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Don’t mention the war[s]

Gillard & Abbott

Although it is reasonable to expect any election campaign to focus predominantly on domestic issues, it is nevertheless somewhat disappointing that matters of foreign policy have been put on the backburner in this unfulfilling 2010 Labor/Liberal contest. Aside, that is, from the essentially meaningless Tony Abbott mantra ‘turning back the boats,’ and both sides affirming an Australian military presence in Afghanistan. Surely there must be more going on in the world worthy of attention, because what happens outside Australian borders when it comes to environmental, cultural and political factors can have a profound social impact in this country as we all stumble into the early years of a new decade. When it comes to asylum seekers – an issue of major significance for dubious reasons – there has been considerable lethargy creeping into official debate on the topic, and critical factors that directly address the question of why people seek asylum in the first place – which one would expect to be discussed in the mainstream media with an attention to detail that goes beyond doctrinal repetition – appear to have been ignored altogether.

It is well understood by people who pay attention to such things that disruptions to the flow of everyday life stemming from economic impoverishment, violence and natural disaster which cause a sudden deterioration in basic living standards, will inevitably result in population displacements that increases the amount of refugees travelling to Western countries to seek asylum from the very interventions or economic policies that the destination country has often actively engaged in or supported.

A lack of attention to such issues on the part of elected politicians and the more populist elements of the mainstream media points towards a consistency that can be worked out by travelling back a mere nine years to the fervent debate that started to pick up pace around the time that greater numbers of refugees from countries such Iraq and Afghanistan began appearing in nearby waters. This happened because both countries had been ripped apart as a direct consequence of direct foreign intervention.

In the case of Iraq, the lingering aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, including UN imposed sanctions that remained in place until the 2003 US-led invasion of the country, had catastrophic social consequences. Had the sanctions regime – which received considerable support from Western countries, including Australia – not been implemented in such a way as to cripple the Iraqi civilian population over a long period of time, it is entirely possible that the number of asylum seekers fleeing the hideousness of the sanctions would have been considerably reduced. This should have been expected as an inevitable outcome of Australian Government support for both the sanctions regime and the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ in 2003 when the US-led invasion of Iraq caused a flood of refugees, although mostly into neighbouring regions.

Moving right along, Afghanistan had been ravaged by the 1979 Russian invasion and the subsequent bloody conflict between the Russian military and the US backed counterinsurgency that eventually rejected what had become substantial US patronage throughout the 1980s and subsequently turned against the West. Afghanistan had become such a mess by the time Soviet forces finally left the country in 1989, it is little wonder that refugees would consider their survival options and start to make their way to safer countries like Australia. This is something you would imagine Australian planners having factored in considering the widespread acceptance that in the years prior to the 2001 US-led invasion, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan had been causing considerable grief.

As for Iraq, well, the fate of that country doesn’t get talked about much these days, even though it is possible to pick up a newspaper, as I did the other day, and read a brief news segment which mentioned that 43 people had been killed in Basra from a spate of bomb blasts before adding that ‘the unrest has fuelled concerns of a deterioration in security’ as up to 100 people had been killed in recent weeks, yet ‘US officers insist Iraqi soldiers and police are up to the task’. (The Canberra Times, 9 August, p.7).

No further commentary is offered, which makes sense given that this kind of violence has become so commonplace it is no longer newsworthy, although the question does remain: Whatever happened to the noble goals of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq espoused so exuberantly by Bush/Blair/Howard/Berlusconi and others on the pro-war team? In response I would suggest that the facts speak for themselves. Now that US troops are leaving Iraq in larger numbers according to Presidential deadlines, the population has been left to an uncertain fate, and one that doesn’t quite fit with dreams of glory.

The noble vision has in fact turned out to be a dismal failure, and this assessment has been confirmed by a recent US State Department report, which suggests that Pakistan has now become the missing link in the Islamic terrorist chain. The report titled The Country Reports on Terrorism 2009 has been discussed in an AFP media story that includes a claim from a State Department official that ‘Al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan’ remained a potent force and that ‘Pakistan was now working hard to tackle the threat from militants after charges its ISI intelligence service had backed them as a foil to perceived threats from neighbouring India.’

On this sour note, it is worthwhile turning to an excellent book by Tariq Ali published in 2008: The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power. He observes, with typical bluntness, that in Pakistan ‘most of today’s jihadi groups are the mongrel offspring of Pakistani and Western intelligence outfits, born in the 1980s when General Zia was in power and waging the West’s war against the godless Russians.’ (p.12) It seems that the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) has been hedging its bets for some time, and Tariq Ali goes on to explain that the ISI ‘size and budget grew at a phenomenal rate during the first Afghan war against the Soviet Union … and played a central role in arming and training the mujahideen, and, later, infiltrating the Taliban into Afghanistan.’ (p.13)

This was at a time when the US was actively supporting Afghan freedom fighters who eventually turned against their former paymasters for reasons that are not too difficult to explain. Ali observes about Pakistan that ‘one of the basic contradictions confronting the country has become even more pronounced: thousands of villages and slums remain without electricity or running water.’ (p.3) He concludes this passage stating: ‘This is the real scandal.’

And so it goes, unless massive reparations are paid to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan as compensation for widespread destruction caused by superpower grandstanding, and unless considerable efforts are made by these same entities to adequately address the suffering of their victims. Until this happens, alarmist media reporting on issues such as the Pakistani Intelligence Service supporting terrorist groups will become more prevalent, and it won’t be long before asylum seekers to Australia from Pakistan will increase in numbers to match those from other places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, thereby raising the asylum seeker non-debate from the major Australian parties to new levels of absurdity.

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Comments

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Don’t mention the war[s] « Overland literary journal -- Topsy.com

  2. Spot on. It is absolutely true that the idea that Australia has a moral/ethical responsibility to refugees from the direct results of our military activity or war activity supported by our so called ‘foreign policy’ and our commitment to capitalism and the fossil fuel economy has not appeared in any of the mainstream ‘debate’ about the so-called ‘boat people’. The very fact that this derogatory term is used as a slogan is an indication of our complete insensitivity to the desperate needs of our fellow human beings and to the truth of our part in the global affairs you describe. It is a similar stance to the one we take toward the human rights violations committed against our indigenous peoples. And with an ever-tightening capitalist grip being taken of education and educators, it’s a situation unlikely to change without an education revolution attuned to the compassionate awakening of the western consciousness.

  3. Nice article.
    It’s also worth stressing the dire situation currently facing Iraq, which has descended into political paralysis and economic stagnation: ‘Iraq has between 25 and 50 percent unemployment, a dysfunctional parliament, rampant disease, an epidemic of mental illness, and sprawling slums. The killing of innocent people has become part of daily life. ‘

    As for the whole withdrawal thing, it’s only a withdrawal if you don’t factor in the 50,000 American troops that remain, as well as all the enduring bases and a US embassy larger than Vatican City.

  4. So well said! It’s hard to reconcile the lack of connection made between war and people seeking asylum, and disheartening to know we are going to vote in a government (which ever one it is) that doesn’t think they can win on a message of organised-compassion. What role the media plays in these issues is also a difficult one for me; I can’t help thinking they could do more to inform rather than to rouse emotive and fear-based responses. If we are going to step-in then certainly it would seem we should step-up. Our lack of sophistication is startling.

  5. The movie you embedded Jacinda is extraordinary, giving such a good insight into what’s happening from the point of view of the Taliban. Very sad at the end.

    • Um. Sorry to break up this lovely, confused consensus, but weren’t there refugees fleeing the Taliban before the US-led invasion? And hmmm weren’t they fleeing the Taliban? Or being murdered trying to do so? It may also pain some of you to notice that Iran has been murdering their Afghan refugees, or else sending them packing in their 10s of thousands. That is, if any of you believe the BBC anymore

      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8679336.stm

      Or that Iran first supported the US in Afghanistan and then was proven to be manufacturing and supplying IEDs to Iraqi insurgents? Yes, the truth and the problems the world faces are complex, complicated and not simply the USA’s fault.
      So what do we do in response to a well-argued and specific article on specific issues surrounding the Australian election: we start feeling bad for the Taliban children killed (of course, in your minds, deliberately) and start wringing our hands about how the Taliban are just humans too. Lack of sophistication? What was that about emotive responses, Finn? We, yes Australia, are fighting an enemy, not of our making or choosing, but, of ancient and disturbed roots in fundamental religion. And you wonder why people vote for Tony Abbott, the ‘ex’-Mad Monk?

      • Mark, I’ve read over my comment and I can’t see one thing that could be misconstrued as siding with the Taliban or indeed being unsophisticated about what’s going on in Afghanistan. I think it’s an incredibly difficult and complicated situation that the Russians have much to answer for, not to mention any of the history of a rather primitive baI said, that it gave a “good insight,” and it may have been remiss of me to use the word good, “into what’s happening from the point of view of the Taliban.” It was simply a comment on the fact that I think I haven’t viewed them as being very human before and this showed them in that light.

      • Sorry Mark, doing three things at once. This might make more sense, ignore the next.

        Mark, I’ve read over my comment and I can’t see one thing that could be misconstrued as siding with the Taliban or indeed being unsophisticated about what’s going on in Afghanistan. I think it’s an incredibly difficult and complicated situation that the Russians have much to answer for, not to mention any of the history of a rather old religion that has much to be desired and which I’m sure many criminal acts have been carried out in the name of. What I did say was that it gave a “good insight,” and it may have been remiss of me to use the word good, “into what’s happening from the point of view of the Taliban.” It was simply a comment on the fact that I think I haven’t viewed them as being very human before and this showed them in that light.

  6. “we start feeling bad for the Taliban children killed (of course, in your minds, deliberately) and start wringing our hands about how the Taliban are just humans too.”

    “we start feeling bad for the [German] children killed (of course, in your minds, deliberately) and start wringing our hands about how the [German] are just humans too.”

    “we start feeling bad for the [English] children killed (of course, in your minds, deliberately) and start wringing our hands about how the [English] are just humans too.”

    “we start feeling bad for the [Kurdish] children killed (of course, in your minds, deliberately) and start wringing our hands about how the [Kurdish] are just humans too.”

    “we start feeling bad for the [Palestinian] children killed (of course, in your minds, deliberately) and start wringing our hands about how the [Palestinian] are just humans too.”

    “we start feeling bad for the [Israeli] children killed (of course, in your minds, deliberately) and start wringing our hands about how the [Israeli] are just humans too.”

    where does it stop?

    can the fundamentalism displayed in the film be healed with more fundamentalism – the fundamentalism of middle eastern = terrorist and it’s convenient extension: refugee = terrorist?

    who could look at those children and not feel sad at their untimely deaths, whoever their parents?

    And I do wonder why people vote[d] for Tony Abbott – I seriously wonder why.

    • Clare, I do not understand your reaction. Nowhere have I suggested, nor do I believe in, the simplistic dichotomies you seem to project on to my comment.
      Your first comment, presuming you are one and the same, was quite reasonable.
      In mine, I was simply attempting to make the point that it is reactions such as Jacinda’s and Finn’s (and yours, now) that may turn people away from registering any sort of common ground on ANY given issue. (And possibly towards a similarly reactionary stance: voting for the L/NP, the Greens and/or Independents, to send a message to the ALP.)

      I do feel sad for those children, placed in such a situation by their fanatical and criminal fathers. I probably could have expressed that sentence much better, so thanks for that.

      To feel compassion for the Taliban (other than the same, very small amount reserved for any delusional moralist acting upon their beliefs), however, is a giant step away from this.

      What the video has to do with the issues raised in this article, or how posting it here helps engender rational debate about Australia’s foreign, and/or refugee, policy, you seem to have not addressed, and I still fail to understand.

      • Mark, I’m in a bad mood, perhaps I over-reacted.

        I saw a great piece of theatre by the Theatre du Soleil: Dramatic Response to the Global Refugee Crisis with actors and stories who experienced the Taliban and the horrors of their oppression – and also the deeply disappointing Australian response. I’m not under illusions that these are men who don’t need to be stopped. But I guess I believe that compassion is the only answer. Anything that takes away the ‘faceless enemy’ and gives us human beings (however difficult), surely crosses barriers of prejudice? How can the situation be healed when we, our armed forced, continue to collaborate in the deaths of innocent civilians? This, to me, seems to be what the youtube is doing here – a further awakening to the complexities of our foreign policies and refugee ‘solutions’.

        I have no answers. Today, I only have tears because the slogan ‘stop the boats’ wasn’t and isn’t shouted down as obscene and anti-humanitarian. I don’t want the Taliban to exist any more than I want our indifference to exist.

        Apologies if I took you out of context.

      • Actually Mark, I find your definitions and arguments virtually regurgitated ADF press releases.

        What does ‘Taliban’ even describe anymore? It’s used fairly liberally to label any kind of resistance or opposition movement to [yet another] armed invasion. And if there are more people joining the Taliban, the war in Afghanistan is to blame. Many people now identified as Taliban would have been the same people resisting the Taliban pre-invasion. [True, I have no exact figures at hand, but I think civilian death tolls, torrents of refugees and constant political and economic instability would have to be factors, surely.]

        The White Man’s liberation argument is offensive and reactionary but also completely ahistorical given the circumstances of the region. Dehumanising people to justify unending war and occupation is, in fact, the reactionary angle. I would suggest that we rarely imagine ‘the Taliban’ as soldiers with families fighting military occupation.

        I think this video reveals that ‘the Taliban’, like any militia or army, is comprised of many individuals with many different reasons for fighting a cause – ie. not all religious fanatics with ‘ancient and disturbed roots’ [yet another perverse US-objectification of Islam].

        While not supporting the Taliban myself, I do support the right of any Afghan to resist military occupation.

        And since when is a vote for the coalition the same as a vote for the Greens. Their voting base is quite different – and it is impossible to quantify the fraction that could be called a protest vote.

  7. In the Australian today, Dennis Shanahan argues against a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan.

    We know that the Greens, with just one MP elected and the prospect of nine senators after July 1, have won their demand for a parliamentary debate on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.

    Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan has been bipartisan since the first day: Kevin Rudd criticised the Howard government for not committing enough forces, Labor has maintained the expanded fighting force and Abbott has flagged his willingness to increase our commitment.

    More than 80 per cent of the electorate lodged primary votes for the two sides supporting this Afghanistan commitment yet there is now going to be a parliamentary debate on the issue. It should be noted here that John Faulkner as Defence Minister started the most open and public process on our overseas commitments, regularly reporting to the parliament in great detail about the progress in Afghanistan.

    A debate is unlikely to evince any further information that Faulkner hasn’t already disclosed, but what it will do is provide a catalyst for movement to shift public opinion against the commitment and pressure whoever is in power to change the policy.

    This is just one example of appeasement with far-reaching consequences arising from the offer of support and formalising a Labor-Greens alliance in the House of Representatives.

    Got that? If you ‘appease’ the Greens, you might end up with a political debate. And that would be terrible because we all agree about the need for permanent war — and if we discussed it, we might not.

    • I don’t need to discuss it, either. I say no to permanent war. But I get it that perhaps the parliament might need to chat as they foolishly continue to ignore me …

  8. Afghanistan,Taliban,Pakistan, etc, will all be grist for the brand new Australian parliamentary mill from tomorrow (at the time of writing). The only war the Oz monfocal media will be watching will be Julia versus Tony. The folks in boats and the children they bury back home in dusty shallow holes, will be paragraph/page three dehumanised poison for what the Australian electorate has been forced to nominate (as substitutes) for public office.
    From tomorrow, we’re in the longest election campaign I reackon we’re ever likely to see. Tony’s out to wreck the first real chance Australia has had to explore constructive democracy; and with all those “good comrades” behind her, Julia watches her back. Vote 1, Bob Brown for Big Brother!

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