The Prime Minister’s recent public appeal to the electorate to support the war in Afghanistan reveals a government concerned about what is becoming an increasingly awkward election issue. If she can't put a lid on it now the natives will be asking questions that our politicians have managed to avoid answering for almost a decade.
Julia Gillard says, "We are there because our national security is at stake", but the public are asking why our young soldiers are still there if al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden are no longer operating in Afghanistan. Late last year General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, said he saw no signs of a major al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, and US Deputy Secretary of Defence, William Lynn, told ABC’s Lateline that “... We don't think bin Laden is in Afghanistan ...”.
Well, Ms Gillard says, "Our object is ... to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a training ground terrorists ...". The public see in that the implicit concession that Afghanistan isn't currently a training ground, and wonder how you can combat the threat of international terrorism by waging an ongoing war in a country the terrorists have left. They want to see evidence supporting assertions like al-Qaeda “may” re-establish a training ground in Afghanistan, and they want explained how the Taliban - which isn't al Qaeda - represents a risk to our national security.
That will test whether our elected representatives understand and are prepared to acknowledge the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. They can also explain why a former diplomat in Zabul Province in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh, is wrong when he says a resurgent Taliban does not threaten US national security (or, presumably, ours) because they are only interested in their own patch.
They won't do that, of course: it is much more convenient to roll any sort of "terrorists" or "insurgents" in together with the Taliban and al-Qaeda so that they all coalesce to make The Enemy.
Then Ms Gillard reminds us of the seriousness of the threat we face by pointing to the Bali bombings. She trots out the death tolls there for reasons best known to her, but hopefully not to make the number of young Australians killed in Afghanistan seem less. The public will be especially keen to hear our new Prime Minister explain why she believes the terrorist groups involved in the Bali bombings only had links to Afghanistan when the President of the United States said in 2009 “... Terrorist attacks in London and Bali were tied to al-Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan, as were attacks in North Africa and the Middle East, in Islamabad and in Kabul. If there is a major attack on an Asian, European, or African city, it, too, is likely to have ties to al-Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan. The safety of people around the world is at stake ...”.
Are we going to invade Pakistan next?
For Prime Minister Gillard to say coalition forces are in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate ignores the fact that UN Security Council resolutions 1368 and 1373 adopted before the US led invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 did not authorise the use of force, and didn’t even mention Afghanistan. We now know that the United States “did not seek” specific legal support from the United Nations Security Council for its action in Afghanistan, and it’s easy to guess why. The same applies to the assertion that we’re there with the Afghan government's full support: we’re there with the equivocal support of a US-supported government that she acknowledges has problems with corruption and narcotics.
And if the Afghan National Army (ANA) is becoming increasingly capable, and is partnering coalition forces more effectively, why, Prime Minister, are you setting the stage for a more protracted Australian involvement and citing ANA numbers without mentioning ANA desertion rates?
Julia Gillard says we don’t want our troops in Afghanistan a day longer than necessary, that our troops can’t be brought home to a pre-set timetable, and that conditions on the ground will dictate her decisions. Her entire article is softening the ground for a very long engagement: voters will be asking, "Why? If it’s good enough for the Dutch ..."
The mainstrean media and the major political leaders are underestimating the public mood against the war in Afghanistan.
Unlike the Labor and Liberal parties, the Australian public are actually intelligent enough to realise that a war against insurgents and terrorists is by default a war against innocent men, women and children, that a war to bring peace is an oxymoron and that the impossible task of preventing places from becoming training grounds means staying there forever.
The major political parties can't offer any sensible, rational, factual or logical explanation for remaining in Afghanistan, and giving each other "bipartisan support" isn't a substitute. The only thing they have left is re-hashed motherhood statements. No pre-election pre-emptive warnings made by the government about the risk of further casualties - they're reluctant to say "inevitability" - will cushion the repeated blows as news of more young Australians being killed or wounded emerges throughout the election campaign.
The Greens are smart to include this issue in their election campaign: they alone are prepared to acknowledge that there will be no victory in Afghanistan and that young Australian lives are being wasted. They are on the moral high ground and they will win votes as a result.