The steady drip of Australian Defence Force casualties in Afghanistan is starting to have an effect on public opinion, if today’s Newspoll is an accurate reflection of national sentiment. Note that it is The Australian , which was a happy cheerleader for the foreign policy debacles of the Bush and Howard governments, that is pursuing this.

The reluctance on the part of Australians to support an increase in the Australian presence in Afghanistan actually accords with the Government’s view, which is that it will not increase troop numbers without a clearer allied strategy and a greater willingness on the part of NATO countries to contribute to the effort.

Afghanistan may yet be the Bush Administration’s greatest strategic failure. The diversion of US forces and attention to Iraq meant the consolidation of victory in Afghanistan has, over the past seven years, become an increasingly desperate attempt to stave off defeat. European reluctance to assist in the stabilisation of the country exacerbated the problem, as has the great western tradition of picking winners in local politics.

There’s plenty of rhetoric from the Left about how the Afghan war is some sort of quasi-imperialist venture extending from the days of the British Empire. Right or wrong, that misses the point that a country cannot be left to the control of those who would use it as a base for a campaign of mass murder — a campaign that seems primarily aimed at fellow-Muslims when it is inconvenient or too difficult to kill Westerners. That the Taliban have an even more savage attitude toward women than many of their countrymen might also be relevant, depending on how you feel post-Iraq about the doctrine of liberal interventionism.

But, like Iraq, the debate about the morality of our involvement is secondary to the need to resolve the current problem of a country sliding back into the control of people with a proven record of supporting those who would butcher us and many of their own countrymen in large numbers.

For most Australians, however, the connection between success in stabilising Afghanistan and preventing future terrorist attacks against both westerners and Muslims has either never been made or, if once made, is now forgotten. It is a staple of the rhetoric of both this Government and its predecessor that the war is important to Australia’s strategic interests, but neither John Howard nor Kevin Rudd seem to have found a way to get the message front and centre in Australians’ minds. The fact that we have been going backwards militarily clearly hasn’t helped the perception that we have an important role there.

Now we risk a Vietnam-style effect where the only issue that counts is the stream of deaths and injuries in a fight that has no clear end in sight.

The Opposition is now looking for ways to politicise the conflict, not by criticising our presence, of course, but by suggesting that the Government is somehow mismanaging it. Coming from the mob who gleefully participated in the monumental war crime that was the Iraq venture, that’s rich indeed, but that’s politics. It will only make the Government’s job of maintaining support for the conflict more difficult. But the only long-term solution lies in Washington and European capitals.

Like more than a few other problems at the moment, Australia is at the sharp end of a problem of others’ making and there’s not a lot we can do about it.