Are we really staying in Afghanistan to preserve our reputation?

Last week Australia experienced its worst day in terms of combat deaths since the Vietnam war. The tragic deaths of five diggers were mourned by our Prime Minister with words of sorrow, followed by her now rote promise that the deaths would not turn Australia from its present course in Afghanistan. In particular, Australia is “there for a purpose and … will see that purpose through”.

But increasingly, that purpose seems to be to maintain a military presence in the country until the end of 2014. Which, of itself, seems rather arbitrary and pointless. There is little evidence that an acceptable and irreversible level of stability will be achieved in Afghanistan by that date. If there is, it is incumbent upon our government to present such evidence to Parliament on a regular basis.

Three of the dead were killed by a rogue Afghan soldier, which brings to seven the number of Australians killed in this way. The training of the Afghan army is the main talk being undertaken by our troops. Such “green on blue” attacks, according to the ABC’s 7:30 report, are responsible for 14% of coalition dead this year. The US has now suspended the training of Afghan police in order to vet the trainees. While this process may be necessary, it certainly decreases the chances that Afghan forces will be adequately trained by the time coalition forces, including Australia, are due to leave.

Vetting assumes that the “turncoats” are Taliban infiltrators. Yet the ABC reported that only one quarter of the killings are believed to be caused by infiltration. Other “turncoats” were acting under duress, with reports the Taliban may have threatened their families’ lives.

Most worryingly, many of the killings have apparently been caused by genuine frictionbetween Coalition forces and their Afghan trainees. As “green on blue” incidents mount, it’s hard to see such animosity decreasing. Furthermore, this morning the Afghan government condemned Australian troops for conducting a raid in pursuit of the rogue soldier, in which two Afghan civilians (or, perhaps, Taliban) have been killed. While Australia claims the operation had Afghan approval, such apparent “misunderstandings” will do little for relations between coalition troops and the Afghan people.

Foreign Minister Bob Carr let the cat out of the bag on Sky News on Sunday morning. He said it would harm Australia’s image if we were to bring our troops home early. It would shame us in the eyes of our Coalition partners and the Afghan government (even though the latter seems to have no shame).

Clearly, France doesn’t feel that way, as President Hollande pushes forward with an election pledge to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2012 after four of its troops were killed earlier this year. But perhaps the French can be dismissed as “surrender monkeys”. After all, Carr intimated it is not in “the Australian character” to withdraw early.

So there we have it folks. It’s important to stay in an 11 year old war that seems increasingly futile to preserve some stereotyped “image” of Australia as a loyal and brave ally that “sees it through”. But surely it’s more important to never lose sight of whether “it” is achievable. Furthermore, “punching above our weight” is fun when it comes to Olympic medals, but do we have to apply that principle to fighting wars?

Strangely, recent history indicates that “image” plays a key role in keeping us in a war, but not in keeping us out of war. After all, concerns over “image” didn’t prevent Australia from engaging in an illegal war in Iraq (or in investigating our role in that disaster).

Of course, that paradox is explicable if the image concerns are about impressing one ally in particular, our superpower mate the US. The same US whose “image” has taken a mighty battering due to the way it has fought the “war on terror”, of which Afghanistan is the centrepiece of a constellation including torture, rendition, Gitmo, an illegal invasion of Iraq and now drones. And there is arguably a fine line between being known as a reliable ally and being taken for granted.

Julia Gillard claims that an early withdrawal would dishonour the dead. With rare bipartisanship, Tony Abbott agrees. But the policy behind that rote speech guarantees that it will be delivered again and again. Perhaps it dishonours our troops to keep them in harm’s way in order to preserve Australia’s image as a loyal ally in an increasingly discredited war on terror.

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