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.

Peter Fray

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