Thursday, 21 October 2010
On the cover of the August 2010 addition of Time magazine is a harrowing photograph of Bibi Aisha. Bibi is a young Afghan woman, a pretty girl by any measure. It is a high-resolution photograph, and what makes the photograph harrowing is the fact that, where Bibi’s nose should be, there is a large cavity. You see, Bibi’s nose was cut off by her husband for some perceived transgression. But what was not shown in the photograph was that her ears had also been cut off by her husband. Rod Nordland wrote in the New York Times that this image has become the:
… litmus test about attitudes toward the war … in Afghanistan. Critics of the American presence in Afghanistan call it “emotional blackmail” and even “war porn,” while those who fear the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan see it as a powerful appeal to conscience.
I suppose that is where we are in this debate—pondering not so much how we got there or even what we are doing there but more what would happen if we left. By ‘we’, I of course mean the coalition of military forces in which Australia is a participant.
Australian troops are aware, tolerant and understanding of other cultures. They are taught to respect other cultures before they are deployed and they have an outstanding record of success in working with those cultures wherever they have been deployed and within many countries across the globe. I am under no illusion that Afghanistan is not a basket case of democracy barely being held together by Western military might. The values we cherish as a Western nation contrast strikingly with the ancient culture and values of the Afghans. Of that there is no doubt. Without making light of the situation, I am reminded of the missionary zeal of the spread of Christianity amongst the heathens in the 15th and 16th centuries. I often wonder whether some of those conversions were willing. There are historical similarities in present-day Afghanistan, and history can be a precursor to the future.
In terms of modern history, Afghanistan and the West have never really hit it off. The British had a go in the 19th century, rather unspectacularly, and the Russians had a turn as well, in the 1980s. It is interesting to explore the Soviet experiment. At that time, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was a Soviet satellite headed by a Marxist government. Running in the background was the situation in Iran, with the Islamic uprising in 1979 and the overthrow of the shah. The political tide obviously had no territorial borders, and the flow of sentiment to the mujahideen in Afghanistan was of great concern to the Russians, who saw a threat to their power base. They had to intercede aggressively to protect against any perception of the diminishment of their authority, especially while there were similar murmurings in Chechnya and other subordinate countries in their domain. They needed a strong gesture, and in their minds I am sure they believed that intervention in Afghanistan would send a powerful message.
History shows the Americans supported the Afghans against the Russians, with military assistance and advice. The movie Charlie Wilson’s War, with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, gives some insight into the effort on the part of the Americans in that period. With the help of the Americans and the CIA, the Russians tasted defeat and withdrew after a 10-year occupation. The vacuum caused by the Russian withdrawal was rapidly filled out of the ranks of the mujahideen, with the emergence of a zealous and armed Taliban motivated not by territory or traditional tribal divisions but by religious fervour. There was no effective government in Afghanistan. Tribal might and the AK-47 constituted the law of the land, financed through the very lucrative poppy fields whose by-product was killing so many Westerners through drug abuse. The ascendancy of the Taliban also assisted in the rise of even more extremist religious zealots, foremost of which were al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda were both the architect and the instrument of 9-11.
The rest is history. America intervened and once-allies soon became enemies. Australia has enjoyed a strong bond with the United States of America, going back to World War I. They were there for us against the threat of the Japanese invasion and we responded with a show of solidarity in Korea. We went with them to Vietnam and Iraq, and they tacitly supported us in Timor. The relationship is deeply ingrained in the Australian psyche because of our shared values and historical antecedents.
Having said that, I also need to state clearly and unequivocally that I abhor war. Having been born in wartime Holland in 1944, I was raised in a family climate clouded by the experience of war. My father served in the Dutch underground. While he said very little afterwards, the war had changed him—memories so profound and entrenched they were never far from the surface. Whilst I do not have a personal experience of the war—I was only a child at the time—the influence of the views and nuances of my parents had a deep and lasting influence on my development, views and attitudes.
Today, we are in Afghanistan not only as a gesture of solidarity with the United States but also because we abhor all that the Taliban and al-Qaeda represent, including their attitude towards human dignity. We are not there to wage war for the sake of doing so. By any examination of the philosophy of religion, the war in Afghanistan is not a religious war, although it is being promoted as such by the Taliban because it suits them. What we are witnessing is an exercise of power under the guise of a religious crusade. There are certainly enough precedents in history.
That brings me to the point of asking this question: do we stay or do we go? If we truly believe in what we are doing and why we are there, then the answer is obvious; if we have doubts and our commitment is wavering, then we should not be there. Before broaching that proposition, the question to first consider is what will happen if the coalition strikes camp and departs. That question was considered in an article in Time magazine based on a book written by Bob Woodward of Watergate fame. Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars explores that very question. Afghanistan is characterised as having a persistent medieval culture based on a tribal system of power sharing. Corruption is rife, the power of the gun being the final arbiter. In some parts, women are regarded as less than domestic animals and treated as such. Woodward describes Afghan president Hamid Karzai as a manic depressive with severe mood swings. That in itself is not a hanging offence. Many great leaders in the world were depressive, Churchill included, and did a sterling job in leading their respective countries. However, it does point to the type of vacuum that would be left waiting to be filled.
There is no suggestion that the Taliban would allow al-Qaeda a safe haven. After all, if one assumes that Afghanistan reverts to its previous ‘business as usual’ mode run by several powerful warlords with a token head of state, it is unlikely that al-Qaeda, made up of fighters from diverse nationalities with their own subset of ambitions, would get much of a look in.
We saw in Iraq, for instance, after the downfall of Saddam Hussein the emergence of an internal conflict between the Sunni and Shiite sects in Iraq. That conflict was always there. Like politics within politics, there are religions within religions. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the minority Sunni sect enjoyed the upper hand. But the tables have been turned. There, as the Americans devolve their participation, the attacks go on, albeit among Iraqis as they struggle to position their respective interests in the emerging power vacuum. Let us hope that after all these years of occupancy a workable model for government has been left that will give the Iraqis a chance of success. If not, the situation will soon devolve into anarchy.
When I look at previous instances where a controlling power has handed over government I see a familiar pattern emerging in nearly every situation. I am talking about how the once mighty British Empire divested itself of its protectorates. Where there was a strong social and democratic ethic, the transition was reasonably seamless. On the other hand, leaving behind a dysfunctional substitute only compounded the instability. I look at our own experiences in Papua New Guinea, which I would describe as a reasonably successful transition.
So to my mind, based on history, unless we invest in providing stability to the country we are overseeing then our withdrawal can only result in a backward spiral. I am hard-pressed to find any published opinion anywhere in the world that suggests an optimistic outcome in the event of our premature withdrawal from Afghanistan. The question for us then becomes whether we are prepared to cut loose and allow them to take their chances, no matter what. And it is a question that must be left to the individual conscience.
However, responsible government does not have such an indulgence but must rely on the principle of serving the greater good. What is the greater good in this case? Is it our greater good—that is, that of the Australian people? Or is it that of the people of Afghanistan? If not for anything else but the women of Afghanistan, like Bibi Aisha, my conscience tells me that we need to invest in the hard yards. My practical side says that there is no easy, short-term fix to this. There is not a mood emerging that suggests to me anything other than that as soon as we are gone it is back to square one and that we would have wasted our time. I could be wrong.
But I cannot deny the sense of futility within our own community towards the question of Afghanistan. Are we trying to impose values that they cannot comprehend in the context of their own value systems, let alone want? On a more parochial basis, what if we withdraw our presence and leave the mess to the Americans? How would we view ourselves as the principled and reliable mates that we pride ourselves to be? And if we did, could we honestly continue to expect that the Americans would continue their strong support of Australia, especially in a time of need? This whole issue comes down to a question of morality and global responsibility.
There are many diverse views in the constituency that I represent and I am not going to start telling them what they should be thinking; neither are the Afghanis obliged to listen to or subscribe to our opinions—that is a fact of life. My personal inclination is that if we entered into this for all the right reasons then we should go the distance. But I do appreciate the other schools of thought that say it is none of our business and that we should not be there. But the fact remains we are there right now. Do we stay or do we go? This is a decision for the government of the day. It must weigh up the pros and the cons for both scenarios. But, in doing so, I want them to take into consideration our history. It is a history of service towards those who need us and a history of supporting the underdog in their hour of need. This is the Australian ideal, and frankly I would be repulsed by anyone who deliberately turns their back on someone in need, even a nation with a continuing threat of terrorism across the globe.
If the Afghanis ask us to leave then that is entirely a different proposition. But they have not. The women of Afghanistan, the thousands of Bibi Aishas out there who have no voice but who want to live, deserve our protection. To those who want us out of there, will your conscience be rested knowing you have turned your back on many of those women? Would we consider ourselves an advanced nation if we were to take a laissez faire view of the world; live and let live? My conscience will not allow me that latitude but we have our respective personal views. Again I say that I acknowledge the diversity of views on this subject in my electorate and I respect those views. Perhaps all these seemingly contrasting ideals are attainable given time and the right approach. But are we prepared for an investment of that magnitude?
Professor Dennis Altman of La Trobe University in an article last year said:
There is little evidence that the current Afghani government, or its likely successors, is any more likely than the Iraqi government to build the sort of democratic progressive state we hope for …
I emphasise ‘we’. In other words, except in terms of conscience, there is no other practical reason why we should stay.
Thankfully, we all don’t think like that, and I recognise the bipartisan position echoed within this chamber. However, I do think it prudent to have a line in the sand, a point where we have to accept that it is either working for us or it is not—a set of parameters that are beyond challenge and repeal. That has not been done. With such an arrangement in place we will be able to move on with dignity, with confidence and without offence.
In conclusion, I fully support the mentoring work that our troops are performing, both with the police and the Afghani community. We have always punched above our weight with our targeted operations on their territory. As the Leader of the Opposition said in his statement, “A government’s commitment to our soldiers should be no less strong than our soldiers’ commitment to our country.” On that note I would also like to take this opportunity to recognise the contribution of our service men and women, both past and present, and those stationed at HMAS Albatross and HMAS Creswell, in my electorate. They are serving with the full knowledge that they may be called upon to contribute—and, if they do, it will be in accord with the highest standards and traditions of our defence forces; of that I am confident.
I thank the House for allowing me to speak my mind. Nothing is set in concrete, and whether we stay or whether we go is a decision that must be based on considered and sober deliberations—not by dogma, which is what we are fighting over there. I also thank our community in Gilmore, especially those who took the time to email, write or phone me to let me know their views.