US ties must not cloud our duty to Afghanistan

Is it possible for democracies to justify long wars and occupation of other countries?

DON’T let it be said again that our politicians lack poetic sensibility. When Kevin Rudd fell in June as prime minister, another deposed party leader, one Malcolm Turnbull, offered his old sparring partner some Yeats-inspired consolation: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Earlier this week Julia Gillard invoked the words of Australian poet James McAuley in a speech about the war in Afghanistan: “I never shrank with fear / But fought the monsters of the lower world /Clearing a little space, and time, and light / For men to live in peace.” Reflecting on fallen Australian soldiers, the Prime Minister said that those in the defence forces “embrace wartime sacrifice as their highest duty”. In return, governments owe them a duty “to make wise decisions about war”.

We should welcome parliament debating our ongoing military engagement in Afghanistan. Explanations of the wisdom behind committing Australian troops without a well-defined exit strategy are long overdue.

One thing, of course, should be made clear. The war in Afghanistan had just cause in the beginning. Al-Qa’ida’s orchestration of the September 11 attacks in the US constituted an act of war.

The Taliban was a full partner in that enterprise, offering Osama bin Laden a territorial base in Afghanistan. There was a compelling case for using military force to terminate the Taliban.

It wouldn’t have been enough, though, for NATO allied forces merely to destroy the regime, then go home.

As the just war philosopher Michael Walzer highlights, anation-state incurs moral obligations when choosing to fight in another country. A just war must involve not only just cause but also just withdrawal.

This is where it starts getting complicated. If there is an obligation to ensure Afghanistan enjoys something resembling adequate government before Australian troops can be withdrawn, then clearly there is some way to go.

Any transition in Afghanistan to peace and stability will take a long time; Gillard reckons at least the rest of this decade. The troubles of Afghan President Hamid Karzai are legion. His reputation for corruption invites us to wonder whether we may just be supporting another Ngo Dinh Diem, albeit one with impressive sartorial style.

Yet Afghanistan remains one of the few issues on which there is bipartisan Labor-Liberal-Nationals agreement.

For Gillard, there are two key national interests at stake: making sure that Afghanistan is never again a haven for terrorists and standing firm with the US.

Abbott has said: “A premature end to our involvement would tell the Americans and the British that Australia is an unreliable ally and fair-weather friend.”

This seems to get to the real reasons for the ongoing deployment of Australian forces in Afghanistan. Sometimes you get the impression it would be simpler if the US alliance weren’t implicated.

We should be careful not to let our responsibility to the US completely overshadow our responsibility to Afghanistan. If Australian troops have remained in Oruzgan province because we have a responsibility to rebuild a country we have occupied, it stretches credulity to suggest that merely training the Afghan army is enough. A just withdrawal would seem to demand a more encompassing duty of assisting with nation-building, with all that implies.

Then again, it is the responsibility to offer solidarity with the US, our ally, that appears to be animating Gillard’s stance on Afghanistan. It is all confirmation of what the great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously wrote: “War is the continuation of policy by other means.”

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