Australian forces will soon return from Afghanistan and the Diggers will be home for Christmas.
But the war is not over.
The efforts, sacrifices and work done by thousands of Australian soldiers is now perched at the edge of a precipice. On one side waits the Taliban, ready to return to power. On the other side sits poppy-field chaos.
And growing out of the precipice is a thin beanstalk, leading upwards to sunlit pastures and happiness that wafts past in the clouds above.
The US-led International Community believes in the beanstalk. So it’s packing up and heading home.
As someone who spent two Christmases in Iraq, I well know the feeling of anticipation that Australian soldiers and their families are now experiencing. I wish them all a safe and speedy return home.
And the work that they have done over the past decade must be recognised. Indeed, it is only if it is not that decisions can be made to jeopardise their efforts.
From all accounts, Oruzgan province is safer, stronger and more economically viable than just two years ago. Schools, hospitals, roads and an airport have been constructed. Taliban leaders have been killed or captured. Primitive governance structures are in place and the Afghan security forces are growing in confidence.
Forty Australians have given their lives to make this happen.
But these results are not set in stone. It could all unravel. And if it does, it will be a waste.
The responsibility for this will not rest with the soldiers. They have done their duty.
It will fall onto the shoulders of the Australian government, advised by senior military and intelligence leadership, and more directly on NATO and the United States. Especially the United Sates – it is the leader that the rest follow, more or less.
At this point it is too early to declare that Afghanistan has been a failure. But the signs are there. More importantly, no one could conceivably state that is has been a success. There are no signs of that.
So what can we say about Afghanistan and the strategies followed by the West there and in the Middle East over the last decade?
A lot is the answer and most of it is not positive.
So let’s get the good bit out of the way first. Actually, it’s the mostly good bit that’s rapidly fading as the days fly past.
If there is one thing that the Afghan war has proven, it is that the United States remains critical for the Western world. It has the power, will and resources to be a force for good. The European Union and its NATO construct have been ineffectual and useless throughout most of the campaign. There is no will to fight in the Old World, with the exception of Great Britain.
Whatever one thinks about America (and I certainly don’t think much of its current direction), the truth is that it has a will to fight, although this is clearly waning. From being prepared to wage a ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan just a decade ago, the United States relied on aircraft in Libya and is not prepared to do anything in Syria, other than provide arms to anti-government forces. There is a clear progression towards inaction and it has been by quickened by incoherent logic. The good guys in Syria are the bad guys in Afghanistan. That just doesn’t make sense.
And if the US pulls back home, someone else will take their place. Does anyone think an interventionist China will make the world a better place?
A will to fight is vitally important. It is the greatest deterrent of all and a thermometer of a society’s vibrancy. A society without the will to fight does not believe in anything. And, more importantly, throughout human history one group of people have always had the will to fight: the conquerors.
Conquerors is a dirty word. But it should not be. While some are undoubtedly evil, intent on imposing totalitarian rule and pursuing power for its own sake, other conquerors are liberators. And this is important to understand: you cannot liberate without conquest.
Some forms of conquest a peaceful. The triumph of Christianity over paganism in the Roman Empire was largely peaceful, although great violence was done to Christians everywhere in the process.
But mainly conquest must be done with an army.
In Afghanistan, the US military did most of the conquering. Just like in Iraq. Without taking anything away from the efforts of Coalition personnel, it must be understood that it’s a general truth that the other Coalition nations stood by and watched while American soldiers did most of the work and American families suffered for it.
But, as in Iraq, the United States has tired of that work and is packing up. So everyone else is leaving as well.
And, just as violence is increasing in Iraq from a relatively peaceful state that American efforts were able to craft out of chaos, it is likely to do so in Afghanistan as well. Certainly, if I had a dollar to spare, I would not be backing the horse called ‘Peaceful Democratic Afghan Rule’.
That’s the good news. The United States has a weakening will to fight and it’s leaving a war half done. Unfortunately, this is where we get to the bad news.
The war is not won because no one in any military or government hierarchy has the guts to call the enemy what it is.
If today’s generals were fighting Nazi Germany, they would be making outrageous claims that it is only the extreme Nazi that they are after. That Nazism is a peaceful ideology. That those who wage war with the cry ‘Nazism is the Greatest!’ have misunderstood its tenets. That we should be careful not to label all Nazis as violent. That Nazism is just as valid as any other worldview. That it’s important to respect Nazi culture. That we should build schools in which Nazi culture is taught. That it’s fine for self-declared Nazis to emigrate to Australia and campaign for Nazi recognition. And that soldiers should put their lives on the line to construct a state with Nazi ideology embedded first and foremost into its constitution.
They are saying the same thing today. They’ve just replaced Nazi with Islam.
Nazism was a dangerous ideology that had to be defeated just as much on the battlefield as in the mind.
Islam is no different.
But those who have no idea when Mohammad was born say otherwise. Those who have no idea how many battles he fought say otherwise. Those who have never read a Koran but have given orders to treat it with respect say otherwise. And those who claim that Islam is peaceful but have yet been able to use it to build peace say otherwise.
Afghanistan has proven that it is possible to go to war without knowing the enemy or the mission. And it has also proven that it is impossible to win a war in those circumstances.