The argument about Australia’s “moral duty” to stay in Afghanistan usually begins and ends with an invocation of Taliban barbarisms: the human rights abuses, the dictatorial regime, the oppressive legal code, the medieval misogyny, and so on. This, we are told, is what we’re fighting to overcome.

But the real war has nothing to do with that.

Start with the regime we’re helping prop up. Hamid Karzai remains in power primarily because of his prowess at rigging elections. His administration has little support outside Kabul, rests upon blood-stained warlords, and has become a byword for corruption and gangsterism.

The NATO counterinsurgency campaign in place means that, rather than protecting Afghans against Karzai, the US — and by extension, Australia — is actively fostering his abuses. Thus Ahmed Karzai — the President’s brother, a notorious drug lord, the focus of numerous graft allegations and “the most despised man in southern Afghanistan” — has been funded by the CIA for the past eight years.

The Washington Post subsequently suggested that the agency is, in fact, bankrolling numerous members of the Karzai court, despite, as the paper puts it, “concerns that it is backing corrupt officials and undermining efforts to wean Afghans’ dependence on secret sources of income and graft”.

Why? Because the war needs their support — and all other moral considerations are secondary to military imperatives.

The conflict we hear about in politicians’ speeches here — a stirring effort to defeat evil and restore democracy — is largely a fantasy. In fact, the US is increasingly seeing as its best-case outcome some kind of reconciliation with those Taliban prepared to renounce al-Qaeda. You can get a sense of what that might look like from President Karzai’s new “peace council”: the body he has given the responsibility for negotiations with the Taliban. It is headed by the brutal thug Burhanuddin Rabbani, and full of what Rachel Reid from Human Rights Watch calls “names … that Afghans will associate with war crimes, warlordism and corruption”.

In 1997, US diplomats famously assessed the Afghanistan taking shape then: “The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco [the consortium of oil companies that controlled Saudi oil], pipelines, an emir, no parliament and lots of Sharia law,” one said. “We can live with that.”

Something similar is in the offing now.

There are no longer any particularly good outcomes for Afghanistan. An immediate withdrawal will not end the violence. Of course it won’t. But while an end to the occupation is not a sufficient condition for peace, it’s a necessary one.

That is, there will never be anything like normality in Afghanistan so long as foreign powers continue to deform its internal politics. According to Bob Woodward’s new book, the CIA has now established its own 3000-member covert army, roaming Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal regions to conduct secret assassinations. Now, that might make immediate sense as a counter-insurgency strategy. But, in a nation already wracked by warlordism, what will be the long-term results of unleashing yet another heavily-armed paramilitary force?

If we want to take a moral approach to Afghanistan, we might begin with the famous injunction of the Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm.

Everyone knows that much of Afghanistan’s current misery can be traced back to the willingness of the Soviets and the US to fund various groups of cut-throats during the cold war. We’re doing exactly the same today. What makes anyone think the outcomes will be different?

Furthermore, the pernicious consequences of the occupation will not simply be felt in Afghanistan. The US academic Robert Pape has just completed an exhaustive study on the roots of terrorism. He concludes: “We have lots of evidence now that when you put the foreign military presence in, it triggers suicide terrorism campaigns … and that when the foreign forces leave, it takes away almost 100 percent of the terrorist campaign.”

The Afghan campaign is not, in other words, protecting Australians. It is, quite obviously, making terror attacks much more likely.

To be honest, it’s hard to take seriously rhetoric about “moral duties” to the Afghan people, given that the phrase only emerges in the context of inflicting violence.

That is, each time a boatload Afghan asylum seekers appears off the coastline, we’re presented with a case study from Ethics 101. Here are desperate, impoverished people fleeing a conflict that we have instigated, refugees from a nation in which we are one of the occupying powers. In those circumstance, fulfilling an obvious “moral duty” to the Afghan people wouldn’t entail shooting or bombing anyone, merely a modicum of political courage.

Yet, which Labor and Liberal politicians are prepared to countenance massively expanding the refugee program to harbor those fleeing from the Afghan conflagration?

In the Australian context, the word “just” always seems to be appended to the word “war”. That’s because, quite obviously, the Afghan campaign always had much less to do with moral arguments and much more to do with the US alliance.

Everyone knows that if the Americans hadn’t invaded, Australia wouldn’t be in Afghanistan — and that Australia won’t remain for an instant after the US leaves. That’s the elephant in the room for these debates, and it makes pious rhetoric about morality very difficult to swallow.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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