Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 00:35 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 00:35 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan and the fallen


James Brown


27 August 2010 09:19

Three Australian soldiers have died in Afghanistan in the past week and a lot of people have been asking me 'what is going wrong'. It's a natural reaction when people need to feel like tragedy has a logical root cause. My answer is that nothing has changed.

Australian soldiers from the Mentoring Task Force are supporting the Afghan National Army as they were several months ago. Soldiers are conducting security patrolling in much the same manner as they have been for years. Our Special Operations Task Group is tackling the same excruciatingly difficult tasks it has been tackling since we first entered Afghanistan.

The fact is that we have been extraordinarily lucky in the past seven years and luck is now catching up with us.

Maybe it was the peacekeeping experiences of the 1990s that convinced Australians that we could deploy troops overseas and see them all return home standing and smiling.

Even the Australian Defence Force thought for a long time that it could deploy troops overseas without preparing for many of them not to return. Investigations into the repatriation of Private Jacob Kovco from Iraq in 2005 showed that the ADF had an inadequate mortuary affairs process. It seems the ADF had a written policy on whether its troops could wear berets in Iraq before it had a written policy on how to get its dead soldiers back to Australian soil.

It seems like the death of Australian soldiers provokes two reactions from those of us back here. One is genuine sympathy for the families of fallen soldiers and admiration for the sacrifices made on our behalf. The second is to question what we are doing in Afghanistan and declare that the latest death conclusively proves that we need to get the hell out/stay committed to Afghanistan (depending on where you sit on the Afghanistan debate).

Add to these two now a third reaction – using the death of Australian soldiers to lay blame at the foot of your political enemies. On Wednesday, the next MP for Denison, Andrew Wilkie, made the following observation on Afghanistan:

If Western forces - the US in particular - had stayed [in Afghanistan] in 2002 and finished the job we wouldn’t be there now, but instead they raced off to invade Iraq and to prepare to invade Iraq. So people are dying now in Afghanistan, including our soldiers, unnecessarily because of the decisions of the Howard government back in 2002. Ultimately, we have to get out as quickly as we can and let Afghanistan find its own natural political level. And a lot of people will die in the process. And it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of the decision-makers who got us there in the first place.

After reading his book, Axis of Deceit, I can confirm that as a writer, Andrew Wilkie makes a great Army Officer. His twisting tale of faulty intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War establishes a causal link between faulty US intelligence and Australian intelligence agencies solely through the repetition of the phrase 'Washington, London, Canberra' about a thousand times. By the same logic, you could deduce who killed JFK by repeating 'book depository, second gunman, grassy knoll'.

The 'natural political level' argument on Afghanistan is a new and disturbing twist in our political debate on Afghanistan. New because, as far as I am aware, Wilkie is the first to suggest Afghanistan deserves some sort of descent to 'natural justice'. Disturbing because involvement in overseas wars is Wilkie's bete noire, and he looks likely to hold sway as the next government forms.

Wilkie believes that Australian involvement in Afghanistan is based on the 'big lie' that what happens in Afghanistan is relevant to our national security. I'll wait with interest to see how he backs that one up.

I'm one of the majority of commentators on this blog who firmly believe that more debate is required on Australia's role in Afghanistan. However, the death of a soldier in combat owes more to randomness and luck than it does to ineffective defence policy. When we deploy soldiers to war that is a time for parliamentary debate. When one of them falls it's a time for respect and remembrance.

Photo by Flickr user j.rozek, used under a Creative Commons license.