ABC The Drum Unleashed

By Tom Switzer

Could anyone remind me just what it is that we’re achieving in Afghanistan? Don’t all speak at once. No, I mean what good things we’re accomplishing. Anyone? Hello?

So asked the Washington Post’s esteemed columnist Eugene Robinson a few days ago. They're questions that should be aimed at not only both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, but Australia’s media class, too.

For unlike the Americans or the Brits, we have had no real debate over the Afghanistan war in recent times, beyond the reports of our rapidly rising casualty rate (21 and counting).

Indeed, the political and media treatment of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan is being conducted in a reality vacuum in this country. Take the past week’s petty dramas that sadly continue to drive the news cycle.

First we had Tony Abbott hitting his first rhetorical wall since his seemingly never-ending election campaign. Under fire for not accompanying the Prime Minister on a visit to our diggers in Afghanistan, the Opposition Leader said he did not make the trip because he did not want to suffer jetlag in anticipation of a meeting with British Conservatives in London.

There’s no point in sugar coating these remarks. It was quite a gaffe, especially from a triathlete who underlined his physical stamina by spending the last two days before election day without sleep, dragging a pack of haggard journalists with him through the night visiting cops and shift workers.

Then came Julia Gillard, whose behaviour is even more reprehensible. Her office leaked news of the invite to Abbott simply to play politics and embarrass him. It would have known of Abbott’s upcoming visit to Afghanistan. It would have known that Abbott had also planned to visit England last week.

And yet the office still extended an invitation to Abbott, knowing full well that he was committed to his original plan and then using the jetlag gaffe to further politicise the war. It is difficult to disagree with Abbott’s assessment that Gillard’s stunt was an “act of low bastardry”.

Australian soldiers, meanwhile, are fighting bravely in Afghanistan, and all too often being killed or injured as a result. Yet the media agenda is more focused on a petty political fight between the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader.

Australian voters, and the men and women whom their leaders send to fight overseas, deserve better. The more important questions are not who did or did not visit the troops and why, but whether or not this nation-building exercise is really worth it at all.

The answer is especially important when you consider that the Labor Government has failed to offer any coherent explanation for the deployment of the 1,500 troops and workers on the ground.

Never mind that the goal of eliminating the Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan from which the 9/11 terrorist attacks were launched was achieved years ago. Never mind that democracy is not an export commodity, especially to an artificially constructed state and ethnically and tribally divided society such as Afghanistan. Never mind that no recent invader has ever prevailed in what is known as the “graveyard of empires.” And never mind that other Western nations are heading for the door.

Lest one think I’ve suddenly embraced a Green Left worldview, bear in mind that many influential American Republicans and British Tories, not to mention conservative commentators in both nations, believe this war is unwinnable.

Yet in Australia, neither Coalition nor Labor politicians recognise this reality.

Afghanistan increasingly seems like a magician’s distraction, taking attention away from other fronts, both military and political, in the fight against Islamic extremism and terrorism.

Chief among these is Afghanistan’s next door neighbour, the duplicitous, nuclear-armed Pakistan, whose civilian government is weak. As Robinson puts it: “Its military establishment calls the shots; and its national security focus is on India, not Afghanistan or the threat of international terrorism.” It is, moreover, playing America and her allies for fools. On the one hand, it takes billions of dollars from Washington to fight terrorism; on the other, it gives clandestine advice and support to the Taliban and tolerates the presence of Al Qaeda’s leaders.

To be sure, Coalition troops in Afghanistan have scored major, important victories against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But it is surely folly to expect that, after nine long years of war, Australia can do any good in what even leading neoconservative scholar Fouad Ajami calls a “hopeless undertaking in an impossible land”.

Which brings us back to Eugene Robinson’s aforementioned questions about the war. What good are we doing over there? Why does Afghanistan justify so much western blood and treasure? Whom exactly are we helping? Ms Gillard? Mr Abbott? Anyone?

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of the Spectator Australia.