If you’re on Twitter, you might know @RealTimeWWII, an account that repackages the events of the Second World War in 140 character blocks, as if the Greatest Generation had gone into battle brandishing their iPhones.

The concept provides some perspective on the war in Afghanistan.

If, for the sake of argument, @RealTimeWWII had begun its broadcasts to coincide with the US-led invasion, the account would by now long since have tweeted Hitler’s death and the defeat of the Nazis. The Afghan war has, indeed, now continued long enough for @RealTimeWWII to also document the implementation of the Marshall Plan, the Chinese revolution, the Soviet Union’s successful nuclear tests and Walt Disney’s release of Cinderella.

Meanwhile, here’s what’s happening in Afghanistan, 11 years on: during the recent Taliban incursion, government MPs took to the roof of the parliament to fire automatic weapons at insurgents launching RPGs.

It’s not an image suggestive of imminent stability.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Julia Gillard will today announce that Australian troops could be withdrawn early. Declaring that “the peoples of the world’s democracies are weary of this war”, she will, it seems, promise that Australian forces will withdraw as soon as Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, says that Afghan forces can to take responsibility for Oruzgan province.

While the headline talks of soldiers out next year, in reality, that deadline contains a lot of wriggle room. Notably, it depends on Karzai’s assessment. While Western leaders praised the response of Afghan forces to the recent incursion, the Afghan PM, for obvious reasons, was markedly less effusive.

“The fact terrorists were able to enter Kabul and other provinces was an intelligence failure for us and especially for NATO,” he said.

What’s significant, though, is Gillard’s reference to public sentiment.

This war has been brought to you by both major parties, with a bipartisanship that ensured Parliament didn’t feature a debate on Afghanistan until nine years after the occupation began.

As Monash academic Kevin Foster has noted, with a few honourable exceptions, Australian media coverage of the Afghan war has been scandalous. “The vast majority of the news Australians have received from Afghanistan […], when they have received any at all, has originated with the Department of Defence,” he writes.

More than anything, reporting has been distinguished by its parochialism: Afghanistan usually only makes the front pages of the papers when an Australian soldier dies, even though, as you would expect, the vast majority of the casualties are local.

Symptomatically, last night’s Four Corners episode, while at times genuinely moving, discussed the whys and wherefores of the conflict without once featuring an Afghan on screen: the debate over the future of the country consisted entirely of a discussion between Westerners.

Yet, despite that media failure (Foster argues somewhere that Australians had more access to reporting from the front lines of the Great War than they do about Afghanistan), the Afghan mission has been consistently unpopular with ordinary people for a very long time, presumably because the claim that a localist insurgency on the other side of the world plays any role in menacing the streets of Melbourne and Sydney seems so intuitively silly.

Last night, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, when cross-examined by Kerry O’Brien, seemed to be merely going through the motions, tiredly mouthing the rhetoric about national security because it’s not politically palatable to say what everyone knows — that we’re here because we’re here because we’re here, as the old Diggers song from the trenches had it, committed to the war because of what leaving early might mean for the US alliance.

But now neither Gillard nor Obama has the political capital to stare down public opposition forever. Hence, in Australia and the US, mainstream opinion is shifting to some kind of declaration of victory, sufficient to allow a draw-down.

What will that mean for Afghanistan? One way or another, 11 years later, the Taliban are coming back to power, either via the semi-secret negotiations currently taking place with the US or by direct military takeover.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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