Sunday Age, August 29, 2010
Where there is no information, there is no hope of a meaningful discussion.
IT HAS taken nine years, the deaths of 21 Australian soldiers and a hung parliament, but now our politicians agree: they will have a debate on Afghanistan. The Greens have long called for one; so have former and serving soldiers. Now Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott reluctantly concur.
But now comes the hard part, because many of those agreeing to a debate want the discussion to reach the contradictory conclusions they cling to. The Greens want the troops out now. Gillard and Abbott say any debate will not divert them from their commitment to the war. The soldiers who want a debate appear to be the only ones with open minds, even though they have the most at stake.
If the debate is to go beyond the reiteration of entrenched views, it would help if the government gave us some unadorned facts about what our troops are doing, why they are doing it, and whether it has any chance of success. The last point is the crucial one.
While media commentators say a rising death toll is undermining popular support for Australia's commitment, the evidence is that it is the perception we are not winning - not that Australians are dying - that is the key factor in the war's unpopularity. This disenchantment, reflected in opinion polls, comes despite strenuous efforts by governments and defence officials to restrict the flow of information about our role in the conflict.
An American academic, in an analysis published by the US Army War College, of all places, has tracked the drop in public support for the war in Australia and five other countries with troops in Afghanistan. The academic, Charles Miller, traces declining Australian support back to 2007, when Australia had lost just four soldiers, when the conflict barely rated in public discussion and when it had bi-partisan political backing.
This is the issue governments fail to address. Instead, there is a constant refrain that we are making ''progress'' in our stated aim, which has settled on training Afghan troops so they can take charge of security and we can leave. We do not know what this confidence is based on, nor do we know how politicians decided to cap Australia's contribution at 1500 troops, a number the government says is ''about right''. The politicians dodge the question by saying they're acting on the advice of the generals. Generals, however, operate within politically imposed parameters.
Without facts free of spin, any debate will take place in an information vacuum. We don't know how the government settled on troop numbers, nor is there any detailed explanation of the work the soldiers are doing, the analysis that underpins it and how this will meet the stated aim.
If the promised debate raises questions for the government, it poses diabolical political and ethical issues for the Greens, soon to gain the balance of power in the Senate.
As they lose their political impotence, they will have to ditch their assumed purity.
The Greens' stated policy is for the immediate withdrawal of troops. Beyond that, there is wishful thinking. NSW Green Lee Rhiannon, for instance, reckons our military budget could be spent on aid programs for Afghan women and children. Yes, but who will deliver that aid when the Taliban think aid workers are legitimate targets, as are girls at schools built by foreign aid money?
There are other questions for those advocating unilateral withdrawal. It might not trouble the Greens, but where would it leave our relationship with Barack Obama, or our commitment to the 46 other countries with troops in Afghanistan?
And what about the Afghans who have worked with us? Do we abandon them?
Independent Andrew Wilkie has highlighted the dilemmas in staying, and going.
''It is clear,'' he says, ''that on one hand there needs to be foreign forces in Afghanistan to create the stability to allow the government to establish itself. But on the other hand, it's the very presence of those forces which is fuelling this ongoing war, mostly by nationalists, not by terrorists.
''Ultimately, we have to get out as quickly as we can and let Afghanistan find its own natural political level and a lot of people will die in the process.''
Our soldiers will not have a say in the debate, even if we know what some of them think. Writing on the Lowy Institute's blog in July, an anonymous soldier lamented the failure of politicians and defence chiefs to spell out a detailed, public policy underpinning the campaign.
''That Australians neither understand the war nor why its soldiers' sacrifice is needed in Afghanistan is shameful,'' he wrote.
''The government, ADF and media are all to blame for this ignorance. If we are to risk life and go to war, the policy must be properly articulated. As it stands, the state of Afghan discourse in Australia is emblematic of our commitment to the war effort and Afghan people: token.''
Tom Hyland is The Sunday Age's international editor.