Image for Afghanistan: why are we still there?

In a previous article, I called for a more ethical debate about the way we think through issues involving military intervention and the sacrifice of human lives ( An ethical debate on the war in Afghanistan ) one that gives priority to legal principles and moral values over perceived national self-interests or altruistic policy goals for another country.

The terrible truth is that what we have to be able to justify is the killing of other human beings. This is not generally permitted under the values we profess to live by. There have to be very good reasons to justify what would otherwise be regarded as murder. The question is: are our reasons good enough?

First let me address the two official reasons put forward by our government.

Our commitment to the US alliance

Does anyone really believe we would be in Afghanistan if the US were not?

We are there for the same reason we went to Vietnam and Iraq: because of pressure from our US allies and our belief in the need to support them in the hope that this will serve our future security and/or trade interests.

The alliance with the US may well be in our long term security and economic interests. But the question is: does the fact that it serves our national interest in these ways, of itself, legally and morally justify our involvement? And the answer is clearly NO. One cannot justify killing other human beings simply to please one’s friends.

Nevertheless, our total subservience to the US alliance remains, in my opinion, the reason sine qua non for our involvement. All the other reasons are simply justifications after the fact. Many people accept this as the reality and cannot be bothered with any well-intentioned attempts to challenge it. My own view is that it should be exposed for what it is: a legally and morally indefensible position for any government to hold.

One way to test its worth is to ask: are there any circumstances involving the sacrifice of human lives in which we would not support our allies? If the answer is NO then it means we do not accept there are ever any ethical constraints - or that these can be overridden when convenient, which amounts to the same thing. If the answer is YES, then it is likely to be because we believe there comes a point where we do accept limits on our freedom to kill people. The implication is that we simply have not reached that threshold yet.

Many commentators believe this point will only be reached when the number of Australian casualties becomes too much for public sentiment to stomach. This is why we are never told the full physical, emotional and psychological impacts of the war on our own soldiers and their families. The equally devastating impacts on the many more Afghan combatants and others similarly affected in Afghanistan hardly rate even a mention.

Until the real impacts of our involvement in terms of human suffering become our dominant moral concern, the Realpolitik of our dominant ideology of “all the way with the USA” will continue to be the political imperative. However, it is important to make it absolutely clear that the government cannot rely on the alliance itself as a legitimate justification.

National security

This brings us to our government’s other stated reason for being in Afghanistan: our need to protect our national security from the threat of Al Quaeda and global terrorism. This is to be achieved by defeating the Taliban, thereby ensuring political stability.

Whatever the original rationale, it is now accepted that the threat from Al Quaeda will not be reduced by continuing the war in Afghanistan. It is estimated that there are only some 50 members left there, the remainder being displaced to other countries. Al Quaeda is clearly highly mobile and widely dispersed. It is not dependent on any one safe haven.

As for global terrorism , it is difficult to see how such a generalized ever present “threat” could justify war. Otherwise we could justify being constantly at war and with an ever widening number of countries suspected of having terrorists in their midst. Indeed the assertion that the threat is from “global” terrorism and not just Al Quaeda undermines the argument that eliminating its base in Afghanistan will significantly reduce such a threat.

The defeat of the Taliban is predicated on the belief that they are either terrorists themselves or the protectors of Al Quaeda. There is no evidence to support either belief. The change in policy to now engage in negotiations with the Taliban makes it clear that their defeat is no longer regarded as a prerequisite for political stability or a reduction in the threat of terrorism. The Taliban are simply one of at least three nationalist groups struggling violently for political power in Afghanistan. The reason they have been the enemy is because the US prefers to support a corrupt Karzai regime that it can control to a brutal Taliban one which it cannot. This has nothing to do with our national security.

No-one believes our involvement in Afghanistan has reduced the threat of terrorism to Australians. It is now officially accepted that the greatest threats of terrorism in future will come from home grown terrorist groups. We should be concentrating on dealing with that domestic threat through our law enforcement agencies rather than dealing with overseas terrorism through military intervention.

Clearly, the government will need to produce much more persuasive evidence of a continuing threat to our national security in order to support its argument.

Helping the Afghan people

A number of other unofficial reasons have been advanced to justify our continuing military involvement:  that we are there to “support the Afghan people”, to help the current government to “become good enough”, to build democratic institutions, to train Afghan personnel, to educate the children and improve the situation for women etc.

These are really foreign aid development goals. However noble and worthwhile, they have never been considered legally or morally sufficient justifications for military intervention. These desirable goals can and should be pursued wherever possible through non-violent means.

Our moral duty to protect vulnerable people in other countries oppressed by their rulers is constrained by international law that recognises national sovereignty and precludes military intervention for such purposes unless there are exceptional circumstances approved by a specific United Nations Resolution for the purpose.

To clean up the mess and avoid a blood bath

This “justification” accepts that we are partly responsible for creating the mess we are now in and therefore have a moral obligation to mitigate the damage.

Once having got involved (rightly or wrongly) in Afghanistan, we continue to have moral obligations whether we stay or withdraw. Andrew Wilkie believes it will be a blood bath if we stay and a blood bath if we leave. On balance, he thinks we should leave sooner rather than later. Others trying to resolve this moral dilemma may incline to a more gradual withdrawal.

It is interesting that the very people who support staying because of compassion for human suffering oppose any withdrawal on the same grounds. The evidence of comparative impacts on the lives of all concerned is clearly crucial and may legitimately lead reasonable people to different conclusions.

But it is really more to do with designing a proper exit strategy than justifying ongoing military involvement

Legitimate concerns

People who demand that our government justify its decisions to expose our troops to death and injury in Afghanistan should not be attacked for being disloyal. They are invariably motivated by concern for those very relatives and fellow countrymen who are being asked to risk their lives on our behalf. Of course our troops should be properly resourced and given every support for as long as they are there. But they should not be required to continue to risk their lives for reasons that no longer stack up.

Likewise, the concern expressed for the many Afghan people affected by our decisions is also legitimate. Australian lives and Afghan lives should be accorded equal dignity and attract the same moral concern. The legal and moral principles we profess to live by have universal application. They apply equally to everyone involved in Afghanistan. The fact that these basic principles are ignored by some when it suits their interests is no reason for us to do likewise.

With so many precious lives at stake, the responsibility of our elected representatives to address these fundamental issues in the forthcoming debate could not be more onerous.

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Richard Flanagan on The Drum:

Lest we forget we reverentially intone every Anzac Day and yet we forget all the time. We forget that out of the 102,000 Australians who have died in wars since Federation, only 40,000 died during World War II.

We forget that all those other wars in which the majority died were not because we were threatened, but because we were involved with empires elsewhere threatening others. We forget that all those Australians who died often died bravely or honourably, or wretchedly or terribly, but they did not die for our country but for other countries.

We forget we asked the Americans to be in Vietnam and we don’t even know exactly why we are in Afghanistan.

We say we remember the fallen, and if we do that at best sporadically and inadequately, we hardly give thought to the many, many more who did not fall, but who returned home maimed sometimes not only in body but also in mind and soul.

We forget the great truth of the ages: that war, even if it is sometimes necessary, is always evil. And we forget that the essence of its evil is that it inevitably demands of some soldiers that they do terrible things that would horrify and repulse them in any other situation.

We forget that Australians - like all other nations - have committed atrocities in numerous wars, from World War I onwards. This doesn’t mean Australian soldiers are any more or less dishonourable than soldiers of any other nations. It simply reflects the realities of war and what war does to us all as human beings.

We forget that the horror of an atrocity is not just that visited on its victims, but also on the people who commit those atrocities. Not necessarily bad people or psychopathic people, but ordinary human beings who must live with the horror of their actions for the rest of their lives.

And we forget these ordinary human beings are young men who have friends and families, that the horror within them comes to affect many and passes like a shot through the decades and sometimes generations. We forget these wounds though they are all around us, in our suburbs and towns.

And because we forget all these things all the time we sent young Australians off to Afghanistan without debating any of this. No politician should ask of any soldier to go to war with all that means for those young men, without the very, very best of reasons.

But in such matters our politicians’ reasons have, historically, rarely been the very best.

Mostly they have been self-serving actions dressed up as national interest. They have used young men’s lives to retain and secure influence and stature for themselves in international forums.

We forget that the prosecution of distant wars has always made weak leaders look strong domestically. For what defence minister, sleek as a well-fed goose and honking similarly, doesn’t look a little more of a man overseeing war games? What prime minister doesn’t feel a little more of a real leader talking troops and missions and materiel?

But beyond the high moral tone and ersatz grandeur, our politicians have been careless. They need to answer to the dead - our dead and the dead we killed. They need to answer to the living - those soldiers who return, whose future lives are blighted and the lives of whose families and friends will be scarred irrevocably, decades after the 24 hour news cycle, the three year parliamentary term, the two term government, the near decade long war.

Between January and June this year, according to a recent United Nations report, 1,271 civilians died of violence in Afghanistan, with the Taliban responsible for 76 per cent of the deaths. We - the west and the government we support in Kabul - are responsible for the other 305 deaths.

Three Australian soldiers presently face manslaughter charges over the death of six civilians, five of whom were children, in a night raid. Whatever legal judgement results, those men carry the burden of five children’s death with them for the rest of their lives. Such burdens have too often been the returned soldiers’ unspoken lot.

No politician should ask that any Australian carry such weights without the best of reasons. And yet we forget that our politicians have always been careless with the lives of others.

Richard Flanagan’s most recent novel is Wanting.

On The Drum, HERE