On October 19, Sydney Stop The War Coalition activist Marlene Obeid was dragged out of the parliamentary public gallery as Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced that Australian troops would be "engaged in Afghanistan at least for the rest of this decade". "They are war criminals", said Obeid as she was dragged off by Parliament House security guards. She was right but, until the new Greens MP Adam Bandt spoke (see full speech below) , her stifled protest was the sole voice for peace and justice in the House of Representatives chamber.
PM Gillard's speech can be read here.
The reasons Gillard gave for keeping the troops there were 1) to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a "safe haven" for terrorists and 2) to support the US, Australia's chief military ally.
Liberal-National opposition leader Tony Abbott rushed to support the government line, while objecting to Australian Spercial Forces being tried in a military court for killing Afghan civilians, including women and children, and then attempting to cover it up.
Tony Abbott's speech can be read here.
While the bi-partisan pro-war line of the major parties was shaefully re-affirmed, on October 20 the sole Green MP in the House of Representatives gave the following strong speech in favour of withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan.
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Towards the end of last year, the Karzai government passed a law which applies to the country’s minority Shi’ite population, and in particular its women. The law allows police to enforce language that sets out a wife's sexual duties and restricts a woman’s right leave her own home. According to US reports, child custody rights still go to fathers and grandfathers, women have to ask before they get married for permission to work and a husband is still able to deny his wife food and shelter if she does not meet his sexual needs. And the government that passed this law last year, Mr Speaker, is a government we are told that our soldiers should kill and die for.
It is now clear that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won, however you measure victory.
It is now clear that the reasons successive governments have given to be in Afghanistan no longer stand up to scrutiny.
It is also now clear that the main reason we are there is not to defend democracy or human rights but simply because the United States asked us to go and want us to remain.
And it is now clear that although our alliance with the United States is important, a simple request is not a good enough reason for our troops to fight and die in an un-winnable and unjustifiable war.
This is a decision we must make for ourselves as a country.
Mr Speaker, it is time to bring the troops home.
It is time to bring the troops home safely and for Australia to shoulder the burden of Afghanistan’s problems in a new way.
And it is time to bring the troops home so they can be honoured for their service and no longer be asked to carry out this unjustified task.
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The Greens do not oppose the deployment in Afghanistan based on any absolute opposition to the use of military force or from any lack of commitment to our troops.
We led the call for military intervention in Timor Leste and are proud of the role our men and women played in the struggle for freedom and independence in that country.
Unlike in many other countries, our Defence forces thankfully follow the lead of our political leaders and have little choice in the tasks they are set.
So they are doing the job they have been asked to do in Afghanistan.
Already 21 young Australians soldiers have lost their lives, ten since June this year.
That is all the more reason why we should be having this debate and all the more reason why the government should bring the troops home.
Going to war
Mr Speaker, the decision to go to war is probably the most important decision we can make.
It is a decision fraught with danger and uncertainty and great consequence, for both the country and soldiers going to war and the people and country with which a war is being fought or invaded. And it is a decision that can easily lead to unintended outcomes, peril and blowback for the people of the country whose leaders choose to go to war. And it is for those reasons that such a momentous decision should not be left in the hands of the executive alone.
This is why the Greens asked for and secured this debate on Australia’s Afghanistan commitment as part of our agreement to support the Gillard government.
And this is why my colleague Senator Ludlum has put before the Senate a bill to require a decision of Parliament as well as the Government to underpin any deployment of troops overseas.
Mr Speaker, I can announce today that I will soon introduce the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill into this house.
The United States understood the importance of a check on democracy and ensures that Congress needs to back a President’s decision to go to war. Many other countries do something similar, including Germany, Spain, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. We should join them.
The Greens’ Bill will require a resolution agreed to by both the Senate and the House of Representatives before members of the Defence Force may serve beyond the territorial limits of Australia, except where emergencies require immediate deployment.
The Greens hope that this debate can be a step towards the passage of our Bill which will mean once and for all that in the future the Australian people through their representatives will have a say in going to war.
The war in Afghanistan
Mr Speaker, no one knows exactly how many people have died and been injured in the war in Afghanistan, because in those infamous words of the US military “we don’t do body counts”. But we do know it is in the tens of thousands.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, in the first 6 months of this year casualties increased by 31% compared to 2009.
And nearly every other week there is another story of a massacre or “accidental” killing of civilians. More “collateral damage” in a war in which, like Vietnam, our troops find it hard to tell the difference between insurgents and non-insurgents.
Mr Speaker, the Afghan war has now been going for over 9 years, almost longer than World Wars I and II combined.
We must remember that in the eyes of many of the people now fighting the Coalition forces in Afghanistan, this is a continuation of their fight to remove foreign forces from the country, a fight begun with the Soviet invasion in 1979.
The Russians learnt, to their great cost, that more than 100,000 troops backed by an Afghan government could not win against “Mujahideen”.
The Leader of the Opposition is right that despite the history, we must deal with this world as it is. But we can’t close our eyes to the lessons of the past and be doomed to repeat them. Wilful blindness is no better than wishful thinking.
Mr Speaker, I know many Australians ask the legitimate question: what will happen to the population if we pull out? But there’s an alternative question: is us being there making the problem worse?
Major-General Alan Stretton, who served as Australian Chief of Staff in Vietnam and fought in World War II, Korea and Malaya, thinks so.
He says the Afghan “population now sees the war as a foreign invasion of its country.”
“In fact,” the Major-General says “the occupation is providing a reason for terrorist attacks and instead of reducing the risk to Australians is actually increasing it.”
The Prime Minister said this war may be the work of a generation. Well, if coalition troops are there for another decade, a whole generation of boys and girls will have grown up under occupation and we must expect all the consequences that may flow from that.
On this I think we should listen to Malalai Joya. In 2005, she was the youngest woman elected to the Afghani parliament. She condemned the warlords that overwhelmingly comprised the assembly. Now she says
“We are in between two evils: the warlords and Taliban on one side, and the occupation on the other. … The first step is to fight against the occupation – those who can liberate themselves will be free, even if it costs our lives.”
Mr Speaker, respected defence analysts have said the process of training the army and police in Afghanistan is far less successful than the government has made out and may never be achievable.
The desertion of personnel, infiltration by Taliban supporters and quality of the troops and police all mean that very few are able to operate without Coalition forces in support.
And according to some reports the attrition rate far exceeds the number of new recruits.
None of these problems were explicitly acknowledged in the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday, apart from a confident declaration noting the “Afghan Government’s determination that the Afghan National Security Forces should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014.”
Mr Speaker it is important to note the careful language that is being used here. Afghan troops will “lead” but not takeover the full security task and they hope to “operate” in all provinces, but will not to be able to take on a full role in all provinces.
In short, even by 2014 there will be no self-sufficient Afghan military or police, suggesting we may be there for much much longer.
The leader of the Coalition forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, summed up his thinking on the length of deployment in this way:
“You have to recognise also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting … You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”
But while we talk here of decades and generations, President Obama is reported to have responded to Pentagon requests for more troops by saying “I’m not doing ten years. I’m not doing long-term nation building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.”
If the US is increasingly asking how much it will cost in lives and money to be successful, and indicating it will not make that kind of commitment, why aren’t we doing the same?
Protecting Australians from Terrorism
And what would count as success anyway?
Many have said - and it was repeated yesterday - that we need to be in Afghanistan because of Al Qadea. But most experts agree that Al Qadea is now operating from other countries and not Afghanistan.
General Peter Gration commanded the ADF from 1987 to 1993. He has reportedly described as "overblown" the Prime Minister’s claims that there are direct links between the security of Afghanistan and terrorist threats to Australians.
We now know that Al Qadea is operating in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, but we don’t invade there.
But very few if any such terrorists are in Afghanistan.
In General Gration’s words, "To say that what we are doing in Afghanistan is defending Australians is drawing a very long bow."
Mr Speaker, another key justification and strategy of the United States and in turn the strategy of the Australian government has been to hold up the Karzai government and make it democratic.
Yet this same government is accused of widespread corruption and criminality. In fact US General David Petraeus reportedly describes the Karzai Government as a "criminal syndicate", and Vice President Joe Biden has asked, "If the Government's a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will the troops make a difference?"
Successive elections in Afghanistan have been marked by fraud and recently came an announcement that the latest election results have been delayed because of widespread fraud with estimates that up to 25% of the ballots are likely to be thrown out.
Mr Speaker, when on Monday I asked a question of the Minister for Defence about the alleged criminality of the Karzai government he dodged the point and again yesterday and today the government has failed to respond directly to General Petraeus’ assessment.
It is a crucial point the Government must squarely address.
Fighting the Taliban
The ostensible reason that is most often given for why we are in Afghanistan is to fight the Taliban.
Some have said that we should stay the course to ensure the Taliban does not become the government.
But now we know there are extensive talks between the Karzai government and Taliban leader Mullah Omar and others, aimed at reconciliation and dealing them squarely into government.
While pursuing peace and reconciliation is to be commended and one hopes the process may ease or end the conflict, it somewhat undermines the claim that Taliban is the enemy that must be opposed at all costs, including the cost of taking and sacrificing lives.
And what now of the rights of the Hazaras, many of whom have sought refugee in Australia, and whose persecution under the Taliban has continued and may now become entrenched if the power sharing arrangements holds?
Following the United States
Mr Speaker, according to Australian defence analyst Hugh White, the real reason the Australian government has troops in Afghanistan is because the US has asked us.
This is why The Greens believe we need a relationship with the United States based on autonomy and independence.
In the words of Major-General Stretton, “Although it is important to remain an ally of the United States, this does not mean that we have to be involved in all American military excursions.”
The experience of the British, in standing up to American pressure to take part in the Vietnam War did not undermine the British-American relationship. Australia could still retain the support of the United States even if we pursue a more independent foreign policy.
Mr Speaker, like most people, I shudder when I hear that the Taliban and now the Karzai government are prepared to legislate for the sexual subjugation of women.
But if we are looking for a tool to spread human rights and democracy, it is folly to think that invading and occupying a country is the answer.
Withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan does not mean we must disengage from the country or stop trying to help the Afghan people. We do not advocate leaving without helping those left behind.
In fact, there are good reasons to be separating our aid efforts from military activities.
The Australian Council for International Development have called for military and development activities to be decoupled. They say increased funds linked to political and military objectives makes it less likely we’ll see lasting and comprehensive community based development outcomes that will meet real needs.
At the moment, the government has its priorities wrong.
The Greens believe a withdrawal of Australian military forces from Afghanistan could enable additional aid to be directed to the country, targeted in particular to civil society institutions that foster democracy, sustainable development and human rights.
It is time to look at countries like Oman. Unlike its neighbouring conflict-racked terrorist base of Yemen, it has transformed itself. It was a society where only a few decades ago not one girl in Oman was attending school. Now all children are expected to finish high school and the place of women has been transformed, with 3 of the country’s Cabinet Ministers being women.
The Prime Minister yesterday noted the rise in Afghani girls getting an education. Well in Oman, girls attend school, read books and surf the internet, without the need for an expensive, unsustainable foreign occupying military force and without the life-shattering effects war can have on children, their education and upbringing.
In the words of New York Times journalist Thomas Kristof:
“one of the lessons of Oman is that one of the best and most cost effective ways to tame extremism is to promote education for all.”
Malalia Joya, the former Afghan MP, knows this. She called for all of our assistance in strengthening civil society in Afghanistan, not the occupation or the corrupt government, saying said that “Education gives us hope and courage. … open the eyes and minds of the justice loving.”
While others in the world are discussing exit strategies, Australia is writing blank cheques.
More and more countries are removing their troops and we should join them.
Earlier in the year the Netherlands withdrew their troops from the province in which Australia operates and Canada will leave next year. No one has doubted their integrity or their commitment to democracy.
And even the US and NATO have talked about a time for withdrawal, yet it seems that our Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition are unwilling to set a date. Instead the Prime Minister has just committed us for another decade or more of war.
The Greens have a different view.
The Greens believe it is now time to bring our troops safely home.
The Greens believe the Australian people and our defence forces should not be asked to continue this war for another decade.
And The Greens believe many people in Australia agree with us, with recent polls showing most Australians want our defence forces personnel brought safely home.
If we really want to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for terrorists, we must encourage education and help strengthen the institutions of civil society.
We must foster democracy from below, not imagine we can impose it from above down the barrel of a gun.
No matter how much the contemporary trend might be to dress it up in the garb of human rights, an invasion is an invasion, a war is a war.
It is a mistake we have made before but not yet learned from.
We owe it to our troops, the Australian people and the people of Afghanistan to adopt a different path.