Afghanistan war

The view from Billinudgel

Afghanistan: When Will We Ever Learn?

So the Australian troops are packing up their base at Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan province and preparing to leave Afghanistan. And not before time.

Going into Afghanistan was always a bad idea: not as bad an idea as going into Iraq, or into Vietnam, or into the Great War (think Gallipoli and the Somme) or even into the Boer War (think Breaker Morant), but a bad idea all the same.

Of course, it didn’t look so bad at the time. Sure, our real aim in getting involved was, as usual, to cosy up to the Americans, but unlike Iraq and Vietnam the Afghanistan adventure had the imprimatur of the United Nations and we were in reasonably respectable company. And, most importantly, we thought we had a clear and limited mission: to break up Al Q’aeda’s power base, and to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. We were not, John Howard assured us, going to get involved in another open-ended involvement which would bog down for years.

But of course we did. While Al Q’aeda’s bases were dismantled relatively easily its backers, the Taliban, were not. And so what was supposed to be a quick, clean intervention morphed into yet another war of liberation – we were there to remake the country as a western ally, which we didn’t and couldn’t. History shows that wars of liberation can only be driven from the inside, not by the invasion of foreigners, and especially not foreigners who have almost nothing in common with the culture of place they are seeking to reform.

So, after 11 futile years and the cost of 39 Australian lives and Allah knows how many Afghan ones, we are leaving a corrupt and inept regime in Kabul surrounded by a country dominated by Taliban outposts and self-interested war lords and an economy which has returned to its traditional reliance on the opium trade. Some legacy.

Of course the Australians troops did some good – even a lot of good – while they were there. Living conditions improved across the province, especially for women. But the foreigners were always seen as infidels and increasingly as invaders, and after nearly 11 years their continued presence had become a cause for resentment and division among the locals. And when they leave, there can be little doubt that the country will swiftly return to open war, with a Taliban victory likely and even if that can be avoided, a general relapse into the skirmishing between feudal fundamentalists that has been the pattern for hundreds of years.

And in the end what was the point of it all? Well, Osama bin Laden is dead, killed not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan, a nuclear power which has now been destabilised to the point where Washington must be wondering if it, too, might need to be liberated. And if that happens, the chances are Australia will be there. When will we ever learn?

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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