(Australian Defense Force photo)
Afghanistan and the U.S. from afar: Doubts on the rise
ASK THIS | September 11, 2010
On this 9/11 anniversary, writer Bill Claiborne surveys Australia’s and other small countries’ changing views of the Afghanistan war. One difference: the Vietnam-era word word 'quagmire' is being heard more and more.
By William Claiborne
MELBOURNE--The televised images grow more disturbing as the war in Afghanistan grinds on: the rear door of a Royal Australian Air Force transport jet yawns open and Aussie “diggers” in camouflage fatigues, black armbands and their distinctive Army slouch hats with the left brim upturned, slow-march with one or more flag-draped coffins to waiting hearses.
It is the stuff of which doubts are made, at least in the modern-era of controversial wars like those waged in Vietnam, Iraq and now Afghanistan, the last of which has been inseparably tagged with the cliché, “the graveyard of empires.”
The doubts reach far beyond the shores of Australia. Doubts are on the rise worldwide, particularly in small nations whose casualty rates are considered high for their size. In Canada, which has had 151 soldiers killed in Afghanistan, opposition to the war now stands at 53 per cent to 39 per cent approval; In the Netherlands, which has had 24 war deaths, opposition to the deployment stood at 66 per cent when the Dutch withdrew in July. A Pew Global Attitudes Survey last year found 18 of 25 polled nations wanted the United States and NATO out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. Only four nations had majorities favoring keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan: the United States, 57 percent; Israel, 59 percent; Kenya, 56 percent and Nigeria, 52 percent. That was last year; antiwar sentiment is in all probability higher now.
In Australia people use Vietnam-era terms like “quagmire” when they talk about Afghanistan. In May, a Lowry Institute poll here showed 54 percent of Australians wanted out of the war, up from 51 percent last year. In New Zealand in the same month, a Research New Zealand poll found 77 percent wanted total or partial withdrawal, against 10 percent who thought the country’s contingent of 70 Special Forces soldiers should stay.
For generations—even before it ceased being a British colony in 1901--Australia has willingly, even enthusiastically at times, sent its soldiers to fight, and die, in foreign wars not of its making. A total of 102,814 Australian soldiers have been killed in foreign lands, including 589 during the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the century; 61,513 during World War I; 39,761 in World War II; 340 in the Korean conflict; 521 in Vietnam; two in Iraq and now 21 killed in Afghanistan. Ten of the deaths in Afghanistan have occurred since June 7.
Twenty-one dead may seem like a small number, compared to the 1,192 Americans killed in Afghanistan and 4,415 killed in Iraq. But for a nation with a population of only 22 million, 21 young soldiers killed looks like a very large figure to many Australians. Metropolitan New York has a population of 20 million people. Try to imagine the impact that 10 combat fatalities in an unpopular war in Afghanistan in a three-month period would have on New Yorkers. You will then have an idea how Australians feel when they view those images of flag-draped coffins on their television screens.
Australia occupies a very big island-continent but it is a very small country, and when it experiences the pain that goes with those images, people here tend to feel the emotions of a close-knit family that has lost one of their own. (Until early last year, the United States banned media photos of soldiers’ coffins being returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. The rule has been changed
to let families decide – but that seems more ruse than real change. It would be difficult and wrenching to get permission from families on deadline, and it seems a false protection of privacy anyway, in that pictures of flag-draped coffins, while emotionally charged, as a rule do not identify the dead soldiers within. Australia has not had such a ban, and pictures of the “repatriated” bodies of soldiers being taken off cargo planes appear in the media regularly).
Until recently, Australians remained fairly supportive of their government’s commitment to keep troops in Afghanistan, at least long enough to train Afghan security forces sufficiently enough to control the insurgency by themselves. But a number of recent polls show that support is shrinking.
A nationwide poll released by Essential Research
in August found that 60 percent want Australia out of Afghanistan, compared to 25 percent who think the current level of about 1,500 soldiers should be maintained. This contrasts with a poll in October, 2009, when Australian war deaths stood at half the current level. Then only 51 per cent of respondents surveyed here opposed involvement, against 46 per cent supporters.
By comparison, 48 percent of Americans said they were against a continued U.S. involvement in the war and 38 per cent supported it when an Associated Press/GfK
Roper poll was released last month.
While there have been a few anti-Afghan war street demonstrations, direct action opposition in Australia has been miniscule compared to the large anti-Vietnam war marches here during the 1960s and early 1970s, when the burning of draft cards and clashes with police were as common as they were in America. Approximately 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam; 521 were killed and more than 3,000 were wounded.
Since the recent spike in war fatalities in Afghanistan, politicians and the media have become increasingly vocal. The Green Party
, as a condition of joining the new coalition government formed by the Labor Party in the wake last month’s inconclusive parliamentary elections, has insisted on a full House of Representatives debate on the question of pulling Australian troops out of Afghanistan.
Andrew Wilkie, an independent member of Parliament who achieved national prominence in 2003 when he quit as intelligence analyst for the Office of National Assessments and attacked the government's rationale for going to war in Iraq, recently said, “Both the Labor Party members and (conservative) coalition members continue to perpetuate this nonsense that we are only (in Afghanistan) to fight terrorists to prevent them coming to Australia.”
Increasingly pointed questions are being raised in editorials of mainstream centrist newspapers like The Age in Melbourne, which recently commented: “Assurances that the war is necessary to stop the global export of terrorism from Afghanistan sound increasingly hollow in a world where terrorism is already global. Many Australians will ask whether such claims have any more credibility than the claims made during the Vietnam War that a communist victory would lead to the whole of South-East Asia, and very likely Australia, too, becoming communist.”
Australia has been untouched by jihadist terrorism on its own shores, although 88 of the 202 people killed in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombing that was attributed to the Jemaah Islamiyah
terrorist group were Australian, as were four of the 20 people killed in another bombing in Bali in 2005. For many Australians, it is still hard to see a direct connection between a far-off war in Afghanistan and security at home, despite the Bali attacks. Even Bali has regained its status as a favored Indonesian beach destination for Australians and tourism there is booming.
As the United States, which has lost almost 1,200 dead in Afghanistan, continues to pursue its stated aim of withdrawing its military forces by July, 2011, it is trying to hold onto the other 43 nations of the International Security Assistance Force, who have lost a total of 793 dead, until foreign involvement in the war is deemed no longer needed.
A legitimate line of inquiry for journalists examining the direction of the war in Afghanistan would entail trying to determine whether those smaller countries intend to stay the course, or whether rising casualty tolls will shrink the coalition.
Questions I would ask would include:
1. Is Afghanistan really a “graveyard of empires?”
Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C., the hapless British generals who led the disastrous occupation of Afghanistan in the mid-19th Century, the Soviet invaders who tried occupation for a decade beginning in 1979, and even some military strategists currently involved in the present-day insurgency in Afghanistan could be forgiven if they agreed with the popular “graveyard” label.
The first Mughal emperor, Babur, also must have pondered the question as he ruled over most of central Asia in the 1500s. Babur, who is buried in Kabul, famously boasted that the area that is now Afghanistan “has not been and never will be conquered, and will never surrender to anyone.”
The landscape of Afghanistan, consisting largely of rugged mountains where fighters can ambush their enemies and then meld away, is harsh, and its people have a long tradition of going into battle as proud, durable and fierce warriors. Historically, invaders have found the terrain not suited to mobility, and the population, comprised of a variety of ethnicities and a complex tribal system governed by mercurial warlords, always has been very difficult to manage.
The jury is still out on whether the current counterinsurgency effort led by the U.S. and NATO can lead to the training and equipping an Afghan security force capable of controlling the Taliban enough to give breathing room to an effective Afghan government. Whether or not the smaller nations in the coalition, including Australia, will continue their involvement in the war may depend on their perception of how successfully the International Security Assistance Force
can create a viable Afghan army and police force.
2. Does the Iraq War provide any signposts that indicate how steadfast the smallest of the 46 nations currently deployed in Afghanistan, including Australia, are likely to hold to their troop commitments?
The record of troop deployments and withdrawals in the Multi-National Force in Iraq (the name changed to “U.S. Forces-Iraq”
last January as participation of multinational forces shrank) may provide some insights. Not surprisingly, the longer the Iraq war dragged on, the greater the pullout..
Between the 2003 invasion and 2007, 15 of the 30 non-U.S. military contingents in Iraq withdrew their forces. The largest of the withdrawing contingents included Italy (3,200 at its peak), the Netherlands (1,345) and Spain (1,300). But most were smaller nations with deployments ranging from 423 (Thailand) to Iceland (2).
Between 2008 and 2009, as casualties peaked and “donor fatigue” continued to grow, 24 nations withdrew their troops, including, the United Kingdom (46,000 peak), South Korea (3,600), Georgia (2,000), Australia (2,000), Ukraine (1,650), Romania (730) and Japan (600). The rest were under 600 at their peak.
After the United States, which had 4,415 soldiers killed, the United Kingdom recorded the largest number of fatalities in Iraq (179). Nations with combat deaths in the double digits were: Italy, 33; Poland (23); Ukraine, 18; Bulgaria (13), and Spain, 11.
Thus there would appear to be at least a circumstantial correlation between a combination of length of deployment and fatality rate, on one hand, and the number of withdrawals of forces on the other, judging from statistics compiled by the Multi-National Force in Iraq, its successor, the U.S. Force in Iraq, the United Nations and other international bodies. It seems evident that withdrawal of forces is driven, at least in part, by public reaction to the casualty rate.
3. Is Afghanistan another Vietnam?
The question is important because in addition to the United States, six smaller countries, including Australia, had sizable fighting units in Vietnam. South Korea alone had 50,000 troops. All but one of those nations contributed troops to the Afghanistan counter-insurgency effort. It would seem that at least some of those nations’ leaders would wonder how similar Vietnam and Afghanistan are.
President Obama re-ignited the debate over that question in a speech
last December at the U.S. Military Academy, in which he denied the two conflicts are similar. I say “re-ignited” because as early as Oct. 31, 2001, the late R.W. Apple, Jr., of the New York Times posed that question in a front-page article. Apple wrote, “Could Afghanistan become another Vietnam? Is the United States facing another stalemate on the other side of the world? Premature the questions may be, three weeks after the fighting began. Unreasonable they are not, given the scars scoured into the national psyche by defeat in Southeast Asia,” Apple intoned.
The comparison invites oversimplification, but one thing seems clear. As an Asia Society
panel of prominent historians and foreign policy experts concluded in a debate televised in New York earlier this year, there are undeniable similarities between the two wars, as well as differences. “Both wars involved the challenge of adapting U.S. military strategy based on massive force to the asymmetric conditions of counter-insurgency warfare against a much smaller, indigenous army relying on covert support across a porous border. Both required the projection of power across great distances into hospitable conditions,” the panel concluded.
On the other hand, the panel concluded, there was an absence in Vietnam—at least in hindsight, of a vital U.S. security interest. But in the context of Sept. 11, 2001, attacking al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan seemed not only a vital U.S. interest but a political imperative.
In his December speech, Obama offered three reasons why the two conflicts are different. First, he noted that unlike Vietnam, the war in Afghanistan is being waged by a coalition of 43 countries. Second, while the Viet Cong was a broadly popular nationalist movement, the Taliban are not popular with the majority of Afghanis. Third, the North Vietnamese never attacked the American homeland, while the al Qaeda jihadists who were then based in Afghanistan did.
Critics of the war in Afghanistan spared little time challenging Obama’s assertions. Writing in the Dec. 10, 2009, Foreign Policy magazine, Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason
criticized all three of the President’s reasons. First, they wrote, the six nations that fought with the United States in Vietnam had more combat troops (50,000) than the entire coalition of 43 countries in Afghanistan has fighting in Afghanistan (17,000). Moreover, the authors noted, the vast majority of the coalition partners have strict rules against leaving their bases to engage the enemy.
Additionally, Johnson and Mason quoted Daniel Ellsberg, the former senior Pentagon official who leaked the Pentagon Papers, as estimating that neither the Viet Cong then, nor the Taliban now, have had the support of more than 15 per cent of the population. Other critics of the Vietnam-Afghanistan analogy have noted that while the Viet Cong had the military support of North Vietnam and backing by China and the Soviet Union, the Taliban has no such state sponsors, and they say the Cold War dynamic of Vietnam is not relevant to Afghanistan.
Some other differences that keep popping up are: the scale of fighting was much larger in Vietnam (55,000 U.S. soldiers killed) than it is in Afghanistan (1,192 U.S. dead); U.S. leaders had an open-ended commitment in Vietnam until nearly the end, whereas in Afghanistan the commitment has been more time-specific. Finally, the United States was never close to victory in the early 1970s because the South Vietnamese army could never stand on its own, whereas intensive training of an Afghan army and police force at least offers hope for some that Obama might achieve his goal of withdrawing most U.S. forces by next July.
There are those who argue the similarities in the two wars are genuine. A few of the most commonly cited ones are: In both wars the United States was propping up corrupt national leaders. Both conflicts started out on a small scale and gradually escalated. Insurgency tactics in both wars were similar, including ambushes and booby-traps, as well as the tactic of insurgents melding into the civilian population when they are outnumbered. The role of sanctuaries (Cambodia for the Viet Cong and Pakistan for the Taliban) for the insurgents is crucial.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, who fought in Vietnam and then was a leader in the anti-war movement in the early 1970s, recently said that a long time ago he promised himself that he would not view all of America’s conflicts in the context of Vietnam. “But I have to tell you…the parallels just keep leaping out in so many different ways,” Kerry said during a confirmation hearing
for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton early last year.
Another veteran of the anti-Vietnam war movement, former Democratic Sen. George McGovern, recalled that during his 1972 presidential campaign he told his audiences that the only upside of the Vietnam tragedy was that its enormous cost in lives would keep any future administration from going down that road again.
“I was wrong,” McGovern said last December in a commentary
in The Washington Post. Adding that he was astonished at President Obama’s decision to add 30,000 more troops to the conflict, McGovern said, “I can only think: another Vietnam. I hope I’m incorrect, but history tells me otherwise.”
4. How long will Australia and other countries with small deployments in Afghanistan stay the course?
Prime Minister Julia Gillard
said on Aug. 25 that Australia, which took over the training of local troops in Oruzgan Province when Dutch forces withdrew from Afghanistan that month, will complete its mission within two to four years. After that, she said, a smaller contingent would remain in an “overwatch” role. Defense Minister John Faulkner likened that role to a similar one in Iraq that lasted 12 months.
Other countries’ plans vary. Canada has announced that it will withdraw the bulk of its troops from Afghanistan in 2011. Poland also said it will withdraw its 2,630 troops next year. New Zealand plans to withdraw its small Special Forces unit in three to five years.
Some nations have military cooperation agreements with the United States which could make early withdrawal from Afghanistan awkward. For example, while the Australia-New Zealand-U.S. Security Treaty (ANZUS
) and the South-East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO
) accords do not obligate either Australia or New Zealand to provide mutual defense outside of the Asia and Pacific regions, they did give Australians and New Zealanders some reassurance that they were no longer just a geographically isolated former British colony but were now a major player on the diplomatic world stage.
Apart from wanting to stand up and participate in the worldwide battle against global terrorism to protect their own long-term security interests, these and some other small countries may want to retain their supportive roles in Afghanistan, at least for the time being, to avoid appearing to be isolationist and weak.
The $64,000 question is, at what cost and for how long?
09/22/2010, 03:39 PM
"Global war on terror" = "cold war" = continued fluff for the US Military Complex.
The most expensive military in the world and we can not find Osama in nine years...the smell of rotten fish is strong. It's just like letting Arafat live a full life of terror. I call BS.
11/20/2010, 06:07 AM
The problem with all this is that the Saudi secret service working for the US Government used Thermite to destroy the WTC & the Iraq & Afghan wars are all about oil & gas Through HalliBurton Corp from TEXAS & Blackwater Corporations for extraction of fuel.Neither Al Qaeda or the Taliban were responsible for any agressive attack of the US.Also the Taliban have been supported by Pakistan with a 1 billion a year paid by the US for Pakistan to fight insurgency,which is funding the Taliban. The US Republican Party Leader admitted that both sides of US government had been corrupted by Corporations. The Corporations have large mercenary forces in Afghanistan comitting more war crime than anyone including shipping Karzai`s heroin.