Events since the federal election seem to suggest that Tony Abbott has some kind of death wish. With his prospects of attaining government resting entirely in the hands of a few independents, he continues to do everything he can to antagonise them.
Now it’s Afghanistan. With the independents having secured, as part of the New Paradigm, a promise of a debate on the war — with a view to finally airing the case for withdrawal — up jumps the Coalition with a call to escalate Australia’s involvement.
The Afghan war, like many Afghan wars before it, has been a litany of mistakes and misjudgements. It’s certainly possible that if the American-led forces had put serious effort into nation-building in 2002 and 2003, instead of being distracted by an illegal and pointless adventure in Iraq, then a reasonable degree of peace and freedom could have been established and all or most of the troops could have come home.
But that opportunity, if it existed, has passed. Policymakers like to think they can turn back the clock — that if they work out what the right policy would have been, they can apply it now and all will be well. Not so.
When running for election it made sense for Barack Obama, like Kevin Rudd before him, to highlight his predecessor’s mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan and to argue for priority to be given to the latter. It made less sense to actually escalate the Afghan war once in government. It makes no sense now.
In the interim, the Afghan government has shown itself to be corrupt, incompetent, lacking in popular support and almost as captive to primitive misogyny as the Taliban that it replaced. But most important of all, the foreign occupation is not helping with any of these things: it is manifestly making things worse.
Neither party in Australia, however, shows any awareness of this basic strategic problem. Both are debating the issue in purely tactical terms: the government arguing, implausibly, that the troops are being adequately supported; the opposition now saying, even more implausibly, that sending more of them into the same quagmire will fix things.
Almost by definition, if you ask military experts a question you will get military answers: more tanks, helicopters, artillery, whatever. But if the problem is fundamentally political, those answers are not so much wrong as beside the point.
Unfortunately, there’s very little Australia on its own can do about the political problem. We have no independent leverage in Afghanistan, and Washington at best will listen politely to our advice. Moreover, telling Obama that he needs to find a political solution to the war would hardly be telling him anything he doesn’t already know.
But Obama is also constrained by politics: in his case a difficult mid-term election and an opposition, supported by some in the military, that paints him as disloyal for even tentatively moving towards a troop withdrawal.
Not for the first time, Abbott has chosen to replay some of the worst themes of the American right: a blind allegiance to the most bellicose elements and the corollary that “supporting the troops” means escalating the conflict and killing more of them, rather than saving their lives by bringing them home.
Australia, however, is not the US, and our lack of influence is also an opportunity. We can simply pack up and leave Afghanistan, as other countries have done, and no-one else will much notice or care.
It won’t be a game-changer, but at least young Australians would no longer be dying for no good cause.