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Leaving Afghanistan will have consequences

By Chris Lewis - posted Friday, 5 November 2010


There has been substantial criticism of Australia's involvement in Afghanistan, a discussion rightfully concerned about harm to Australian soldiers, including 21 killed.

The independent MP, Andrew Wilkie, a former security analyst, declares that the mission "to protect Australia from terrorism is a great lie peddled by both the government and opposition".

Bruce Haigh, the former diplomat, argues that "if Australia was serious about reducing the threat of terrorism it would withdraw "given that allied troops" are seen as an army of occupation, a cause of harm and instability, and that Australia's presence is only to serve favour with the US in the case that Australia was attacked.  

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Others even note that Pakistan is playing "America and her allies for fools" by taking billions of dollars from Washington to fight terrorism yet giving "clandestine advice and support to the Taliban and tolerates the presence of Al Qaeda's leaders".

But Prime Minister Gillard's recent declaration that Australia will need to stay engaged in Afghanistan in some form for at least another decade is correct, notwithstanding the debate over whether and when troops should be withdrawn.

As Gillard declares, "Australia had two vital interests in Afghanistan: to make sure it never again became a haven for terrorists and to stand by the alliance with the US".

The 2009 publication America's Security Role in a Changing World provides considerable evidence to support ongoing involvement given that leaving Afghanistan to its fate could threaten Pakistan, a nation with an estimated 100 nuclear warheads that is already vulnerable to Islamofascism.

Despite the Afghan National Army developing in size and capacity aided by training from the US (and others), the justice system (as of September 2009) was so corrupt it was almost non-functional.

There is also the reality of how unstable and dangerous Afghanistan could become given that unemployment was around 60 per cent and living standards were further complicated by increasing food and fuel prices.

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Take the 45 million Pashtuns who live in Afghanistan and Pakistan, representing about 40-50 per cent of Afghanistan's population and 15-20 per cent of Pakistan. After three decades of conflict in the Pashtun borderlands, puritanical Sunni clerics and Islamist militant commanders have become more powerful than the traditional secular tribal and political leadership.

The potential of Pashtuns to become terrorists has many reasons. First, one million Pashtun lives have been lost to conflict over the past 30 years. Second, Pashtuns are one of the world's largest displaced populations and have had most of their social and political institutions undermined or destroyed. Third, Pashtuns rank amongst the most underdeveloped people in the world in terms of life expectancy, literacy, employment, food security, and rule of law.

While millions of Pashtun workers form a large part of the expatriate underclass in the oil-rich Gulf states (Dubai and Kuwait), little of the funds sent home are funneled into the generation of further wealth or social needs (such as building schools and clinics). Such money is often used to alter traditional village power relationships or even provide the means to use force to resolve inevitable ensuing feuds.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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