“Freedom is always worth fighting for,” Scott Morrison added yesterday at the end of his remarks on Afghanistan, before Kabul had fallen to the resurgent Taliban. Morrison had just explained that the point of the western intervention in Afghanistan — to “eliminate al-Qaeda’s capacity to stage more attacks against the West from Afghanistan” — had been achieved and “since then, Australia’s efforts, alongside those of the international community, have been designed to lift the capacity and welfare of the Afghan people”.
Afghanistan is hardly Morrison’s war. It’s John Howard’s, with George W. Bush and Tony Blair, along with Iraq, the even greater disaster that drew precious focus away from Afghanistan and ensured that two colossal wars were lost, when one was in the balance. We’ll continue the pay the price for a long time, the price of 41 combat casualties, billions of dollars of wasted money, the degradation of our elite fighting units to war criminal level and the continuing cost of veteran suicide and mental illness. The people of Afghanistan have paid a far more horrific cost and will continue to do so.
Howard, Blair and Bush have never been held to account for their actions — their strategic bungling, their decisions to illegally invade, their confection of spurious evidence to justify the attack on Iraq, their politicisation of the wars for domestic political purposes. But it has been left to Morrison to clean up Howard’s mess, awkwardly explaining that we’d been lifting the capacity and welfare of the Afghan people.
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And fighting for freedom. Until earlier this year when we bailed out on the timetable set by Donald Trump and implemented by Joe Biden because indefinite occupation of Afghanistan — which is ultimately what the remaining neoconservatives and advocates for liberal interventionism want — was not a politically viable strategy, any more than staying in Vietnam was for Nixon and then Ford.
But Morrison isn’t even up to the job of cleaning up after Howard. We’ve failed to help many of the Afghans who helped us during nearly 20 years of occupation. The speed of the collapse of the Afghanistan government took everyone by surprise, but we were dragging our heels long before the events of the last month. Even Howard was moved to comment on the failure. And we’ve dragged our heels on prosecuting the many Australians who, according to the Brereton report, committed war crimes against Afghan people, preferring to put military reputation over justice, knowing full well exactly what the enactment of atrocities does to the chances of any occupying force seriously trying to “lift the capacity and welfare of the people”.
Instead we’ve kept the real world of murders and cruelty by men under our flag in Afghanistan, and tried hard to ignore the growing toll on veterans here, while we frolicked in a fantasy world of military theme parks, government mates, false heroes and politicians wrapping themselves so tightly in the flag the blood stopped flowing to their brains years ago.
A proper accounting of our 20-year role in Afghanistan by Morrison wouldn’t involve some bureaucratic pabulum about lifting capacity but an acknowledgement of the profound bungling that marked Australia’s role in the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions and our willingness to let reflexive loyalty to the Bush administration’s corporation-funded military agenda overshadow our own security. It would recognise the failure of our military to prevent a culture of atrocities developing among our forces, and the lack of justice for its victims, and an evident reluctance to provide sanctuary for those who risked so much — indeed, everything — to help our soldiers.
An acknowledgement of all of these, and a commitment to redressing them where possible, would count for something in dealing with the greatest strategic blunders since Vietnam and restoring some credibility to a government that still utters inanities like “freedom is always worth fighting for”, even as we watch the return of the monsters we declared victory over so long ago.