Terrorism expert Clive Williams recently provided a helpful insight into the Pashtun devil-children we face in Afghanistan:

They, of course, have a very long experience of fighting, particularly against foreigners. […] That is their way of life. To be a man in their society, to be regarded as manly, you’ve got to have war experience. Their culture is built around fighting others.

A Pashtun academic studying the recent Anzac Day celebrations might, with equal legitimacy, come to the same conclusion about Australians.

The death of everyone who actually suffered during the Great War has severed the always tenuous connection between Anzac and reality, transforming the occasion into a free floating signifier of military virtue. Thus Kevin Rudd was able to sum up the disastrous Gallipoli invasion in terms of “the deep sense of liberty for which our forebears fought.”

It was, presumably, that love for liberty that enabled us to beat off Johnny Turk when he stormed Sydney Harbour … oh, wait.

The prevalence of such national fantasies about military history would matter less if we weren’t currently involved in a real war, in which, as we’ve just discovered, real people really die.

The occupation of Afghanistan has now been underway for significantly longer than the First World War. Yet are Australians any clearer about what our contingent is supposedly doing in that country than they were about the aims of the Gallipoli campaign?

Certainly, the politicians don’t seem to be.

Following the death of Lance Corporal Jason Marks, Rudd predicted that many more lives would be lost. So why remain?

“We are there,” he said, “because a failed state was giving open succour and support to a global terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda, which then attacked our ally the US on September the 11th, 2001, and in the process, murdered 3000 people.”

Brendan Nelson added casually that the war might last for a generation. He threw the Bali bombings into the mix, on the basis that three of the perpetrators supposedly trained in Afghanistan.

The fatuousness of suggestions that an occupation of Afghanistan makes terrorism in our region less likely means that, on the rare occasions that the war actually features in our newspapers, it’s usually presented in the kinds of mythic terms that Rudd used on Anzac Day.

“We are a good people,” he said, “who want for the good of others.”

Yet despite the undeniable odiousness of the Taliban, the complex situation in Afghanistan scarcely translates into a simple morality play. For a start, the government brought into power by the US invasion consists largely of warlords, with a grim record of human rights abuses. The campaign against opium production which plays so well in the Western press leaves local farmers impoverished and embittered. That’s why there’s been a rise in popular support for the Taliban, with US generals expecting record levels of attacks in 2008.

More fundamentally, the history of Afghanistan over the last century involves a string of occupations, all of which generated popular resistance. No-one’s been able to explain why this one should be any different.

Michelle Grattan’s scarcely some anti-war hippy. But note her conclusion: “We are in a conflict with no time frame, a significant likelihood that it will turn out badly in the end, and no exit strategy.”

Jeff Sparrow is editor of Overland.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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