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Afghanistan and our dud government

By Bruce Haigh - posted Thursday, 2 April 2009


For the past week or so the government has been softening up the Australian public for an announcement that it intends increasing troop numbers in Afghanistan. The pitch has not been enhanced by the death and wounding of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Sticking firmly to the Gallipoli principle, which is to send Australian troops overseas to die under another nation’s command for a campaign which cannot be won, Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith and Joel Fitzgibbon have steadfastly refused to do their own thinking or take independent action. The war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not winnable by the conventional application of arms. The NATO and US troops cannot kill their way to “victory” or into the hearts and minds of the people, particularly when the old, the women folk and children are increasingly collateral damage. And don’t believe the cover that the Taliban have been using these people as shields for their operations, they are not.

US President Barack Obama has indicated a willingness to engage in talks with moderate elements of the Taliban. That is a start, but the only way progress will be made is by talking to the radical elements, no matter how distasteful that may be. Some commentators in Australia, no doubt out of sympathy with the long suffering people of Afghanistan, have urged that talks not be held and that military action be stepped up. The only effect of that will be the deaths of more Afghans and the radicalisation of the bereaved. It’s not rocket science but listening to policy makers and the academic cheer squad you would think it was.

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The fear of being branded a cut and run advocate, has silenced the debate on alternatives. It is not cutting and running to hold discussions with those you are fighting and in the process try and ascertain what their aims and objectives are. It is crude and lazy to claim the Taliban are motivated by an extreme belief in their faith. One of the prime motivators of conflict in Afghanistan is poverty and it has been so for 200 or more years. There are not enough resources to go around. Religion is the opiate of the masses (no pun intended). It helps people cope with the death of children and grinding poverty. It is also a vehicle and a network for action and assistance within and outside the country. The culture of violence and payback is long entrenched. Just ask the British and Russians.

The process of negotiation might be used to extract concessions, such as the right of girls to attend school and women to work. Future aid should be tied to objectives such as these.

But don’t expect miracles. Topography, climate, local knowledge and support, and time are on the side of the Taliban. Not so long ago they were known as the Mujahedeen and as such were the friends and allies of the US. Through the 600-plus CIA operatives, weaving a path either side of the border, the US encouraged the growth and sale of opium in order to put money in the pockets of the Mujahedeen and thereby help the US defray the cost of the war against the Russians.

At that time, all through the 80s, it was an objective of the US to hold the Soviets on the ground and watch them bleed to death. They were in no hurry for the Soviets to leave, arguing the longer the war went on the more it would hurt the USSR - and it did.

It is feasible that this might also be an objective of the Taliban with respect to the US and NATO. All the more reason to begin discussions, no matter how difficult that might be, with power and operations spread across a number of different groups and tribal organisations.

Some argue that the Taliban must be crushed as part of the process of squashing fundamental Islam (like crushing communism - remember when that was all the go?) and that for as long as the Taliban roams free, al-Qaida will have a protector. Al-Qaida exists more in the head than it does on the ground, a bit like the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa which had the police and army spooked for more than ten years.

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Rudd and Smith have demonstrated a characteristic of many Australian politicians; that they are most comfortable when being pushed around and are being told what to do by powerful friends.

This is a dud government. If people were not so frightened by the state of the economy, Rudd would be down in the polls. Like drowning sailors they are clinging onto him in the (vain) hope he will save them. For the moment, with suspended belief, they have convinced themselves that together with his chief advisers they know what they are doing. Nothing could be further from the truth. One has only to look at Wong and water or the complete fiasco on Carbon Trading, renewable energy, Alcopops, the risky and therefore dangerous first home buyer scheme to know that this is a government totally devoid of ideas, policy and courage. They lack commonsense and the will to act; it should therefore come as little surprise that given their manifest weaknesses all they can do is respond to external pressure.

Were it not for the Rudd clone, Peter Costello, wrecking the Liberal Party with his ugly self indulgence, Malcolm Turnbull might get the chance to point some of this out and give us the Opposition we deserve.

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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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