Imagine a parallel universe where Australian soldiers weren’t already fighting in Oruzgan province. Imagine, in that alternative reality, a terrorist bomb struck the Marriot Hotel in Jakarta. If, under those circumstances, a politician claimed that the best response to a bombing in Indonesia was to invade Afghanistan, we’d think they were perfectly mad.
But that’s the bizarro world we inhabit, with the Prime Minister offering the Jakarta attacks as evidence for the necessity of war thousand of miles away.
The argument, insofar as there is one, holds that, in the past Afghanistan provided a training ground for terrorists and, so if left to its own devices, it might become one again.
But the people behind the Jakarta blasts don’t need to take trips to Afghanistan. There’s a much more convenient training ground at their disposal — it’s called Indonesia.
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Yes, the bombers might admire Islamist struggles elsewhere in the world. But that vague ideological affinity remains much less important to the growth of Jemaah Islamiyah than conditions at home. In other words, the solution of Islamist terrorism in Indonesia lies in Indonesia, rather than Afghanistan. How could it possibly be otherwise?
But for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Indonesian terrorists really did require overseas training. In that case, wouldn’t the war make Afghanistan more rather than less attractive? Wasn’t that how al Qaeda originally spread — with militants coming, not to train but to fight? Insofar as there is a link between JI and Afghanistan, it was forged by Indonesian recruits coming to battle against the Soviets in the 1980s. Isn’t it entirely possible that something similar might be taking place now?
In any case, the problem with pitching the Afghan war as a campaign to deny training grounds to terrorists is that it will do nothing of the sort. Even if the US-led coalition wins in Afghanistan, no-one seriously thinks that the country will suddenly become Sweden. Why, if Washington could implant a regime in Kabul capable of exercising some kind of control over the capital and surrounding regions, well, from where things are now, that would be a famous victory. But it would still leave plenty of places in Afghanistan where terrorists could train — and plenty of people prepared to train them.
Consider the forthcoming elections, which provide some hint of what a future Afghanistan will resemble. The Prime Minister Hamid Karzai is seeking a third term, but now faces a stiff challenge from former foreign finance minister, Ashraf Ghani. Ghani’s slogan? He wants a three-year cease-fire with the Taliban — a proposal that recent polls suggest [PDF] that 64 per cent of Afghans support.
That’s presumably why Karzai — the man the West has been propping up for years — has shifted ground. He’s nominated as running mate a certain Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a man accused by human rights groups of kidnapping, drug-running, murder and other war crimes. In response to criticisms of Fahim, Karzai has denounced “outside [that is, Western] influence” in Afghanistan — and has promised that he too will seek negotiations with the Taliban!
Now, whether or not the Taliban wants to negotiate is, of course, an entirely different question. But, in a context where there’s very little ideological difference between the Northern Alliance warlords the West supports and the Taliban warlords the West fights, the idea that whatever Afghan government emerges out of this war will have no links with hardcore Islamists is pure fantasy.
Mind you, fantasy now dominates what passes for discussion about Afghanistan in Australia. For instance, in the Daily Telegraph, Ian McPhedran explains why we fight war like this:
“Nobody is safe, no country is immune and that is why it is vital to attack the virus at its source. The campaign is not even about winning and losing, in any normal sense. It is about maintaining security and prosperity to the best extent that we can.
“To the extremists, 19 unarmed Western businessmen attending a hotel meeting are as much of a target as a heavily armed soldier on patrol in Oruzgan province.
“Until the zealots are dead and the moderates are accommodated, there will be no peace. Australians will continue to die in the dust of Afghanistan and inside luxury hotels in Jakarta.”
Got that? We’re in Afghanistan to kill zealots. Well, perhaps McPhedran could take a look at the electoral list and nominate which likely Afghan prime minister we need to kill first.
There’s no magic solutions to terrorism. Of course there’s not. But would happen if the Australian resources being thrown into the Afghan crusade went to, say, helping Indonesia bolster its education system, so that impoverished families didn’t need to rely on the religious schools that indoctrinate kids into Islamism? Would that make a difference?
Well, you couldn’t guarantee it. But helping Indonesia build a functioning civil society seems infinitely more likely to prevent bomb attacks in Jakarta than persisting with this brutal war in Afghanistan.