Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 17:18 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 Nov 2020 | 17:18 | SYDNEY

Afghanistan: What did they die for?


Raoul Heinrichs

31 May 2011 10:47

It was only hours after the ramp ceremony for Australia's previous casualty in Afghanistan that the horrible news began to filter in: another Australian soldier was dead, shot and killed by a rogue solider from the Afghan National Army. This morning, a second soldier was revealed to have been killed in a helicopter crash.

Our grim national ritual is now on loop: the solemn Defence press conference, revelations of heart-breaking details, tearful testimony of bravery and sacrifice, a ramp ceremony, a funeral, some carefully chosen words of sympathy from Prime Minister Gillard and her colleagues, and finally, their reaffirmation of Australia's commitment to a pointless and futile war.

Australia has now lost 26 precious lives in Afghanistan. Fourteen have been killed in the last year. At the current rate, Australia stands to lose over 60 soldiers by the time the mission is due to end sometime around mid-2014. And for what?

Osama Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda barely exists in Afghanistan. To the extent that it survives at all, the organisation has sanctuary elsewhere. Moreover, our alliance with the US is getting tighter as China looms larger on our shared strategic horizon. With bigger fish to fry, Afghanistan matters less and less to the alliance these days.

Afghanistan in 2014 will look much like it does today, just as Afghanistan today looks much like it did three, four or five years ago. The central government will be weak and corrupt, its inadequate security services littered with all the wrong elements. The Taliban will exist and, with Pakistani support, may even enjoy a more prominent political role. Across the rest of Afghanistan, warlords, drug-lords, tribesman and bandits will be fending for themselves.

In 2014 the great-power struggle for Afghanistan is likely to be even more intense. Pakistan and India will continue to jostle there to keep each other off balance. Their superpower patrons — the US and China — may look on uneasily, but the need to free up their clients, to harness them for their own geopolitical needs, is likely to override any reluctance to take sides. The inevitable result will be more of the same.

The only difference for Australia is that many more of our fellow countrymen will be dead, wounded and maimed. More still will bear the mental scars of their prolonged exposure to war. Prime Minister Gillard, Defence Minister Smith and the Government need to be held to account for their failure to impose sharper limits on the risks to our forces, as well as their unwillingness to begin negotiating a withdrawal, in line with almost every other country.

More importantly, they need to be jolted out of the comfortable habits of indifference which appear to have set in after ten years of perpetual war. That means commencing the withdrawal of Australia from Afghanistan and, in the meantime, pulling back to inside the base to minimise the risk of further casualties.

Nor do the rest of us get off easily. It is a testament to the poverty of our reflection that the sexual hijinks of a few impudent ADFA brats could fix our attention, could elicit a public outcry that forces wholesale change on Defence, while a war devoid of any compelling purpose exacts an increasing human cost without so much as a whimper.

Photo, of Australian special forces in the Shah Wali Kot region of northern Kandahar, courtesy of the Australian Army.