Rudd promises to stay in Afghanistan for 'long haul'

March 28, 2009

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in Washington last week to meet US President Barack Obama, made clear the ALP government's support for the US's wars overseas. The Australia-US war alliance is as strong as ever, he declared.

It was widely expected that Obama would ask Rudd to send more troops to Afghanistan — a request Rudd had hinted he would consider favourably.

In the end the request didn't come — perhaps because the timing would have been disastrous. The previous week, two Australian soldiers were killed within days of each other in Afghanistan.

Australia already has 1100 troops stationed in the southern province of Oruzgan — the largest contingent of non-NATO forces in Afghanistan. Ten Australian soldiers have been killed since the 2001 invasion.

Yet, while Rudd has made clear his belief that Australia should be in Afghanistan long-term, Australians are increasingly less convinced that this is a "good" war.

Polling by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based conservative think tank, revealed that 56% of Australians were "opposed to military involvement" in Afghanistan in 2008. On March 24, Newspoll said that 65% of Australians disagree with sending more troops.

Back in 2001, following the September 11 terror attacks in the US, two thirds of people polled supported sending invasion troops.

The rise in military and civilian causalities, and a deeply held scepticism about the "war on terror", are the reasons for the growing opposition to Australia's commitment.

However, Rudd is not to be put off. Before winning government he talked up the Afghanistan conflict as the "good" war, while Iraq was the "bad war".

Since taking office, the Rudd government has urged NATO countries to add to the already 60,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan is being widely questioned as a winning strategy to deal with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

If anything, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have grown in strength over the last nine years. Obama's declaration in a March 6 interview with the New York Times that the US military will seek to negotiate with "moderate elements" of the Taliban is testimony to this.

The nervousness about the Afghanistan war simmering among strong supporters of the US-Australia alliance is clearly spelled out by Hugh White, a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute and professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.

For some years White has argued against sending more troops to Afghanistan. In the February 16 Australian he said that even with "a lot more troops", the chances of "success" are very low, while the "risks" (ie. deaths) were "relatively high".

White also disputes the argument that Afghanistan is somehow "critical to Australia's security". He says that the war is not the "central front in the war on terror". Yet, he strongly advises that the US-Australia military alliance be nurtured and upheld.

According to the March 24 Australian, government sources indicate Canberra is considering sending two additional army teams to train Afghan troops, as well as a 150-strong infantry combat team to help with security in the run-up to the Afghan election.

This would bring Australia's overall military commitment to Afghanistan to just over 1500 defence personnel, including 1250 army troops.

Given the broad opposition to such a plan, the anti-war movement must look to stop more troops getting sent and bring all troops home.

[Pip Hinman is an activist in the Sydney Stop the War Coalition and the Socialist Alliance.]

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