more oversight and transparency.”

The Be Sure on War campaign wants to ensure that any decision to go to war is made only after exhaustive scrutiny, including on: the purpose, legality, military strategy, prospects of success and exit strategy, likely impacts on our troops, likely impacts on civilians, economic cost and, most importantly, alternatives to military action.

There is likely to be another Afghanistan when military alliances are invoked to justify another war. Before this happens we need to be able to scrutinise the facts and let MPs have the final say.

[Joel MacKay is an advocate for young people, Indigenous and LGBTQIA+ rights, and for justice and mental health reform.]

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