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Afghanistan - echoes of an old war

By Graham Cooke - posted Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Back in the 1960s the then Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir Keith Holyoake, defending his decision to send troops to the Vietnam War, said it was better to fight the communists there than on Ninety Mile Beach (in the far north of NZ).

Sir Keith was wrong about the threat from Vietnam. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were preoccupied with reuniting the county under their rule, not with spreading their ideology to the four corners of the earth. Even if they had been disposed to do so, they would not have got far. Ruthlessly efficient right-wing regimes in Indonesia and Singapore and a revered monarchical system in Thailand formed an effective barrier, preventing the communist infection from spreading beyond neighbouring Laos and Cambodia; communist insurgency in Malaysia had been defeated by the British a generation earlier.

The so-called domino theory, espoused by the Johnson White House and accepted without question by Holyoake and Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, was a non-starter.


Today the Vietnam analogy is being used by an increasing number of commentators who want to see the end of NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan. Under their rationale the Taliban are an indigenous resistance movement, fighting to rid their country from foreign influence and have no interest in spreading terrorism around the globe.

As in Vietnam 40 years ago, they see Western nations involving themselves in a war they can’t win against a foe they should never have been fighting in the first place.

Canadian columnist Eric Margolis, the Taliban’s main point man on the North American continent, insists that the Taliban were as surprised as the rest of us by the 9-11 attacks which were planned not in the remote mountain fastness of Tora Bora but in apartments in Western Europe.

Well of course, much of the final work for the attacks would have been conducted in Europe and the United States. You can’t hijack a plane in Kabul and fly it into the Twin Towers or the Pentagon. Detailed preparation, including the infamous flying school lessons, would have to have been completed much closer to the scene and necessarily quite independently of head office. That is how al Qaida has always operated.

But if Osama bin Laden was not in the loop, how come he was celebrating the hijackings while the planes were still in the air and heading towards their targets?

Whether he got that information from news flashes, or more likely from someone on the ground, bin Laden was being kept up with the play because in the end 9-11 was his baby, the early concepts worked out at leisure in the Taliban-supplied training grounds. Whatever may have been going on in Western Europe or the US, the initial motivation would have come directly from the Afghanistan’s honoured guest, and a failure to deal with him in 2001-02 would have sent a message to jihadists everywhere that the decadent West was there for the taking.


If President George W. Bush was right to order the troops into Afghanistan, he was totally wrong in the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein was a vicious, evil man, like many other vicious, evil men in charge of countries that we don’t invade. Iraq was a bloody, costly distraction from the real business of hunting down al Qaida that has sapped the energy of the US and its allies and turned public opinion against the very necessary task of keeping terrorist leaders on the run, capturing or killing them whenever possible.

One can only wonder what the situation in Afghanistan would have been today had the US, Britain, Australia and the other participants in the Coalition of the Willing expended their energies there rather than in Iraq.

Another of Margolis’ propositions is that al Qaida only ever totalled about 300 members, most of whom are now dead. This makes an interesting contrast with the British-based Institute for International Studies which claims the terrorist organisation is active in 60 countries with around 18,000 operatives.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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