Sober reflections on ten long years in Afghanistan

by James Dunn

The tenth anniversary of yet another distant military engagement finds most Australians rather war-weary. We have had a number of these engagements since the end of World War II, but most have been in distant places and their significance did not impact on the daily lives of most Australians. Neither the Korean Conflict nor the Vietnam War was particularly popular, and our troops got little public gratitude for what they had been through until years later. What it means is that Australian forces have been involved in one conflict or another for most of the time since the end of WWII, including the Malayan Emergency and, most recently, East Timor. And like our involvement with the Bush-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, our part in the major conflicts of this so-called post-war period has mostly involved providing willing support to our American ally in situations that posed no strategic threat to this country. I should add, however, that Australian forces have served the UN in a number of conflicts, usually with little recognition at home.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan need to be considered together. One, Afghanistan, was a direct response to the Al Qaeda spectacular terrorist attack that brought down New York's World Trade Centre towers. The later attack on Iraq was linked, quite falsely, by President Bush to al Qaeda terrorism. For all his faults, Saddam Hussein was a bitter enemy of al Qaeda, against whose supporters he had employed gas attacks. In both cases these terrorist attacks were used to justify military invasions, as well as being hugely costly, taking, together, over 600,000 civilian lives, according to a report published by the British medical journal, Lancet.

The Iraq assault led to a bloody sectarian conflict, while in Afghanistan the initial military defeat of the Taliban soon led to a deadly Islamic extremist insurrection which, ten years on, shows no sign of faltering. The western coalition in Afghanistan is a more elaborate affair, involving some 20 countries in the NATO led International Security Assistance Force. As virtually all of the western countries involved are now facing economic crises, they are desperate for an end of a war that is very unlikely to achieve the original aims of its architects.

Given the situation on the ground, this tenth anniversary is hardly a time for celebration. The Taliban insurgency has changed its tactics and remains strong and determined. It raises the possibility that when Coalition forces withdraw this oppressive regime will manage to return to power and presumably resume their undemocratic rule. This would mean a massive waste of money and effort. More importantly, the campaign has cost the lives of some 2670 troops, 1723 of them American. Australian losses are 29, modest when compared to British – 382, Canadian 156, German 56, Italian 44, Danish 42, and Spanish 33.

Much heavier losses were suffered by Afghan civilians - estimated to be in the vicinity of 20,000 killed and 50,000 injured. These losses are yet another reminder that in modern war civilians inevitably constitute the heaviest casualties. This was certainly the case in Iraq and, much earlier, in Vietnam.

The reason for the American assault on the al Qaeda enclave was understandable enough; in the light of the brutal 9/11 terrorist attack on New York, but the wider aim of replacing the Taliban with a western-orientated regime has been shown to have been an overly ambitious and costly exercise, as was George Bush's early pledge to bring democracy to Iraq. As things stand, after a war that has lasted longer than World War II, in Afghanistan the Americans and their allies are not nearly in a position to proclaim mission accomplished. The country is far from pacified, as recent daring attacks on Kabul have demonstrated. The big question now is: will the Kazai government be able to survive after our troops withdraw at the end of 2014? On the other hand, to continue the present ISAF operation would, in the present economic circumstances, be unacceptable. This tenth anniversary, then, is a time for sober stock-taking by all countries involved.

James Dunn is a former Australian consul in East Timor who wrote the definitive book on East Timor’s history in the mid-80’s Timor: A People Betrayed and updated in 1996. In 2001-2002 he was the UNTAET Expert on Crimes Against Humanity in East Timor.

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