September 01, 2012
BY THE standards of past wars, the loss of five soldiers in a day is not a high death toll. But those standards are of generations ago, not today. The deaths of five Australian soldiers on a single day - two killed in a helicopter accident, three shot treacherously by a soldier from the Afghan forces they were training, with two others wounded - will shock a country that is not accustomed to sacrifice on this scale.
For odd historical reasons, Australia invests a great deal of emotional capital in its modest military engagements. The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, recalled the losses at Long Tan in the Vietnam War in characterising the scale of the latest casualties. The two cannot really be compared - but no matter.
The death of a soldier in any era is a disaster for friends and family. Each of the most recent deaths will be equally keenly felt and mourned by a country that has the highest respect for the courage, skill and professionalism of its soldiers. That soldiers sent to help a damaged country return to order, peace and growth can be attacked by those supposed to be their allies will mystify and anger all Australians.
But the understandably emotional reaction to the deaths, particularly the three so-called green on blue killings at patrol base Wahab in Oruzgan province, should not cloud thinking about Australia's involvement in Afghanistan.
The shock should induce a healthy questioning of policies. That is all the more true even though it suits the interests of the Taliban, whose tactic is to use the plight of the individual soldier killed in terrorist attacks to undermine morale at home for the foreign forces occupying the country.
Though the Taliban's ideology is repugnant to Western ideas - as it is to many Afghans who suffered under Taliban rule - its dominance of large areas of Afghanistan is a fact of life with which the coalition forces have to deal. That the US and the Kabul government of Hamid Karzai have been engaged in negotiations with the Taliban is proof that the reality on the ground is recognised, even though the idea of compromise with the enemy is still so sensitive that those on each side of the talks are reluctant to acknowledge the talks publicly.
For Western governments such as Australia's the problem remains what it has always been: that the conflict and the issues behind it are completely unclear. The Karzai government our forces support has little more claim to legitimacy than the forces arrayed against it. The lack of a central authority - a situation so typical of failed states such as Afghanistan - makes fundamental questions extraordinarily difficult to answer. What will a victory look like? How will it be defined? Is the side supported by the coalition forces really the best to govern the country? Does it have the support of a majority of the population? The more doubt on questions such as these, the harder it is for governments - politicians - to persuade the communities supplying the men and women who fight that the sacrifice is worthwhile.
In the capitals of coalition countries, enthusiasm for the Afghan project is waning. The Dutch have gone. France is pulling out earlier under its new socialist president. Australia, as the Prime Minister reaffirmed yesterday, will stay the course. What that means is: we will not leave immediately. Rather, like the US, we will wait for the clock to tick down and the set timetable to run out. Then, at the pre-set end of the mission, it can be declared accomplished, and all troops withdrawn. If the central government collapses after that, it is no concern of the West. The focus has moved from Afghanistan to Western capitals. It is no longer a question of achieving strategic goals but of giving political and emotional cohesion to an enterprise for which hundreds have laid down their lives.
Its cynicism matches the war-weariness of Western electorates who have seen years of involvement bring some progress to Afghanistan, but not enough to compensate for the lives and treasure lost. And even with the fixed timetable and limited goal, it is inevitable that the longer the coalition stays in the country, the more it must turn from a friend to an occupying enemy to many Afghans.
Foreign intervention was always going to have a limited useful life. The longer foreign forces stay, the less good they can do. Perhaps the way forward for the Australian presence in Afghanistan is to reduce the amount of active patrolling and training that places them openly at risk, and in the time remaining to them in the country to concentrate on roles that support the security of the Kabul government. It will not eliminate the risk of further casualties but it may reduce it - to a level matching the remaining enthusiasm Australians have for this long war.
WITH Father's Day tomorrow, readers' minds will naturally be turning to thoughts of leaf blowers. May we, in all humility, offer a word of friendly advice. Don't. We have nothing against garden implements in general - far from it. A hoe or fork has much to commend it. But devices which incorporate a small petrol engine have an especially hateful quality which few fathers have been nasty enough to deserve. Those who genuinely dislike their father (we speak theoretically here, because that could not be true of any Herald reader) could take a leaf from the book of whoever lumbered Vladimir Putin with all his appalling presents. As we reported this week, Russia's President has acquired an array of pointless luxuries of biblical awfulness. He has 20 palaces and retreats, a yacht worth about $40 million equipped with an artificial waterfall (so comforting during storms at sea!), watches worth more than $600,000, and 58 aircraft, including an Ilyushin jet the bathroom of which has gold fittings and a lavatory worth $75,000. We have no information on how many of these gewgaws were acquired on Father's Day, but it is clear, so great is the mound of these disasters surrounding him, that if even a small percentage were, he must have failed those who loved him far too often. A $75,000 lavatory is a fitting punishment for many, many crimes.