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We cannot win the Afghanistan war

By Bruce Haigh and Kellie Tranter - posted Wednesday, 16 November 2011


To believe that the Australian commitment to Afghanistan has not changed as a result of the killing of three, and the wounding of 10, Australian soldiers over the past few days by Afghan soldiers said to be loyal to the Australian military contingent, is to ignore some basic human emotions and to ignorantly or wilfully misunderstand the average Australian soldier.

If Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith believe that trust and confidence can be re-established by Australian soldiers toward Afghan troops they are meant to live alongside and train they are sadly deluded.

That's the problem in having politicians of limited life experience and senior defence force officers who gain preferment and promotion through playing the political game.

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The Australian commitment is in a mess and will not be sorted in the short, medium or long term.

The bipartisan approach of the major parties is not serving the wishes of the Australian people. Australians are not just questioning our commitment to Afghanistan – 72 per cent of Australians (or 16.4 million people) say they want the troops withdrawn. It is the politicians who have dug in, contrary to the wish of their constituents. How much longer can they be ignored?

Each time an Australian soldier is killed or wounded the Prime Minister, Minister for Defence and the Leader of the Opposition stand with studied solemnity before the media gallery and deliver rehearsed lines like "Despite setbacks like today, we believe we are making progress". We've heard it all before from equally disengaged politicians in another era.

It is said by the disengaged that if we left now we would run the risk of creating a vacuum into which the Taliban, the Haqqani network and the remnants of Al Qaeda would again fall, creating precisely the same danger that we are there to eliminate. But where's the evidence that the Taliban or the Haqqani network or the remnants of Al Qaeda have, or will have, popular support within Afghanistan? The lifeblood of the Haqqani network flows from Pakistan, not Afghanistan, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month testified to a U.S. Congress committee that Al Qaeda's senior leadership has been devastated and its ability to operate greatly diminished.

The Australian Government has stubbornly chosen to ignore the futility of our involvement in Afghanistan. Just like the Russians before us, we're trying to hold the main cities, keep open the roads between them, and make forays into the countryside to convince ourselves that we control it. Just by being there, by engaging in search and destroy, new resistance is created. More Afghan soldiers become angry at the death of family members. Resistance coalesces around the presence and activities of foreign troops.

Mikhail Gorbachev eventually recognised this stupidity, but neither the U.S., NATO nor Australia has learned a thing from Russia's failure.

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Prime Minister Gillard says we shouldn't judge the progress of the mission from single incidents. However General McChrystal has noted that:

We didn't know enough, and we still don't know enough. Most of us, me included, had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years, the personalities, the actions that occurred. Many people thought, well, they fought the Soviets, they defeated the Soviets, and then there was this Taliban period, and then we came in 2001. But there were so many forces at play and so many personalities in the seven different Mujahideen groups, so many different actions that complicated, that when we arrived, I think we were woefully underinformed.

Last year three U.K. servicemen were killed by an Afghan soldier in a gun and rocket-propelled grenade attack. In mid-February this year an Afghan soldier working at a NATO outpost opened fire on German soldiers, killing three and wounding eight. In July several attacks involving bombers wearing military uniforms targeted foreign troops as well as official Afghan institutions. Nowadays, according to a 'secret' NATO report, British troops in Afghanistan are to be armed with a pistol at all times - even when sleeping - because of the high risk of being attacked by their Afghan allies.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
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About the Authors

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Bruce Haigh
All articles by Kellie Tranter

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Bruce HaighBruce HaighPhoto of Kellie TranterKellie Tranter
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