x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Afghan war divides Australia

Australia's participation in the Nato-led operation is unpopular but Canberra insists it is an essential part of the global counter-terrorism effort.

Marlene Obeid, a member of the Stop the War Coalition, a Sydney-based group that has been agitating for change since 2003.
Marlene Obeid, a member of the Stop the War Coalition, a Sydney-based group that has been agitating for change since 2003.

SYDNEY // As Australia beefs up its military force in Afghanistan, anti-war activists have said their efforts against "an imperialist adventure" have led to a surge in opposition to the conflict. Successive opinion polls have shown the government's willingness to support a foreign war of such magnitude has been deeply unpopular with many Australians. The left-of-centre government has acknowledged that the campaign in Afghanistan is dangerous, divisive and far from being over, but is sending an additional 450 troops to central Asia to bolster an existing contingent of 1,100 following a request from the US president, Barack Obama. Opponents have insisted that the deployment of reinforcements is an abuse of power by politicians who have brazenly ignored the will of the majority of Australians. "We believe this is state terrorism of major powers attacking a smaller country," said Marlene Obeid from the Stop the War Coalition in Sydney, a group that has been agitating for change since 2003. Critics of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, under which Australian troops are fighting, have said that although its efforts to crush a protracted insurgency in Afghanistan have intensified, the opium trade has flourished and the population has endured shortages of basic necessities, while the subjugation of women has continued. Ms Obeid said Australia should have no part in a "criminal" war: "We have soldiers there who are killing innocent people. "Australians should care about what our government is doing if they are hurting people overseas. It is morally wrong. We should stand for humanity and solidarity rather than committing crimes and abetting a war of aggression. "As people get more information on what is happening in Afghanistan, they are opposing this war," the Chilean-born activist added. In Australia, the war's detractors are a broad coalition of students, socialists and members of Christian and Muslim organisations as well as ex-servicemen. Gerry Binder, a Vietnam War veteran, represents Standfast, a group of former soldiers, and said the United States will ultimately fail in Afghanistan, just as it did all those years ago in the jungles of South East Asia. "Their counterinsurgency methods in Vietnam did not work," Mr Binder explained from his home in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. "A very small country defeated one of the largest nations on earth. It just united the people against them and they lost and they are doing the same in Iraq and Afghanistan." Mr Binder did two tours in Vietnam, seeing the full brutality of war as a machine-gunner in an infantry section and later as an instructor training the South Vietnamese army. He said Washington was ignoring the painful lessons of history. "In Vietnam, the Americans had completely obliterated a village and a US major said we had to do that in order to liberate the village. It is really a microcosm of what is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are destroying whole countries on the pretext of saving them and it is just insanity." Despite such savage criticism, the Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has remained unyielding. Although Mr Rudd opposed the war in Iraq, he said there would be disastrous consequences if the fight in Afghanistan was lost. "If allied forces fail in Afghanistan, there is a grave risk that the world will see a return to the intensity of terrorist activity emanating from that country prior to 2001," he warned. "I fear that more Australians will lose their lives in the fight that lies ahead." Ten Australian soldiers have died in Afghan combat. Canberra's military effort is concentrated in southern Uruzgan province, where it is training local security units, while its special forces have been engaged in some of the bloodiest battles of the campaign against the Taliban. To boost levels of support, the Rudd government has been urged to explain in greater detail its intentions in the war zone to a sceptical public back home. Neil James, executive director of the Australia Defence Association, an independent think tank, said the goals of the Nato-led mission must be made clear. "There is a little bit of softening in the opposition to the war in Afghanistan," Mr James said. "It might have something to do with the fact that the public debate here in Australia is becoming a bit more informed and most of the vehement opposition to the war tends to come from people who get their information from blog sites rather than reality." Opposition to the war, according to Mr James, had raised the ire of many serving soldiers who were convinced that theirs was a noble task with sound intentions. "Where it [public opinion] does have an effect is a growing gap between [military] professionals on the ground who see the reality in Afghanistan in a much more stark and principled way than a lot of the people in Australia do and because they have been there and understand; they are getting angrier and angrier at some of the uninformed opinion arguing against it back here in Australia." pmercer@thenational.ae