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Judgment, truth and commonsense

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 1 August 2008


Appointing Joel Fitzgibbon as Minister for Defence was not one of Kevin Rudd’s better decisions. Fitzgibbon’s choice of personal staff has been found to be wanting but more importantly the job is too big for Fitzgibbon.

On a recent visit to Washington Fitzgibbon said he was in two minds about the war in Afghanistan. On some days, he confessed, the war seemed unwinnable on other days he was more optimistic. Flip flop, such a display of tough mindedness should send shivers up the spine of parents who have children in the ADF.

The war is not winnable by military means. While Australia has troops on the ground in Afghanistan it should use that leverage to talk to the Taliban in Pakistan and their backers to ascertain what it is they want. Is this a religious crusade? Or is it a Pathan battle for power with both tribal and broader nationalistic overtones? Australia should attempt to determine how much of the growing call to arms has been fuelled by the US and NATO presence in Pathan tribal lands in Afghanistan. Remember the Russians and the British before them.

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Fitzgibbon told the media in Washington he was more than happy for the Americans to talk to the Pakistan government about curtailing support for and curbing the activities of the Taliban. Australia should be conducting its own diplomacy. This is not the Vietnam war. We have a diplomatic service and we should be using it. We need to talk to the government of Pakistan but more importantly we need to talk to the Taliban. It is them we are fighting when we risk the lives of young Australians.

Fitzgibbon’s deferral to the US amounted to an abrogation of Australian sovereignty. It was craven and humiliating and took this country back 40 years.

With over 1,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan Fitzgibbon, and the Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, should have argued to Kevin Rudd that instead of spending $5 million establishing an embassy in the Vatican, with running costs of $3 million a year, Australia should have put those resources into established regional posts particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. But the chances are the first they knew of the decision was after it was announced.

Of all people Rudd should be aware of the need to properly staff embassies, particularly in our region, with people who have had appropriate training, including language training. To open an embassy in the Vatican which will return little in the way of advancing our interests, either politically or in terms of trade, seems the height of indulgence from a practicing Christian. All the more so when six months ago Rudd forced Foreign Affairs to slash it’s budget by $57 million.

Stephen Smith has been overshadowed by Rudd’s forays into foreign relations, no wonder he was so pleased to secure his very own visit to his home state of US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

On another matter, both the Howard and Rudd governments must be relieved that the Black Hawk helicopter which crashed onto the deck of HMAS Kanimbla killing the pilot and an SAS trooper did not crash on Fiji.

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Does Fitzgibbon, and before him Brendan Nelson, really believe that the line that the helicopter was on a training exercise has weight? Just because the media allows itself to get weighed down by the braid on the sleeve of the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Vice Marshall Angus Houston, does not mean that others accept the line.

What sort of training exercise can be conducted over the ocean by 10 SAS soldiers other than dunk and lift? And why do that training when their presence suggests that they were positioned for land operations as part of the uncertainty surrounding the coup in Fiji. If the training was being conducted for the benefit of the air crew, why put 10 SAS soldiers on board?

Fitzgibbon has to know that the Australian public are sick of being lied to by the ADF. We read of a tragically delayed medivac by a US helicopter in Afghanistan, not from an ADF press release but by a leaked email from a Dutch military doctor. There has never been such secrecy surrounding an Australian military involvement as there has been in Afghanistan. Some of it is necessary, most is not.

At the announcement of the death of SAS Trooper, McCarthy, in Afghanistan, Houston said that the soldier was evacuated immediately. That raises a worrying dilemma, either Houston knew the truth and covered up or he was not advised by those on the ground in Afghanistan. The truth rests with one or other. Houston must come clean. Under the circumstances it is hard to have confidence in him.

This degree of secrecy is unhealthy. It leads all too readily to opting for the cover-up when disclosure should be the way to go. Australia is, after all, a democracy. If the ADF wants to fill the many boots now vacant both they and their minister must take the Australian public much more into their confidence. If they are prepared to conduct military operations which might have adverse diplomatic consequences they should factor in the cost of disclosure.

Joel Fitzgibbon needs to get a grip on himself and his department. Or better still, before decisions are made in response to the soon to be released Defence White Paper, he should be replaced by Greg Combet.

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About the Author

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

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