A report issued this week after a four-year investigation into alleged war crimes by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan has promoted a degree of outrage previously unknown with regard to the alleged conduct of Australian army personnel. While the public outrage is welcomed, it has completely avoided more fundamental questions about the long-running war.
The media have repeated ad nauseam that this war is 19 years old, and constitutes both the United States and Australia’s longest war time commitment. That is only part of the story. United States involvement in Afghanistan began no later than 1980 when the Western world reacted with mock outrage to the invasion into Afghanistan of Soviet troops. That invasion provided a perfect excuse to cancel Western participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The Soviet troops were not the first to enter Afghanistan. The British had fought at least three wars during the 19th century for control of that country. Maintaining control of the opium crop and the export of its principal commodity, heroin, was then, as now, one of the principal reasons for the British invasion.
The Afghanistan heroin trade was one of the principal means by which the British sought to control China. In 1900 it was estimated that one in seven Chinese adults was addicted to heroin, nearly all of it supplied by the British for whom it was not only a lucrative trade, but also a principal means of maintaining its neo-colonial control of China.
The American involvement came much later as the United States asserted ever widening power over Asia. The Soviet entry into Afghanistan gave the Americans the perfect excuse to commence activities within that country. They have never left since then and are highly unlikely to voluntarily leave in the foreseeable future.
The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in late 1996 and one of the first things they did was to move against the poppy growers. That was intolerable to a number of groups with vested interests in the maintenance of Afghanistan as the world’s principal source of heroin. The events of 11th September 2001 gave the Americans and their Western allies, including Australia, the perfect excuse to invade the country.
One of the first consequences of the United States led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was a restitution of the poppy fields closed down by the Taliban government. The crop had not been completely eliminated because at no stage did the Taliban ever exercise control over the whole country. Those areas of the country that the Taliban had controlled, and from where poppies production had been hugely reduced, sprang back into life.
Over the following 19 years the poppy crop has increased with fluctuations in some years attributable to climate conditions. According to the United Nations Drug Agency, about 75% of Afghanistan’s annual crop is exported by the United States, with local war lords retaining control of approximately 20% and the balance of 5% being used by the Taliban for local financing of their operations.
United States President Donald Trump has announced that he intends to withdraw United States troops from Afghanistan. This has been opposed by the presumed next president of the United States, Joe Biden, although he has studiously ignored the role that heroin sales make to the financing of the CIA. But again, irrespective of which of Trump or Biden you choose to believe, neither man tells the truth about what is actually going on with the troop movements.
As Deborah Avant pointed out in an article published in the Washington Post, it is far from clear what will happen to United States forces, of whom actual soldiers make up a minority. As Ms Avant points out, contractors have provided the lions share of United States military staffing in America’s post 9/11 wars, of which Afghanistan is only one.
According to the Washington Post estimates, the United States has had killed approximately 2300 military personnel since the 2001 invasion, compare to 3814 “contractors”. The latter group never receive the attention given to the significantly smaller regular military personnel killed on duty in Afghanistan. Again, according to figures provided by Ms Avant, the use of private contractors increased by more than 65% during the first three years of the Trump administration. There is no evidence to suggest that these numbers have diminished in more recent months, either absolutely or relatively.
The fatalities of western military forces also receive substantial coverage in the western media. The same is not true of Afghanistan fatalities. According to an article by Paul Shrinkman there were 40 Afghanistan soldiers dying per day. Basic arithmetic shows that Afghanistan lost more troops every 60 days then the United States has lost in 19 years. It is indicative of the relative indifference of the Western media to the appalling death toll of the Afghanis that their death rates receive such minimal coverage.
The extensive media coverage in Australia to the 39 non-combatant civilian deaths at the hands of Australian SAS soldiers emphasises that point. Completely missing from the mainstream media narrative is any mention of the appalling price that the Afghanistan people are paying for Western military intervention.
The major Australian political parties have no interest in ceasing this carnage. Joint statement released by the two official spokesmen, for foreign affairs and defence, carried not a hint of Australian troops being withdrawn from Afghanistan. The punitive nature of Australia to its whistle blowers is seen very clearly in the prosecution of military whistle blower David McBride who faces charges arising from his leaking of documents to the media about the unlawful killing of unarmed civilians in Afghanistan. These are precisely the matters which the report of Justice Brereton found proven.
The absence of any statement from either the government or the opposition about withdrawing Australian troops from its longest ever and illegal war in Afghanistan is also highly revealing. It should not have taken the exposing of blatant war crimes by Australian military personnel in Afghanistan to prompt a fundamental rethinking of Australia’s commitment to fighting illegal wars on behalf of the Americans. The absence of any political commitment to ending that participation is proof yet again that Australia does not make its own decisions about where and whom to fight.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based former Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.