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Oct 5, 2010

Abbott’s real Afghan problem: his minister

The real Afghanistan problem for Tony Abbott lies with his Defence shadow, and a crumbling consensus on what we should be doing in Afghanistan.

While Tony Abbott’s justification for not visiting Afghanistan is the sort of thing that would earn a Labor Opposition leader a week of contumely from shock jock and earnest op-ed writers, it’s a non-issue in the scheme of things. Indeed, there’s something to be said for not having the Prime Minister and the alternative prime minister flying into the same war zone on the same flight.

Nonetheless, the Coalition — or more accurately its Defence spokesman David Johnston — is not being particularly helpful on Afghanistan. There is clearly a difference between Abbott and his shadow minister, with Abbott this morning taking pains to emphasise the bipartisan nature of policy on Afghanistan, rather than endorsing Johnston’s view that the Government should be taking its advice from soldiers on the ground and significantly ramping up our Afghanistan presence, rather than listening to the ADF top brass.

Abbott is wise to do so, because public opinion on our involvement in Afghanistan is strongly opposed to it, and divisions between the major parties are only going to increase the likelihood that public opposition firms up into something more actively hostile to our role.

It’s tempting to see the Coalition as playing politics over our role but Johnston’s comments, after the controversy over a soldier’s email criticising the ADF after the firefight on August 24, might instead — or also — reflect an emerging dispute over the nature of our role in Afghanistan and differences between the Defence hierarchy and soldiers on the ground.

“People assume that because a Digger says something, it’s true, but it’s just one perspective,” Neil James of the Australia Defence Association told Crikey (the ADA has a detailed and very clear account of both the email controversy and the issues it raised). “And your perspective depends on what you think our operational missions should be. If you think our mission should be to secure Oruzgan province and destroy the Taliban, you’ll think we need much higher force levels. If you think our role is to mentor Afghan forces, then you’ll think the force level is about right or needs only a small increase.” (The ADA believes the mentoring force should be increased by about 150 troops).

James also says there’s a generational divide between the ADF hierarchy, who came up during the peaceful years of the 1980s and 1990s, and the current generation of servicemen who have extensive combat experience. “This is more than just a communications problem, which the ADF thinks it is. It’s a cultural problem.”

There’s a growing view — a twist on the much-mocked “good war” thesis — that we should end our role in Afghanistan because the West lost its opportunity to destroy the Taliban and establish a viable Afghan state when we launched the assault on Iraq. Charles Richardson articulated this view in Crikey last week. And yes, Julia Gillard, like Barack Obama and David Cameron and other leaders with forces on the ground in Afghanistan, has to make decisions about our future involvement in that country within the framework of the disastrous strategic blunder of Iraq, which has made a tough war in Afghanistan vastly more difficult. But like those who oppose the war outright, whether on the basis of reflexive anti-Americanism or for any other reason, that argument fails to acknowledge the reality that Australia is currently on the ground in Afghanistan and is playing a specific role that serves the broader strategic rationale for why we participated — correctly — in the removal of the Taliban in the first place, to ensure Afghanistan does not serve as a state sponsor of terrorism on a vast scale. There are no options for Australia’s role in Afghanistan free of serious consequences. The withdrawal of Australian troops would further reduce the already limited prospects for a stable Afghanistan.

Neither side of politics has been able to convincingly argue this strategic rationale to Australians. Perhaps that was an impossible task anyway — judging by the views of Americans and Britons, US and British leaders have been no more successful than John Howard, Kevin Rudd and now Julia Gillard is convincing people that we need to be in Afghanistan. But David Johnston’s efforts only serve to fragment what’s left of the major party consensus about how we fulfill our responsibilities in Afghanistan.

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187 thoughts on “Abbott’s real Afghan problem: his minister

  1. Pamela

    David Johnston is a gift to withdrawal. Let him rip I say. Let him run around picking up tales from every disaffected soldier and then pontificate. The Australian public will wake from their torpor eventually.
    The poor bastards fighting there must hate it and if they are gifted with intelligence, they will know that they are nothing more than a human sacrifice to our friendship with the yanks.
    Who needs such expensive and demanding friends?

  2. shepherdmarilyn

    We spend more time and money jailing the few thousand refugees who get here than we do trying to protect Afghans.

  3. kennethrobinson2

    Not a bad article, but no comment on the pending trial, of the three soldiers, trying to do the impossible.
    If they are going to fight to the rules of engagement drafted by outofdate leaders, and persecuted for the mistakes, then its a shameful day for Australia, as a Viet Vet, regretful as it is collateral damage does happen, people get hurt in stupid, unwinable, other peoples wars.

  4. John Bruce

    In response to KR2, I could not agree more. If the three are to be tried then we should also try every one of their senior commanders up to the CDF. It is war there facing an enemy that follows no rules and exploits every opportunity to put our highly exposed people offside – not that anyone would condone another My Lai. Further, I also do not know how an engagement with heavy weapons being deployed by the Taliban can go on for 4 hours without the allied forces bringing into play all its superior technology such as tagetting drones and heavy firepower. Primafacie, senior management stuffed up and could not or did not provide adequate support and another Australian life was lost.

  5. klewso

    It’s funny – there were “shortages” during the Howard administration too, not near as loudly “reported”, and not near the (“trendy”?) politicisation, from those “on the ground” either?

  6. zut alors

    Two questions:

    1. Is Afghanistan a safer place and does it have an improved quality of life than just under a decade ago?
    2. ditto Iraq?

    If the answers are in the negative, why are we still there?

  7. shepherdmarilyn

    So KR if Afghan soldiers murdered 5 Aussie kids in their beds you would say that was fine?

    Get a grip.

  8. heavylambs

    I’m indifferent to Abbott’s presence/non-presence in Afghanistan.

    What I want to know is what the hell is he doing going to a Tory conference! Is this at public expense,or is it paid for by his party and its membership?

  9. Michael Rynn

    What a stupid unquestioned echoing of the conventional wisdom. Of course Mr Keanes would not be allowed in print, if he did not parrot the conventional views of the Patriotic US ally, such is the constraints on the official conventional media here, even at Crikey. Instead of reflex anti Americanisms, what we get fed every day is a long entrained reflex Americanism, which is very deeply engrained into Mr Keanes and all his journalist peers, who along with our main politicians do not want to offend the powers and media that nurture them and supposedly keep them safe. Crikey also does not take risks of offending. Who would not want to be labelled supporters of a organistation labelled as terrorists, instead of being the anti-ccupation force.

    I find nothing nice about the Taliban, except to say, what kind of environment must they live in that makes their way of life a survival adaptation. What happens in Afghanistan should not be at the determination of US, Russia or Australia. The US was and still is the worlds biggest sponsor of terrorism, conflict , weapons sales, coups, military bases, which has helped to launch Al Queda and backed Osama bin Laden. The CIA has always supposedly aimed to serve US imperial interests, despite appearences of gross incompetence with consequences of blowback. The interests of Afghanistans people have never been considered except for propaganda purposes. After all, why should we care? The evidence of our immigration policies says we do not care, and tells the real truth about how we feel.

  10. Justin

    Interesting article, but I have an issue with “Indeed, there’s something to be said for not having the Prime Minister and the alternative prime minister flying into the same war zone on the same flight.”

    Tony Abbot isn’t the PM in waiting, Wayne Swan is. Having Gilliard and Abbot’s plane crash with loss of all life doesn’t mean the country is leaderless, it means Swan is PM and Bishop is Opposition Leader.

    Abbot isn’t the alternative Prime Minister, the election is over.

    Apart from that, I felt a lot more informed after reading this than before. I appreciate that. I’m now wading through the ADA’s information that was linked to. How on earth do they expect us to keep banging on without a clue in the world if they insist on being calm, rational and informative???

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