In 2001, the then government committed Australia to sending troops to Afghanistan. Regrettably, unlike the case of Iraq, the major parties were in agreement. Still, it was by government fiat, and against protest around the country, that Australia effectively went to war. The first Australian troops entered combat in Afghanistan in October 2001. In this, Australia joined a conflict in train in Afghanistan long before the USSR (as it then was) invaded in 1979. Britain and Russia had been slogging it out for more than a century in a struggle for assertion of supremacy in the region: the first Anglo-Afghan War ran from 1839 to 1842, the second from 1878 to 1881.
Since 2001, at least 2036 US troops have died in Afghanistan. On 1 July 2012, British deaths (including both police and troops – some Fiji nationals) totalled 422, while for Australia the Department of Defence reports 230 wounded in action and thirty-three 'operational deaths'. Regrettably, albeit unsurprisingly, other countries involved in military action have suffered deaths, too.
Meanwhile, thousands of Afghan civilians have died as a direct consequence of military action – both foreign (including Australian troops' action) and insurgent, as well as the deaths of 'possibly tens of thousands of Afghan civilians indirectly' through 'displacement, starvation, disease, exposure, lack of medical treatment, crime and lawlessness resulting from the war'. The vast bulk are women and children, particularly girls, who are also subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence and abuse as a part of the conflict, sometimes also resulting directly in death.
In April 2012, Australia's Prime Minister announced a new schedule for withdrawal of Australian troops from Afghanistan, saying troops would 'begin pulling out this year and most would be home by the end of 2013'. This withdrawal is to begin 'once Afghans [take] on responsibility for security in Uruzgan province', the base for most Australian military. The pull-out is scheduled to take 'between twelve and eighteen months' and, when complete, 'Australia's commitment in Afghanistan will look very different to that which we have today'.
The Prime Minister said that after 2014, Australia would make a 'fair share' contribution to international aid and military funding for Afghan security forces. She added that Australia is 'also prepared to consider maintaining a limited number of troops' and 'would commit to helping train Afghan forces'.
Withdrawal from Afghanistan will please many Australians, hundreds of thousands of whom marched against deployment and war in the first place.
Yet Australia's responsibility goes beyond the question of military funding and training Afghan forces. Indeed, one may question this arm of the pledge to a 'fair' contribution, lacking any vision of a conflict-free Afghanistan, which surely must be the desire of the vast bulk of the Afghan population.
The nod to international aid gives some hope of real reconstruction – involving civilians and civil services, public sector support and multi-facetted assistance for ending the conflict. Reconstruction must be envisioned beyond a military philosophy and practice and notions of 'security' being an extension of this. Surely upon exiting, having engaged in belligerent action, 'mopping up' ought not to be seen as simply leaving the country on a continued war-footing? The people of Afghanistan are tired of war, killing, conflict, death, destruction and mayhem. The skills of those outside the military are what are needed, rather than more of the same.
The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in Denmark has directed its attention to reconstruction upon Denmark's withdrawal from Afghanistan. WILPF has given the Danish government notice of its responsibilities arising out of its commitment to UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (SCR 1325).
Like Denmark, Australia is a signatory to Resolution 1325. A wise government would recognise the fundamental importance of its provisions in post-war (as it may be hoped) Afghanistan.
SCR 1325 is premised upon the involvement of women in resolution of conflict and all negotiations to end conflict. Amongst other provisions, SCR 1325 urges Member States to:
… ensure increased representation of women at all decision-making levels in national, regional and international institutions and mechanisms for the prevention, management, and resolution of conflict;…
… increase their voluntary financial, technical and logistical support for gender-sensitive training efforts, including those undertaken by relevant funds and programmes, [including] the UN Fund for Women and UN Children's Fund, and by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other relevant bodies …
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.