Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 22:57 | SYDNEY
Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 22:57 | SYDNEY

Campaigners fight, but not over the war


Graeme Dobell

18 August 2010 12:28

Australia is having a war-time election without mentioning the war. The political leaders don't talk willingly about Afghanistan. But they do stop campaigning to go to the funerals of soldiers who have been fighting.

Perhaps this election demonstrates an Australian political reality of The Long War: the longer it goes, the less the major parties want to debate it. The commitment has become both the start and end of the discussion. We are in the war because we are in the war. The circular logic keeps circling.

Julia Gillard delivered a formal campaign speech that was unremitting in its domestic flavour. No Afghanistan there. Indeed, Defence only got a mention in a half-joke about Tony Abbott sitting in 'the safety of Kirribilli as he watches luxury yachts go by', directing the Navy to stop the boats. 

Tony Abbott's formal campaign launch at least gestured to the outside world, beyond the stop-the-boats slogan:

As well, within three months, in person and on the spot, I would have reassured our soldiers in Afghanistan that Australians support their mission. Our most important trading partners and our principal allies would know that they can count on Australia.

Labor re-committed to the good war it inherited from the Coalition. And if the Coalition wins, the same will apply. It's not a matter of 'don't mention the war' so much as 'just keep doing the war'. The two sides agree on the grim task. The lack of debate reflects the lack of difference. Or any wish to look at alternatives to the established, shared policy.

When the Australian discussion gets a push along it is always delivered from the US. Thus, the phrase 'conditions-based' is causing some faint echo here, even during the final days of the campaign. The Obama Administration renamed the Global War on Terrorism the 'Overseas Contingency Operation', and General David Petraeus has underlined the 'contingent' part. 

GEN. PETRAEUS: It could be as little as a couple of thousand troopers who go home next July. Again, that remains to be seen, and it would be premature to have any kind of assessment at this juncture about what we may or may not be able to transition. What the president very much wants from me, and, and what we talked about in the Oval Office is the responsibility of a military commander on the ground to provide as best professional military advice, leave the politics to him. Certainly I’m aware of the context within which I offer that advice, but that just informs the advice, it doesn’t drive it. The situation on the ground drives it. That’s what he wants, that’s what he, he told me to provide, and that’s what I will provide....

QUESTION:  But you’ll take a hard look at this, and you’ll make a determination about when America’s footprint should be diminished, when that’s appropriate'

GEN. PETRAEUS:  Absolutely. Yeah. And again, as he has said, as NATO officials have said, conditions-based, and that’s a real key element of this.

The Petraeus version of the conditional nature of the Contingency contraction is causing an intake of breath among Australian politicians who this week prefer to look inward. The Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, adheres to the Labor formula about Australian handing over to Afghan forces by 2014, but has to allow that conditions might make that a less than firm date:

President Obama when he announced a surge, indicated that in an ideal circumstance if conditions allowed he'd be looking at the start of a draw down by the middle of next year. But that was always conditions based.  In some respects, more importantly, at the very important Afghan conference in Kabul, a month or so ago, the international community, including Australia, committed itself to the objective of handing over the security arrangements to Afghan by 2014, but again that's conditions-based. We can only hand it over if the Afghan army and the Afghan police are in a position to do so. I've only seen the reports of General Petraeus I haven't looked at the actual transcript, but what he's saying is not dissimilar to what we've been saying, what the Minister of Defence and what I've been saying is that the advice we have is that in two to four years, so in 2012, to 2014 we expect in Uruzgan Province that our training effort will enable the Afghan army and the security services to take responsibility in Uruzgan Province.

Smith is painfully conceding that things could change and the dates might slip. And if the Coalition wins on Saturday, Tony Abbott will be asked a lot of questions about the Lowy speech he gave back in April:

It's no secret that the Americans would like additional Australian forces in Afghanistan and have refrained from making a formal request only because they have been told that it would be unwelcome....If satisfied that the role made strategic sense and was compatible with our other military commitments, a Coalition  government would be prepared to consider doing more.

That Lowy speech does not rank as a campaign document, but it sits higher than an Abbott thought balloon. Perhaps it can be treated as conditions-based idea. In the campaign, the Abbott line on Afghanistan has become more circumspect. A week ago, Abbott was in no mood to embrace his own 'doing more' position.

QUESTION: You’ve said in the past, Mr Abbott, that you think that maybe Australia could increase its troop commitment to Afghanistan. Do you still think that’s the case'

ABBOTT: I fully support the existing commitment to Afghanistan and in any future decisions about Afghanistan I would be very much guided by the advice of the Defence Chiefs. Thanks very much.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.