On October 19, at exactly 3.30pm, the Lib-Lab politicians suddenly went from smirk to sombre as the Afghanistan “debate” finally started — nine years too late. It was a farce.
Despite most Australians opposing being involved in the US-led occupation, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Australian troops could remain for 10 years — which is longer than even the US government predicts.
I was sitting in the public gallery, along with fellow activists from Sydney Stop the War Coalition (StWC), watching “question time” — where backbenchers ask “Dorothy Dixers” of their “senior” frontbenchers.
We were becoming increasingly irritated by the major parties’ self-important MPs filling up the time with ridiculous antics while being ineffectively berated by the long-suffering Speaker.
When 3.30pm ticked over, the mood suddenly changed.
Suddenly the house of mirth was no more. The PM took to the floor and started reading her statement. We had heard the line before. “We’re in Afghanistan to fight the terrorists … and to serve the Australia-US alliance.”
That was enough for StWC activist Marlene Obeid. She rose, suddenly, screaming the words we were all thinking: “This is a farce! You people are war criminals! Get the troops out of Afghanistan!”
A few people turned around. No-one was worried — except for the security guards who leapt at her as though she were a terrorist who had pulled out a bomb.
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Marlene had tried to inflate a “troops out” balloon she had smuggled in. But she didn’t get far.
Nevertheless, her wonderful, resonating voice, and the ensuing commotion, caused the PM to hesitate and look up — if only for an instant — before returning to her pro-war speech.
The media scrum, which had chased after Marlene, probably saved her from being roughed up more than she was. Two of us dashed out to make sure she was alright. I heard a teacher tell his group of primary students who were waiting to enter the hallowed halls, “This is probably going to be the most exciting thing you’ll see all day!”
He was right.
Gillard delivered a speech that was lacking in key facts, dripping with jingoism, and affirming the US-Australia war alliance.
The PM said we were involved in “nation-building”. More like nation destroying.
This intervention is bringing no joy to most Afghans, who are poor people trying to eke out an existence for themselves and their families. They struggle to survive amid the ruthless pursuit of the selfish interests of various war lords and the 130,000 foreign occupation soldiers.
The social indicators (found easily on websites) show the reality: UNICEF figures show that life expectancy in Afghanistan is just 43 years. Only 31% of households have access to water. Adult literacy is just 24%. About 50% of children are malnourished. Only 4% of women reach 10th grade schooling and violence against women is common.
Gillard cited rosy figures on rate of literacy among Afghan girls. She didn’t mention the Hamid Karzai government’s law allowing rape in marriage — a sop to gather fundamentalist support before the presidential elections last year.
The PM argued the legitimacy of Australia’s part in the occupation of Afghanistan. We’re there along with 47 other nations, she said, and we’ve been invited in. But the invitation came after the invasion — the corrupt Karzai regime that issued the invitation was itself installed by the occupying powers.
The Netherlands has withdrawn its troops, and Canada, Poland, Britain and the US have announced they will start withdrawing from next year. But Gillard says Australia will stay on for at least a decade.
Neither did the PM acknowledge that Australia is also effectively at war with Pakistan, by virtue of US spy facilities in Australia and Australian support for the war in Afghanistan.
Gillard said the US-led military “mission” was backing the Karzai regime’s attempts to stitch up a deal with the hated Taliban — the same force the occupation is supposedly eliminating.
Gillard said this was a war without a definable end point, and admitted that the violence had risen as a result of a bigger international occupation force. She said it was not realistic to expect democracy, as most Australians understand it, was possible in Afghanistan.
This patronising double-speak is Gillard’s attempt to justify Australia’s role in this imperial war. The bombing of the poorest country in the world by some of the richest is a crime against humanity. The real purpose of this crime is to further Western power in the region.
In summary, Gillard’s only promise in this “debate” was to stay in Afghanistan — as long as the US wants — and to provide parliament, once a year, with a statement on the war’s “progress”. This is a sick joke and is grossly unrepresentative of the views of most Australians. Only 11% believe this to be a good reason to stay.
Meanwhile, outside on the lawns, Peacebus.com and Stand Fast organiser Graeme Dunstan, and veteran Gerry Binder spent the morning setting up striking banners with the message: “(Obama) Killing Hope” and “Troops out of Afghanistan! No more US wars!”.
Graeme had provided anti-war MPs with a visual protest, and asked them to come down and talk. One did — Greens Senator Scott Ludlum, who promised to reintroduce a bill to make a parliamentary vote necessary to authorise future troop deployments.
The veterans cut through the jingoism and described the realities and consequences of war. “Gillard and Abbott are nothing but war criminals”, Graeme said. “The only thing that needs debating is how soon Howard, Rudd and Gillard are put before a war crimes tribunal.”
A few more activists arrived from Sydney and Canberra, and a few more banners were hung. A Pakistani visitor to Canberra walked up to the colourful caravan, with a look of amazement and surprise. “I didn’t know if Australians were concerned about Pakistan — because you are also at war with us.”
We told him we were concerned about the silent war on his country that involves special US army units training Pakistani paramilitary commandos to kill.
“You are a rich country, and you could do a lot more for the people in our country, and Afghanistan”, he said.
We agreed and he joined us, smiling.
[Pip Hinman is a member of the StWC and the Socialist Alliance which supported the action outside parliament.]