“We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.”

The old song from the Great War seems increasingly apt for Australia’s misbegotten intervention in Afghanistan.

As part of his push for an Afghan surge, President Obama has quietly redefined the aims of the conflict. He explained:

I can tell you what our strategic goals should be. They should be relatively modest. We shouldn’t want to take over the country. We should want to get out of there as quickly as we can and help the Afghans govern themselves and provide for their own security. Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region.

But this new realism undercuts the sense Australians had that Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, was a Good War. Eons ago, Alexander Downer sold the intervention as at least partly about the construction of democracy, part of the international wave of freedom that the neo-conservatives would ride.

Now, though, it’s clear that Afghanistan’s future will look pretty much like Afghanistan’s past. The raggle-taggle assortment of warlords supporting President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt regime largely share Mullah Omar’s ideas about human rights and social freedoms, and Karzai himself regularly refers to the Taliban as his “brothers”. The key word in Obama’s speech is “security”. The Americans want someone who can keep the place under control — and that means more deals with local strongmen, irrespective of their democratic credentials.

So if we’re not there as liberators, we’re fighting to keep ourselves secure, right?

In January, Britain’s foreign secretary David Miliband, in a speech not nearly as widely reported as it should have been, explained that the “war on terror” rhetoric was, er, a mistake, since it implied that “the correct response to the terrorist threat was primarily a military one: to track down and kill a hardcore of extremists”.

Of course, Miliband supports the Afghan war but it’s hard to see where his admission leaves Australia’s intervention, which seems to be entirely based on tracking down and killing a hardcore of extremists.

Is there anyone now who actually thinks that the SAS fighting against Pashtun tribesmen thousands of kilometers away makes you or I safer from terrorism on the streets of Melbourne or Sydney? In that respect, the bushfires provided something of a reality check: the actual dangers faced by actual people in this country come just as they always have from more prosaic threats, not the boogy-man fantasies we’ve been fed for so long. Can there now be any doubt about whether the money and resources devoted to Afghanistan could be spent more usefully somewhere else?

In all likelihood, Obama’s campaign to whistle-up reinforcements for Afghanistan will mean a request for fresh Australian troops. So it’s more important than ever to ask why that country’s in its current state. Cursed by its strategic location, Afghanistan has provided a theatre for foreign interventions for the last two hundred years. Successive British and Russian invaders used exactly the strategy now employed by the US: the traditional combination of coercion and co-option that has left Afghan civil society entirely dysfunctional.

As Ibrahim Khan, a cargo truck driver from Paktia province, told the Washington Post: “Bringing in another foreign army is not going to help. They always come here for their own interests, and they always lose. Better to let everyone sit down with the elders and find a way for peace.”

Until Afghanistan ceases to be a plaything of great powers, there’s no prospect for a lasting solution. The best thing Australians can do is leave the place alone.

Peter Fray

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