Grattan on Friday: Mixed legacy from war more popular with politicians than public

Tony Abbott made his first trip to Afghanistan as prime minister earlier this week. AAP

Sometimes you wonder about our priorities. Compare the vast attention on politicians’ misuse of entitlements with the limited discussion, as most Australian troops prepare to depart, about the rights and wrongs of our commitment in Afghanistan, a war that has cost us 40 lives and billions of dollars.

There has always been bipartisanship about this war, and that has blunted debate. When Tony Abbott on Monday made the last prime ministerial visit to the troops, Bill Shorten was there too.

Abbott’s speech was unadorned and realistic. “Australia’s longest war is ending, not with victory, not with defeat, but with we hope an Afghanistan that’s better for our presence here,” he said.

“This is a bitter sweet moment for Australia. Sweet because hundreds of soldiers will be home by Christmas; bitter because not all Australian families have had their sons, fathers and partners returned. Sweet because our soldiers have given a magnificent account of themselves; bitter because Afghanistan remains a dangerous place despite all that has been done.”

While this has been Australia’s longest war, it has had virtually no impact on the national psyche. Compare Vietnam, that cost 500 lives and involved a divisive partisan battle over conscription. For many young Australians, Vietnam defined their politics.

The politicians did not agonise over the Afghanistan conflict in the way they came to do about Vietnam. And soon the Abbott government is expected to slice the planned aid for the country, as part of its wider package of aid cuts. There are unlikely to be too many serious qualms.

Vietnam was a lost war. We will know only in retrospect whether Afghanistan is another “lost” war. Probably it will be seen as part won, part lost. The country’s potential as a base for terrorism has been destroyed or greatly reduced. But the departure of foreign forces will see the Taliban strengthened and some civic progress reversed. The situation of women and girls will almost certainly become harder.

Whatever other high-sounding motives were invoked, the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments primarily supported this war because of the alliance with the US. We are leaving because the Americans are leaving.

It was inevitable (and right) that Australia joined the coalition after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks. It was more difficult to make a case for involvement later – except as dues to the alliance and identification with other like-minded countries. That may be a reasonable national interest justification – we just should not kid ourselves that Australia’s main motive was anything else.

Notably, there was one break in the commitment. John Howard pulled the troops out in 2002 - putting Australia in a better position to contribute to the Iraq war in 2003.

Even though the war in Afghanistan wasn’t a domestic political battleground (apart from the Greens’ dissent) the Australian public turned against it. The Lowy 2013 poll found 61% thought the war “not worth fighting”; only 35% thought it was.

Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at ANU, is a long time critic. He calls for a much more searching debate about the reasons we have fought this war, and more information about why, after only a few Australian deaths early on, the casualty rate sharply increased later.

White is blunt in arguing that the 40 lives have been “wasted” in this conflict; “there is no reason to believe we’ve made a permanent difference”.

Australia plans to keep a small number on after the bulk of the troops leave. But White (currently visiting the US) says the American negotiations for some of their troops to remain after their main draw down are not going well - he predicts that if the Americans pull everyone out, so will Australia.

Ric Smith, a former head of the Defence department who finished four years as special envoy for Afghanistan in April, paints the engagement as a very complicated story.

“What was done in 2001 had to be done. The policy framework was absolutely right.” But, he says, the Americans were running the show and that meant they and the international community tried to get Afghanistan to go “a full nine yards of democracy in one hit.

"They went in one jump from the Taliban to full-on democracy. That’s a big ask.”

Despite the 2002-05 break, Smith argues that Australia had to stay involved. Given our place in the international community, “once we were in, we had no choice but to remain – the only choices were about the roles and the size of our presence.”

Initially, Australia had a small contingent of special forces; later it broadened its operations into reconstruction, training and mentoring as well as fighting - with its work concentrated in the Oruzgan province - and increased its numbers to some 1550.

Smith believes the future in Afghanistan will be messy, with security problems and the Taliban reasserting its authority in a portion of the country. “It won’t go back to 2001,” he says. But “it won’t be the outcome we all aspired to.”

John Cantwell, commander of the Australian forces in Afghanistan in 2010, predicted this week that things would get rough over the coming years and there would be headlines “that will cause us to go ‘gosh, was that really what we committed ourselves to and lost those soldiers for?”.

“But we’ve got to take some comfort … despite the losses we’ve endured, that while we were there Australian men and women did a wonderful job and made life a little better for long suffering Afghan people who needed all the help they could get. And whether it goes backwards, we can’t really be accountable for that.”

In considering Australian participation, the micro picture has to be separated from the macro, the troops’ good works from the cost-benefit ledger of the commitment from 2005.

As soon as the big picture comes into view, it is a reminder that Australia hasn’t usually chosen its wars.

There is not a lot of optimism about Afghanistan’s future from supporters or opponents of the commitment, just considerable relief that it’s more or less over.

Listen to ALP National Secretary George Wright on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.

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