The quality, relevance and consequent utility of general public debate concerning Australia’s military commitment to the UN-endorsed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is often problematic at best.
Commonplace arguments against Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan tend to suffer from a factual deficit. Arguments for the commitment tend to suffer from a conceptual one.
This is not much different from wider public argument about how Australia is best defended now and in the future — and for much the same reasons.
Unlike the world wars, our small, professionally based, military effort in Afghanistan does not involve or affect Australians on a mass or national community basis. Unlike Vietnam, there is not even some wider involvement through selective conscription and community-based opposition to it.
More generally, most Australians only think about their defence force on Anzac Day and then only in an ahistoric sense. We think about contemporary and future defence and strategic challenges even more rarely, even where this involves current wars and their implications.
Very few Australians (especially those not of a recent immigrant background) now have any experience of military service or war, and even most extended family discussions of defence matters lack such input. The commonsense and trusted personal observations of older generations who fought in or lived through World War II are no longer with us, no matter whether their counsel would be for or against the Afghanistan commitment.
Public opinion is therefore mainly shaped by media coverage. But modern media coverage of defence issues and war in Australia is now mainly by generalist journalists, often political correspondents, rather than experts in the field (as with business, health or scientific journalism). Unlike previous wars, we also no longer have the valuable input from dedicated and experienced war correspondents who deploy with the troops for long periods and gain a thorough grasp of the trends and situations in play.
With a few individual exceptions (Brendan Nelson, John Faulkner), the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments have all led public debate on our Afghanistan commitment badly and complacently. Parliamentary opposition by the Australian Democrats and especially the Greens has also been ideological rather than evidence-based. No Democrat or Green senator has even visited Oruzgan Province.
Australia has very few genuine academic experts on Afghanistan and even fewer without ethnic or religious irons in the fire. Professor Bill Maley from ANU is almost the only one able to provide objective comment based on considerable and wide-ranging research in Afghanistan over decades.
The overall result is now a general lack of shared community experiences and memories about how Australia fought and coped with its previous wars, exacerbated by poor knowledge about Afghanistan in general and the situation there in particular. Rather than applying informed or cautious judgment, arguments for or against the Afghanistan War therefore tend to use frames of reference based more on emotion, sympathy for bereaved defence force families, ideology and even defeatist apathy. Historic examples, often based on popular mythology, also abound on either side of the debate, but more so among the war’s opponents.
Warfare is also dynamic and arguments for or against the Afghanistan War often ignore this through hidebound insistence on supposed certainties and the moral self-regard of the proponent. Debating points that might have been valid in the past might not be so now, and vice versa.
We are now in a dangerous situation for any liberal democracy at war. Our troops on the ground have an indisputably better belief in the worth of their mission, and a much better understanding of the situation in Afghanistan, the principles at stake and what their presence means at village-level on the ground in Oruzgan Province, than most public opinion back home in Australia. Much public opposition to the war remains markedly uninformed and often arrogantly comfortable in remaining so. Supporters of the commitment, even where better informed, are often just as complacent.
Finally, unlike flawed, context-free, largely ignorance-fuelled opinion polling that simplistically asks only whether we should withdraw from Afghanistan or not, a key question for any informed debate is surely what would be the strategic risks and consequences if we do?