Eight years ago, NATO and a selection of allies invaded Afghanistan, scattered its Taliban government to the provinces — and then promptly forgot about it, as attention turned to the mad morass of Iraq.
Though the motivating factor, 9/11, was a criminal act by a gang of young Saudi men, it seems pretty clear that they were funded and directed by an Al-Qaeda leadership living under the protection of the Taliban. Even if you thought that actual Afghan people shouldn’t be bombed for the actions of their extreme leadership, the anti-war case was a hard one to make.
But as with Iraq, the war is now making the case against itself, without much help. It is a pointless, muddled, half-assed piece of late imperial squalor, conducted for the sole purpose that the anglosphere centre-left governments running it will not be politically outflanked on national security credentials.
Afghanistan has provided the Obama, Brown and Rudd administrations with what their George Lakoff-inspired propaganda wonks have always suggested they have — a narrative which makes sense, a plausible account.
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Thus, they could define Labo(u)r/The Democrats as the party that conducts good, sensible wars–– as opposed to the bad, stupid wars of the right. The military adventure can be subsumed under the ideas of efficiency, modernity, even fairness, the values that the party purports to represent.
That narrative hasn’t worked well for a long time. Does this week’s tanker bombing mark its final self-immolation, taking an odd sixty or so civilians with it? (and remembering also that those labelled as “insurgents” may often be young boys and men who would not be fighting at all, if their country were not occupied by a foreign invader).
The attack was staged by the Germans (good to see them getting back to what they know), apparently contrary to the new rules of engagement laid down by Obama’s new commander General McChrystal (!). But that simply raises the impossibility or running a so-called limited war, when a force — the Taliban — has become so commingled with the general populace and amorphous to boot.
More disturbing still is the apparent fact that the civilian casualties occurred because those who had hijacked the tanker were offering local people the chance to collect free fuel — kinda useful as the Afghan autumn and winter comes on.
So was the bombing a unilateral punitive strike — a warning to anyone who takes advantage of the Taliban’s “hearts and minds” campaign that they will be in the cross-hairs?
The plain fact is that any eight year war in a foreign land has become a war against the people, a little Vietnam. Guerrilla insurgency is about moving like a fish in the water of the wider populace — thus obliging the occupying power to drain the pond (or, in the words of one of Melbourne’s addled pro-war Maoists — burnouts getting their jaded jollies from righteous killing, as usual — “draining the swamps where terror breeds”).
The corollary to any such war is the development of a racist contempt for the populace whose rights one is supposed to be protecting — something that is amplified when confining rules of engagement put soldiers at greater personal risk because they cannot, for example, storm into a house with all guns blazing, and count the women and children as collateral damage.
Of course such racism does not merely follow such wars, but precedes them — it would simply not be possible to conduct these imperial ventures in such a way if it were not brown people we were bossing around and killing. That’s one reason why NATO and UN actions in Bosnia and Kosovo limited themselves to bombing and post-capitulation occupation. Even constructing the Serbs as sinister untermenschen could not defray the explosive effect of a full scale war of white-on-white.
The Afghan war is an imperial adventure not despite the causes advanced for it, but because of them. “Human rights” has become the new white man’s burden, a seamless transition from Christian soldiery, to anti-communism, to “development”. At each point imperialism serves to solve political questions at home, as much as abroad — the British empire was at least partly organised to give a sense of solidarity that would overcome the class conflict politics of the socialist movement.
The Afghan war is different because every prior sense of mission has now fallen away. Older imperialists could take comfort in the idea that their subjects were “half devil and half child” who needed to be raised up. We cannot say that anymore, cannot believe it in our bones.
So we adopt the language of human rights — a contradictory thing to kill people in the name of, since it already imagines a respect for their autonomy and self-determination. It becomes even more difficult when rights collide — the democratic right to impose collective laws (governing gender relations for example) with that of individual liberty. Queensland currently makes abortion, a right as far as many of us are concerned, a difficult thing to obtain. Should those countries which feel strongly about this right — say the Nordic nations — bomb Brisbane? How could we tell if they did?
Now, as their agents in the area around Kabul defined as Afghanistan, the West has an obviously corrupt, vote-fixing government, deeply involved in the heroin trade and other corrupt activities, money from at least some of which is consolidating their stranglehold on power. Having played coy over the Shia-specific laws guaranteeing male domination of women — codifying the laws that exist in villages anyway — the Karzai government quietly let them pass a few weeks ago. To call this a farce is to insult the spirit of vicars losing their trousers on stage. It is a Tarantino war — pointless, ill-thought, derivative, and organised around senseless violence.
The philosophy of just war — whether religious or secular — comes down hard on wars conducted for wanton or capricious reasons, or prosecuted without serious intent of defeating the alleged evil it was started to contest.
By that standard the Afghan war is simply indefensible, and it is incumbent on people in the ALP who retain a conscience to actively organise against it within their party. Compromise is one thing, but the idea of guaranteeing the political success needed to build schools in Australia, by killing Afghan civilians is evil. Not regrettable, not corrupt, not cynical, actual full-bore cosmological evil.
That Kevin Rudd, an imperial figure would support it, is par for the course. But people like Julia Gillard and John Faulkner who came from a different part of the party tradition have betrayed themselves, and the party. They need to be organised against by branches and activists, to make any appearance they make a confrontation. Anything else is complicity.