All Quiet on the Australian Front on Role in Afghanistan

MELBOURNE, Australia – The lack of debate here concerning Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan is unlikely to change in the near future despite the recent deaths of five Australian Defense Force (ADF) personnel in the war-ravaged nation.

Three commandos died on Jun. 21 in a helicopter crash in Kandahar province while two soldiers were killed by an improvised explosive device in Uruzgan province on Jun. 7. 

Their deaths bring the number of Australian losses in the long-running conflict to 16, with more than 100 injured. 

Australia’s media have provided extensive coverage of the latest casualties, with the news dominating the front pages of the country’s daily newspapers as the stories broke. 

But it is only when spikes in ADF losses occur that such coverage, including the questioning of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan, is devoted to the war. 

Australia is the leading non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) contributor to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – which was established to secure long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan – with around 1,500 troops on the ground at any given time. 

Yet with only a relatively small number of ADF deaths in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, front-page headlines like "A Very High Price to Pay," which Australia’s most widely read paper, ‘The Herald-Sun’, declared the day after the three commandos died, have been rare. 

During the long periods where the ADF has not experienced fatal losses, the questioning of Australia’s war effort has been relatively muted. Only occasionally has the mainstream media raised the issue. 

One writer that has consistently questioned Australia’s role in Afghanistan, as well as highlighting the lack of debate surrounding this country’s involvement in the war, is lawyer Kellie Tranter. 

In an opinion piece published by The Age newspaper in April, Tranter bemoaned the paucity of media debate in addition to similar silences in parliament and on the streets of Australian towns and cities. 

In an interview with IPS, she says this general silence could be challenged by parliamentary debate. 

"Parliamentary debate will generate media interest, and with media interest the public becomes more informed," says Tranter, also a member of the advisory panel to Business and Professional Women International’s standing committee on the environment and sustainable development. 

But there was no debate or green light from parliament when former prime minister John Howard announced Australia’s commitment to the U.S.-led coalition three days before the bombing of Afghanistan commenced on Oct. 7, 2001, and there has not been any since. 

Under Australian law, parliamentary approval is not required for the government to deploy forces or declare war. 

And with both the governing Australian Labor Party and conservative opposition supporting the military’s continuing deployment to Afghanistan, a formal debate does not appear likely any time soon. 

However, there have been attempts, albeit unsuccessfully, by representatives of the small Australian Greens party to formally debate Australia’s role in Afghanistan in parliament. 

As it stands, members of parliament wishing to express dissenting views have only occasional opportunities to do so, such as by responding to the infrequent ministerial statements of defense minister John Faulkner. 

This is despite recent evidence showing that an increasing majority of Australians want the ADF out of Afghanistan. 

A poll conducted in March and released in May by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, found that 54 percent of respondents want Australian forces withdrawn from Afghanistan, up from 46 percent in 2007. 

A more recent survey, conducted by Essential Media Communications, a public affairs, research and social marketing firm, in the week to Jun. 21, showed that 60 percent believe the government should bring the troops home, up from 50 percent in March last year. 

However, such opposition has not resulted in widespread, active protest, and Tranter is not surprised. 

"On a personal level, I don’t know anyone who supports the war but I could count on one hand the number of people I know who are actually doing anything about it," Tranter says. 

Tranter believes that this is due to a "feeling of individual powerlessness, exacerbated by the 24-hour news cycle helping citizens digest, then forget, sanitized versions of human horrors; by the modern introverted psychology promoted by selfishness, advertising and lack of community; and most of all by the fact that the major parties join together to smother true debate." 

Tranter has also written of apathy being a factor in the lack of public protest, and as the war nears its nine-year mark, Australian authorities will be banking on both powerlessness and apathy among the public, much like their counterparts in other ISAF member nations. 

A confidential memo from the United States’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released by WikiLeaks, an organization facilitating the anonymous leaking of information, reveals CIA concerns that increased fighting in Afghanistan could undermine the apathy that some NATO members, particularly Germany and France – the third and fourth largest contributors to ISAF – have relied upon to increase their troop levels in the country. 

The memo, dated Mar. 11, also warns "that a spike in French or German casualties or in Afghan civilian casualties could become a tipping point in converting passive opposition into active calls for immediate withdrawal." 

For Australia, ISAF’s tenth biggest contributor, a similar situation prevails. 

But the outcomes of inquiries into civilian casualties at the hands of ADF personnel and the imminent withdrawal of Dutch forces – to which most of the Australian deployment is attached – will only be factors in galvanizing passive opposition here into widespread debate and protests if the ADF sustains continuing and increased personnel losses. 

The Australian government is aware that such a casualty increase would further weaken its position, particularly as a general election approaches. 

This week’s announcement by defense minister Faulkner that U.S. forces will take the leading role in Uruzgan when the Dutch contingent departs comes as no surprise. 

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Stephen de Tarczynski

Stephen de Tarczynski writes for Inter Press Service.