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United States

Jun 15, 2010

Afghanistan: another 30 years?

Last week, with very little fanfare, Afghanistan became the longest war in US history. Where are the mea culpas from all the experts whose earnest predictions about Afghanistan went so terribly awry?

How high a price are we willing to pay in Afghanistan? asked Rory Callinan and Hashim Shukoor in The Australian, the weekend after the death of two ADF soldiers.

It’s a good question.

Last week, with very little fanfare, Afghanistan became the longest war in US history. In Australia, John Faulkner says Australian troops will be deployed for another three years minimum, a prediction that US strategic analyst Daniel Ellsberg immediately dismissed as hopelessly optimistic. “The war will no more be over in three to five years than it is right now … if Australians are committed to supporting this strategy, they can figure on 10, 20 and 30 years of involvement,” he said.

Thirty years: that’s a whole lotta war. And to what end?

Last week, the new British PM David Cameron told his troops: “This is not a war of choice, it is a war of necessity. […]  If we left tomorrow, those [terrorist] training camps could come back tomorrow, because the Afghans aren’t ready to look after their own security. As soon as they are ready, we can go home.”

That’s the line here, too — but, actually, few of the war’s supporters now even pretend to believe it.

Consider Clive Williams on the ABC’s Drum website (in an article backing the Afghanistan mission, mind you, not denouncing it): “Australia’s stated reason for being in Afghanistan is countering terrorism. The real reason is maintaining the close alliance with the US. In fact, our military presence in Afghanistan is more likely to lead to acts of terrorism in Australia than prevent them.”

In other words, the public rationale for the deployment  — the Cameron line about terrorist camps – might serve to fool the rubes (that’s you, dear readers). But experts such as Williams know that Australia’s really there to, as he approvingly puts it, “to score points with the US”.

A couple of days ago, Michelle Grattan made the same argument: “Australia will stay in Afghanistan as long as the Americans want us to, which means as long as the US is there. It is one of those commitments to the alliance. We do it even though the prospects of ‘victory’ are probably bleak.”

Let’s recap, then. The young men killing and dying for Australia have been told they’re fighting terrorism. Our pundits know that’s not true, that the public and the soldiers have been lied to from the get-go, and that the “probably unwinnable” mission really constitutes a down payment on a strategic insurance policy.

And they’re totally cool with that.

The question as to the price we are willing to pay thus hinges mostly on what we mean by “we”. The people who dominate these discussions know they will pay no price whatsoever for even 30 years of war — and are thus willing to fight to the last drop of someone else’s blood.

It’s not simply that the pundits recognise that they’ll never personally end up poking around for IEDs on a road outside Kabul. It’s also that for those writing about national security, there’s no penalty for being wrong — so long, that is, as you’re wrong from an enthusiastically pro-war perspective.

Recall, if you will, how the invasion was originally justified. In 2001, the pundits didn’t share their insights about how the war was probably unwinnable. Nor did they explain how it was more likely to foster acts of terrorism than prevent them.

Rather, they dutifully yapped along with American talking points about restoring democracy, ending the drug trade, liberating women and so on and so forth. And where are we now? Well, there’s a human embodiment of the distance between predictions and results in Afghanistan, and his name is Hamid Karzai. That suave “Afghan democrat” whose regime we’ve been fighting for is the same Karzai who consorts with warlords and drug gangs, who rigged the last election, who says he might join the Taliban, and who claims the US has been firing rockets at his peace conference.

Where, then, are the mea culpas from all the experts whose earnest predictions about Afghanistan went so terribly, terribly awry?

The point Tony Judt made about Iraq in the LRB a few years ago now applies equally to Afghanistan. “The only people qualified to speak on this matter,” he explained, “it would seem, are those who got it wrong initially. Such insouciance in spite of — indeed because of — your past misjudgements recalls a remark by the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade to Edgar Morin, a dissenting Communist vindicated by events: “You and your kind were wrong to be right; we were right to be wrong’.”

In the Huffington Post, Sahil Kapur makes a similar argument. The biggest obstacle, he says, to any genuine discussion of Afghanistan is that “[w]ar has become a fact of life for post-9/11 America — a permanent fixture of the Washington establishment that can hardly be challenged, lest anyone with insufficient pro-war credentials be dismissed as unserious and naive.”

It’s the same here, albeit on a lesser scale. If the topic’s war, the default journalistic mode becomes a cynical tough guy swagger, Winston Churchill crossed with Mickey Spillane. We all know we need the US alliance — and if that requires sacrificing a few of our young men (and tens of thousands of nameless foreigners) to an unwinnable war that will actually make us less safe from terrorism, well, bring it on, baby.

Oh, and the latest news is that Afghanistan apparently sits on a mountain of unobtanium. Now, if that pans out, Ellsberg’s estimate of a 30-year deployment suddenly looks very optimistic.

How did Grattan put it? “Australia will stay in Afghanistan as long as the Americans want us to, which means as long as the US is there.”  Well, if Afghanistan’s about to become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium”, don’t expect the Americans to go anywhere anytime soon.

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43 comments

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43 thoughts on “Afghanistan: another 30 years?

  1. SusieQ

    Not all of us “rubes” believed the public stories about the war – Australia’s involvement was always about keeping sweet with the Yanks, just like Vietnam, the 1st Gulf War, Iraq…..the apathy of the ‘rubes’ in Australia is really quite disturbing – are we really all happy to just sit back and let this go on and on? Where is the unhappiness, the protests, the letters/emails to politicians? (yes, I will be emailing my MP!!!!).
    How nasty will it all get now that all these huge mineral deposits have been discovered?

  2. shepherdmarilyn

    We are more interested in locking up refugees who dare to escape though. Scott Morrison has an article published today that says they should all stay home and fight and die – too bad not a single soul has a clue who they are actually fighting, let them all die.

    I was against this from before it happened. Will remain against it and scream out loud when the waffle about terr’ism starts – we are the fucking terrorists killing and maiming and destroying and slashing as we go.

  3. achimova1

    Great article by Greg Sparrow and the little aside (mountains of unobtainium) was illuminating. And good post by SusieQ. However I think it naive to assume that the US and their allies did not know about the riches of Afghanistan prior to the war. Everyone knows this is a war like any war – to gain either some strategic advantage or some assets that have to be forced out of a country rather than bought. I thought it might be oil (again!) but that can’t be so, because any old IED could blow up an oil pipeline.
    The US yet again and against its own constitution, acts as an empire rather than a democratic state (see the Philippines 1898, Iran 1952-3, Guatemala 1953, Indonesia 1965, Chile 1973, Iraq in the 90s and 2003 to whenever, and Afghanistan ditto – and so on). The US has thrived by taking commodities cheaply with the aid of puppet governments, rather than buying them on the world market. And we are going to aid and abet this for the next thirty years? Then we’re not a sovereign nation, we’re a colony.
    Gore Vidal reported that he and General Vernon Walters (known as The Great Destabiliser for the number of coups he had facilitated) had a conversation regarding who won World War 2. Vidal’s view was that the US lost – that Russia got half of Europe, England and most of the colonialist nations lost said nations, and US only got Australia. How right he was!

  4. nicolino

    Where is our national sense of pride? Always sucking up to the warmongering Yanks who can’t keep their dirty hands off anything.
    Don’t get me going on the so-called Free Trade Agreement. With friends like these who needs enemies. Maybe an enema instead to get them off our backs.

  5. SusieQ

    Thank you Achimova1 – liked your post too!

    I guess in this case, both parties support the war, whereas in the past, that hasn’t always been the case; plus, we don’t (yet) have conscription, like we did for Vietnam. I wonder how quickly opposition would mobilise if conscription were re-introduced? Which of course, it won’t be, because neither party would be brave enough to even mention it.

    Wonder if our mining companies will now be lining up to get a piece of the action in Afghanistan now that PM Rudd is introducing that awful tax! Another reason to stay involved……….

  6. shepherdmarilyn

    Our mining industries won’t be but you can bet the foreign multi-nationals that pretend they are ours will be.

  7. j.oneill

    Actually Geoff, the original official reason for the invasion of Afghanistan, repeated by Obama many times and in particular in a speech to West Point academy in December 2009, was that Afghanistan was where they (the US) was attacked from on 11 September 2001. That was never the real reason but it was the ostensible one. The rationale has since morphed into “bringing democracy” “liberating women” and other myths.

    The 9/11 attacks justification was untrue then and it is untrue now as anyone with the wit to make an effort to acquaint themselves with the facts well knows. But even if it were true that the US was attacked by 19 fanatical Muslims directed from a cave in afghanistan by a Saudi fanatic on dialysis it was still contrary to international law to attack afghanistan. That the US and its willing acolyte Australia is willing to ignore international law when it suits their geo-political goals is well established.

    The alleged discovery of mineral wealth does not really change the equation. The discoveries were actually made during the period in the 1980s when the Russians were there, just as the vast oil and gas reserves in the Caspian basin north of Afghanistan has been known for many years. It is hardly surprising that in addition to the military bases along the Afghan part of the pipeline the Pentagon has just announced an intention to build five more bases in the “stans” to the north. True to post-war history the US mililtary has always been employed to safeguard US strategic access to scarce resources. Afghanistan is no different.

    But whether they will be there for 30 years as some of your correspondents suggest, perhaps a reading of history might help. The British had similar ambitions in the 19th century and were annihilated (literally) for their efforts. The Americans had similar ambitions in South East Asia for much the same reasons (geo-political advantage, securing scarce resources, controlling the opium trade) as they now have in Afghanistan. We all recall how the Vietnam War ended.

    It is a great pity that our politicians do not learn from history and an even greater pity that we allow them to get away with it.

  8. 144EBHEED

    Not ill…how much do you want?

  9. Mark Duffett

    Jeff Sparrow goes on at great length to support his thesis that Australia is in Afghanistan because the Americans want us to be. Let’s assume that’s true for a moment. Isn’t the central question then why the Americans are in Afghanistan? Surely that issue deserves more than a flippant (and obviously illogical, if the resources are ‘newly identified’) aside at the end.

    Taking logic a step further, it’s at least possible that, geopolitical conspiracy theory or otherwise, America’s interest in Afghanistan is congruent with Australia’s interest.

    Whether I’m right or wrong about this, these are the issues that need to be looked at, rather than this typically shallow Sparrow piece pandering to long-standing Left prejudices.

  10. Last Chance Cafe

    Where would we be without the Free Press?

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