One of the key reasons nearly two-thirds of Australians want our troops withdrawn from Afghanistan, and why support for our presence in that country continues to fall, was on display in parliament yesterday, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott made statements on the conflict.
The profound disconnection between voters of all stripes and major party politicians over Afghanistan centres on the absence of any sense of progress, which might justify the steady drip of casualties, justify the lives lost and bodies wrecked, or the nearly $1.7 billion we spend there each year. Gillard and Abbott were at pains to try to signify achievements — roads repaired, girls in school, Afghan soldiers trained. They’re not, ultimately, what voters are interested in, especially given the conviction that all will be lost the moment international forces leave the country.
In truth, Gillard and Abbott can’t point to any concrete demonstrations of progress. Both were quick to cite the death of Osama bin Laden, as if that reflected on the security situation in Afghanistan rather than the Byzantine politics of Pakistan. Beyond that, it’s all about assurances that the Taliban has been seriously damaged.
“Important tactical victories have been won fighting al-Qaeda and degrading jihadist networks; maintaining our momentum against the Taliban — cutting into their ability to control territory and provide sanctuary for terrorist groups,” said Gillard, nebulously.
“The Taliban are finding it more difficult to move around or to directly engage coalition or Afghan troops, so have increasingly resorted to roadside bombs,” said Abbott. We’ve been hearing this line for years. Abbott explicitly ruled out any clear indications of victory, saying Afghanistan would be more like Northern Ireland than WW2. Instead, it’s all about “we will see them through”.
At some point, as the Americans found with Vietnam, the rhetoric becomes the sustaining motivation of politicians overseeing such wars, via commitments to “see it through”, to “stand by our allies”, to “get the job done.”
Ultimately, it isn’t Abbott’s job to convince Australians of the merits of the war. He is absolved of responsibility by his role. Responsibility for the growing disaffection of Australians towards the conflict rests with the government, which has at no stage taken seriously the obligation to continually explain to Australians why sacrifices are being made for Afghanistan. Indeed, until prodded by the Greens, Labor wasn’t even interested in a parliamentary debate on a decade-long conflict. Nor, as WikiLeaks cables revealed, has it been honest with voters on its own pessimism about the conflict.
A single annual debate in parliament is not going to turn around Australians’ views about the pointlessness of our commitment to Afghanistan, or even prevent a further hardening of that view. Much more needs to be done by the prime minister and her foreign and defence ministers to explain the war and why our young men are dying in it.