Australia Won’t Be in Afghanistan without America

A bill to expedite the exit of the U.S. military from Afghanistan has only narrowly been defeated in the U.S. congress: 251 to 204 votes. There is little politically to keep American in the almost decade-long war, especially with elections due in 2012. As we know in Australia — where America goes, Australia goes. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard does not have the stomach to go it alone in Afghanistan without America. Mounting death tolls of American and Australian soldiers, in a war seen as less and less relevant and more and more problematic, is getting harder for both the Labor Party and the Democrats to sell.

Soldiers killed in action, deaths of civilian Afghani’s, and staggering costs are some of the reasons for foreign troops to exit Afghanistan.

American fatalities — 1590 between 2001 and 2010 — and Australian fatalities — 26 between 2002 and 2010 — are just one element driving the debates in America and Australia. There have been accusations that soldiers from America and Australia (as well as other coalition states) are responsible for civilian deaths, however it is unclear how many Afghani’s have died as a result of soldiers negligence. To date no American or Australian soldiers have been prosecuted. About 9000 Afghani civilians are thought to have been killed in the conflict: over 2700 in 2010 alone. The cost of the war is staggering. The U.S. military is on track to spend US$113 billion on its operations in Afghanistan in the 2010-2011 fiscal year, and is seeking US$107 billion from Congress for 2012-2013. Driving opposition by some Republicans in American is a bill they estimate to be about US$10 billion a month (at a time when the federal deficit is expected to reach US$1.5 trillion this year). Australia is spending AUS$1.7 billion a year on oversees troop commitments in Afghanistan.

Public support for the war in Afghanistan is also waning. A Galaxy poll (4 June 2011) shows support for the Australian war in Afghanistan at only 19 per cent, while 62 per cent of those surveyed want Australian troops out of Afghanistan in the next six months. Only one in five Australians thinks the war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, are being won, compared with almost one in three Americans. The message is less clear in America. Following the killing of Osama bin Laden, there has been an upsurge in concern that America will face retaliatory attacks. This is reflected in Pew Research that indicates only 48 per cent of Americans support withdrawal of U.S. troops. Conversely, 63 per cent believe that troops will “succeed”. It is unclear how Americans (or Australians for that matter) will measure ‘success’. An earlier CNN opinion poll (3 January 2011) more clearly indicates that more than six in ten Americans oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The poll found that 56 percent of the American public believes that things are going badly for the U.S. in Afghanistan.

In America, Obama is facing bipartisanship calls for U.S troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan. Recently 178 Democrats and 26 Republicans voted to pressure Obama into an immediate withdrawal. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California) has argued that: “Americans are paying a big price.” For Republican Jim McGovern (Massachusetts): “Too many people have died in Afghanistan. There is no clear mission.” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Democrat Maryland) insisted that because of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the stakes have changed: “His death is a moment for reflection on that struggle (in Afghanistan)… many of the terrorists against which we are fighting are no longer located in Afghanistan.”

In Australia, Gillard is facing pressure from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In a minority government, Gillard requires the support of four Independents. One of those is Andrew Wilkie (Tasmania). Wilkie, a former intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessments who ‘blew the whistle’ over the emptiness of the Howard government’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, opposes the war in Afghanistan. He has said: “One of the big lies of this federal election campaign [2010] is that we have to be there to fight terrorists for Australia’s national security.” Leader of the Australian Greens in the Senate, Bob Brown, has consistently called for Australian troops to withdrawn from its “invasion” of Afghanistan. The Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate from 1 July 2011.

Gillard it also facing pressure from the mainstream media with even neo-conservative pro-war commentators such as The Australian’s Foreign Affairs editor, Greg Sheridan, calling for a withdrawn of all troops from Afghanistan. He has recently written: “Australia is losing the stomach to ask any of its brave and brilliant young soldiers to be the last man to die for a losing cause in Afghanistan… No matter what we do, we cannot win in Afghanistan… We have known that for a long time.” The Prime Minister and Chief of the Defence Force’s mantra that Australian forces are succeeding in their mission in Afghanistan seems more and more hollow in the face of Sheridan’s influential comments. As former Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh (who served in Afghanistan from 1986 to 1988) says: “I for one am fed up with the half truths and lies emanating from senior defence officers over all aspects of Australia’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan; a war in which the original objectives have long since disappeared.”

The initial objectives (always problematic in terms of a ‘just’ war) have been replaced by an ongoing war, with undefined objectives, and lacking moral authority. Human Rights Watch 2011 World Report have found a litany of human rights breaches that have either been perpetrated by foreign troops or sanctioned by foreign governments. For example, the U.S. military is thought to be detaining 1 000 Afghani’s as prisoners in their own country. It has emerged that President Hamid Karzai (who only rules with American support) has quietly introduced a law that provides amnesty to perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.K. and E.U. are pursuing plans to build asylum seeker detention centers in Kabul in order to repatriate unaccompanied children, despite concerns over security and lack of safeguards. Military action has caused widespread internal displacement of civilians. The Red Cross reported a thousand weapon-related injuries to civilians in 2010, double that of 2009. These claims, never mind the deaths of soldiers and civilians and spiraling costs in the face of a global recession, should have Australian and American citizens clamoring for an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It is getting more and more difficult on any grounds — politically, economically or morally — to ‘stay the course’ in Afghanistan. Australia should withdraw now: it will once Obama does and there seems no other strategy available to the American president.

Dr. Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in Politics at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. She is a regular writer on national and international human rights issues and is the coeditor of Seeking Refuge: Asylum Seekers and Politics in a Globalising World (Halstead Press, Sydney, 2005). She can be reached at: Read other articles by Jo.