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.
I was sitting in the public gallery, along with fellow activists from Sydney Stop the War Coalition, watching “question time” – where backbenchers ask “Dorothy Dixers” of their “senior” front benchers. 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 fun 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 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 leaped at Marlene as though she was a terrorist who had pulled out an IED – an improvised explosive devise. (The “war on terrorism” has ushered in a ridiculous “security” system in which people are forced into the indignity of having to take off their belts and shoes as well as being searched.)
Marlene had tried to inflate – by mouth – 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. She deployed her infamous dog whistling tactics – this time to those still half convinced of the need to continue the “war on terrorism”.
“If the insurgency in Afghanistan were to succeed, if the international community were to withdraw, then Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for terrorists. Al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit, indoctrinate, train, plan, finance and conspire to kill would be far greater than it is today, and the propaganda victory for terrorists worldwide would be enormous”, she said.
But the CIA has told us that there are probably only 50-100 Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan today. How could this possibly justify a two-decade occupation? The PM didn't mention this assessment because it makes nonsense of her argument.
The PM says Australian troops have to be there “to enable transition, that is, to prepare the Government of Afghanistan to take lead responsibility for its own security … Australia’s key role [is] … training and mentoring the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan, is expected to take 2 to 4 years, and President Karzai has said the Afghan Government expects the transition process to be complete by the end of 2014.”
The PM says we’re 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 forces.
The social indicators (found easily on websites) tell of the reality: UNICEF figures show that life expectancy in Afghanistan is just 43 years. Access to water is 31% of households. Adult literacy is just 24%. Some 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 argues the legitimacy of Australia’s part in the occupation of Afghanistan, because we’re there along with 47 other nations and that we’ve been invited in! Accepting an invitation from the corrupt Karzai regime to stay on isn’t a convincing argument.
Switzerland and the Netherlands have withdrawn their 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. Canberra is party to supporting the expansion of the US-NATO imperial war over the border – not just by virtue of US spy facilities in Australia. Australia’s support for the war in Afghanistan makes it complicit in the Obama regime’s remote-controlled bombing raids on Pakistan’s cities and villages. In just over a year, Obama has authorised more than three times the number of bombing raid on Pakistan as President Bush Jnr did over his presidency.
Gillard says that the US-NATO “mission” is backing the Karzai regime’s attempts to stitch up a deal with the hated Taliban – the same people the occupiers want eliminated.
Gillard said that this is a war without a definable end point, and admits that the violence has increased as a result of a bigger international occupation force. She says is not realistic to expect democracy, as most Australians understand it, to be 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 US power in the region – aproject that Australian governments have been complicit through the ANZUS alliance.
In summary, Gillard’s only promise in this “debate” is 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 the majority of 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 had spent the morning setting up striking banners with the message: “(Obama) Killing Hope” and “Troops out of Afghanistan/No more U.S. wars!” .
Graeme had sought to provide anti-war MPs with a visual protest – and had asked them to come down and talk. One did – Greens Senator Scott Ludlum, who promised to reintroduce a bill to make it obligatory for Parliament to authorise any 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 repeated. “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. As we were preparing to go inside, 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 assured him we were concerned about the silent war on his country which involves special US army units training Pakistani paramilitary commando units to kill the Taliban.
“You are a rich country, and you could do a lot more for the people in our country, and Afghanistan”, he counseled.
We agreed and he joined us, smiling.
[Pip Hinman is also a member of the Socialist Alliance which supported the action outside Parliament House.]