It was a sombre day in Canberra as yesterday heralded the opening of Australia’s first parliamentary debate into the war in Afghanistan.

With a war nearly a decade old, there was a lot to discuss, from how long Australian troops are expected to be there, to our role in building Afghanistan’s democracy.

Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott gave speeches (the full text of the former is here and the latter here), with Gillard talking up Australia’s role in training Afghanistan’s national police force, which will continue until at least 2014, but probably for another decade:

If the insurgency in Afghanistan were to succeed, if the international community were to withdraw, then Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for terrorists. Al-Qa’ida’s ability to recruit, indoctrinate, train, plan, finance and conspire to kill would be far greater than it is today, and the propaganda victory for terrorists worldwide would be enormous.

We expect this support, training and development task to continue in some form through this decade at least. Our mission in Afghanistan is not nation-building. That is the task of the Afghan Government and people. With international aid and development, we will continue to help were we can, but entrenching a functioning democratic Afghan state could be the work of a generation of Afghan people.

Abbott spoke of the injustices of the Taliban and the prospect of democracy in Afghanistan:

At nine years and counting, compared to just six years for World War Two, the Afghan campaign has lasted for what seems like an eternity but this is not a conventional war. It’s not a war against a government but against the violent manifestations of a pernicious ideology. A case could doubtless be made for relying on stand-off weapons to suppress any renewal of terror bases… Cruise missiles and drones, though, can’t make the case for democracy, for pluralism, and for the universal decencies of mankind.

In a way that even the smartest weapons can’t, soldiers on the ground can distinguish between people who are hostile, and those who are not; between those who might not themselves accept Western customs but have no particular axe to grind against us, and those convinced that the Western way of life is a satanic perversion. If properly trained and supported, soldiers on the ground can be peacemakers as well as war-fighters. They can be builders as well as warriors. Trying to keep Australians safe from terrorism doesn’t just mean killing terrorists. It means engaging with the societies that might otherwise be terrorist breeding grounds.

Australia’s mission in Afghanistan is still to suppress the threat of terrorism. It’s still to be a reliable member of the Western alliance but it’s also to build a society where merely to be different is not to risk death. By resisting those who would impose on all a particular version of Islam, our soldiers are asserting the universal right to a society where women are not discriminated against, dissent is not a capital crime and religion is more a reproach to selfishness than an instruction manual for everyday life.

Brendan Nicholson at The Australian noted Gillard’s pragmatism: “There was a serious touch of realism in Julia Gillard’s assessment that Australia was likely to have a role in Afghanistan for 10 more years.” Gillard’s “surprise admission” that Aussie troops may be there for a decade was part of her “brutal assessment” of Australia’s involvement in the war, reported Simon Benson in The Daily Telegraph. But when Gillard announced it would be another decade “something approaching a chill settled over the chamber”, says Tony Wright in The Age.

Finally they see eye-to-eye on something, writes Phillip Hudson in the Herald Sun:

“In the two months since the election delivered a hung parliament, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have hardly agreed on anything.But yesterday they were in lockstep that Australia will not retreat from Afghanistan, despite the growing unpopularity of the war and the rising death and injury toll.”

Their goals may have been similar, but their approaches were different. “Julia Gillard took a workmanlike approach, a dour statement of steps to resolve the conflict. Tony Abbott, by contrast, grasped for a more Churchillian tone, invoking a ‘nobility of purpose’ and an appeal to ‘universal decencies of mankind’,” declares Daniel Flitton in The Age.

“Yet,” notes Peter Hartcher in the Sydney Morning Herald, “both leaders gave their half-hour statements without even mentioning the latest political development — that Afghanistan’s Karzai government is now discussing a political settlement with the Taliban.”

All this talk means little for some, declares Ian McPhedran in the Daily Tele:

“As more politicians rise today in Parliament to posture about the war, the troops doing the hard yards will rise from their dusty swags, have a dingo’s breakfast of a piss and a look about, boil the billy for a brew and get on with the job.”

Today, Greens MP Adam Bandt and Independent MP Andrew Wilkie, both of whom have been fervently opposed to the war and call for Australia’s withdrawal, will address the parliament.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey