The outcry over Abdel Baset al-Megrahi going home to die in Libya and his hero’s welcome there continues, and raises a number of questions.
One of them is why we don’t bomb Libya for three months for harbouring a terrorist mastermind. We did this after 9/11, in a war that continues today.
We haven’t killed the mastermind yet, only scores of thousands of his neighbours, many of them children, but we keep on doing it.
Why aren’t we bombing Libya? Was the Lockerbie atrocity too small an act of terror to punish in this way? Or was the carpet-bombing of Afghanistan for three months, and its armed occupation for seven years, too heavy-handed a response to its government harbouring a criminal there?
And if it was a fair and appropriate response to that government, and we have to think it must have been, why aren’t we bombing, invading and occupying Pakistan, where the mastermind is now?
Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and US President Barak Obama think we are in a just war in Afghanistan, a very just war, a war on a major terrorist organisation and its training camps. Why not bomb, invade and occupy Pakistan and Libya too?
One of the worst legacies of the Bush-Howard-Blair years is this unyielding belief that we should fight a war on an idea by bombing and killing people possessed of that idea with aerial battleships and pilotless rockets firing shells and bullets at buildings with women and children in them.
It’s a belief that has proved, over time, unreliable.
Similar aerial attack did not convert the Londoners to Nazism; nor the Honoluluans to the religion of Bushido; nor the Guernicans to Franco’s fascism; nor the Hiroshimans to Protestant Christianity; nor the Gazans to Judaism. Ways of belief tend not to be changed by acts of war.
Why then are we in Afghanistan? Why are we killing a new generation of young men who believe we are cruel, heathen invaders of their country? Why are we breeding three more generations of suicide bombers? What is the up-side of what we are doing there? Is being there, as most British, Dutch and Canadian soldiers now believe, a mistake? And if it is a mistake, in John Kerry’s fine words, “How do we ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”.
For there is some evidence it is a huge mistake, this idea that killing men, women and children, and old men and old women, and goats and dogs and chickens, and immolating poppy fields in a country that is not your own is a useful way to win hearts and minds to our democratic ideals.
It was not found to be useful in Vietnam, where America lost. It was not found to be useful in Korea, where America lost. It was not found to be useful in Nicaragua, Cuba, Chile and Bolivia, where America lost. It seems thus far that it did not help in Iraq, which America is now creeping out of, all its allies having left, with its tail between its legs.
And yet it persists in Afghanistan, where the prospects of anything that might be called “victory”, or even “peace with honour”, or even “phased withdrawal”, are widely thought unlikely in less than 100 years.
Why are we in Afghanistan?
In answering this, it is worth distinguishing between two kinds of war. One is a war to throw out a country’s unwelcome invader, as was the war in Kuwait that threw out the invading Iraqis, and the war in France and Holland and Russia that threw out Nazi Germany. This can be easily described as a “just war”.
Another is a war within a country fought by different sects of its people, a civil war, as was the Tutsi-Hutu war in Rwanda, or the Gaza war (and it was a war) in Israel, and the Shi’ite-Sunni war in Iraq, and the Taliban-Karzaist war in Afghanistan. This kind of war it is mostly wise to stay out of.
Supposing Britain had intervened, as it thought it might, on the Confederate side in the American Civil War. Would that have been a wise thing to do? Despite the many ties of blood and culture and commercial interest between the old country and the new? Would the capture and execution of Abraham Lincoln by crack British troops have helped win the North’s hearts and minds in that war? It seems unlikely.
Did the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein likewise help in the recent war? Ask any Baghdad child with his legs blown off by a Sunni lately.
Why are we in Afghanistan? Do we share a common culture? No. Can we change their culture to ours? No. Can we win there? No; not with the numbers we’re deploying. Can we form a coalition government with the moderate wing of the Taliban? There is no moderate wing of the Taliban.
Have we improved things for the few Afghan people whose lives we control? Yes, quite a few in fact, but not the ones we killed or mutilated, or their mothers and sisters who grieve and care for them, who are numbered in their millions. And not the farmers whose poppy fields we burn or threaten to burn. Or the religious schools we are closing down. Or the mosques we are bombing on suspicion of who might be in them.
Can we attract one million soldiers from China or Pakistan to fight on our side? No. Can we attract one million European or African soldiers to fight on our side? No. A million Russians? No. Are we bound to lose, then? Looks like it.
Why are we in Afghanistan? Why are we asking, probably, one of our Australian soldiers to be the last man to die for a mistake? George Bush’s mistake? George Bush’s need to be at war with someone on that dire day of the toppling towers? George Bush’s foolish idea that you bomb a country because a bad man might be in it, and you flatten and burn that country until he comes out with his hands up, even after he isn’t in that country any more. Just as we bombed Argentina till Hitler came out with his hands up. Well, gee, it worked that time.
Why are we in Afghanistan? Can we fill a football stadium full of roaring Afghans keen that we stay there?
Can we do that next week?
Why are we in Afghanistan? To save the United States, as John Howard suggested, from one more international humiliation? Looks like it. But why should that matter now, now that six billion people already think George Bush a fool?
Let us do an exercise.
Let us imagine that General Suharto accused Australia in 1986 of harbouring the terrorist mastermind Jose Ramos Horta, in Parramatta, Sydney, which was true, and demanded we “give him up”.
Let us imagine Prime Minister Hawke refused to do so. Let us imagine Suharto, then, declaring a “war on terrorism”, bombed Darwin, Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney flat and set up a puppet pro-Muslim government under John Howard, and Bob Hawke’s Labor cabinet, retreating to Albury, directed aggressive incursions against the usurpers.
Let us imagine helicopter gunship raids against “suspected Hawkists” in Albury, Wollongong, Nowra, Melbourne, Bathurst and Armidale in the next seven years killed, oh, about 100,000 Australians, including 20,000 children and injured and mutilated 70,000 more.
Let us further imagine the Indonesian invaders demanded our women wear the berka and our children go to Muslim schools, and the sewerage, hospitals, transport, public safety and market economy got worse not better, and our pig farmers were bombed and immolated because the Koran commands us not to eat swine.
Would we at that point feel friendly towards the Indonesian invaders, declare they had won our “hearts and minds” and turn out gladly to vote for the pro-Muslim puppet Howard in a rigged election in which Bob Hawke was not a candidate?
Would we? Especially when we knew that Jose Ramos Horta had been for three years living safely in New Zealand?
Why are we in Afghanistan? Why is it any business of ours that certain Muslims treat their women badly? So do certain neo-Mormons in Texas; certain Amish in Pennsylvania; certain respected aldermen on Pitcairn Island; and many, many Kenyans like Barack Obama’s father.
But no bombing raids on these outposts of male tyranny have thus far been attempted. Why is this? Can there be some reason? Why do Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd believe it?
Why are we in Afghanistan?
Why do we think that killing Afghans assists their surviving relatives to a better society, a society that will still be there ten years after we leave? Why bomb them at all?
Wouldn’t it be better to give every Afghan family a flat-screen television and ten years subscription to Foxtel, Aljazeera and BBC World, plus 50,000 scholarships to their young adolescent men and women to study at Yale, Princeton, ANU, Monash, Cambridge, Trinity College and the Sorbonne?
Why bomb and mutilate these adolescents instead? Why send in robot rockets to take them out? Why burn their parents’ crops, and force on them a man as corrupt as Karzai, the former oil executive, in elections his opponents believe to be rigged, and forbid our future coalition partners the Taliban to take part in them?
Why do any of this? What friends do we make by doing it? What friends anywhere?
Why are we in Afghanistan? How do we imagine there are friendly Taliban keen to join with our puppet Karzai in government? How do we imagine the Hazaras we sent back there, like the Bakhtiyaris, are grateful that we keep on bombing their vengeful persecutors, and imagine they will treated well by these people when we leave?
Why are we in Afghanistan?
Especially now that Osama bin Laden, target and terrorist mastermind, is alive and well, after all this slaughter, in Pakistan.
Why are we in Afghanistan?