There is no justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan: a review

On a chilly Thursday night, we descended upon Melbourne Town Hall to listen to our friend and colleague, Raoul Heinrichs, partake in the Wheeler Centre debate on Afghanistan. We came to hear whether the war effort would be savaged, whether Australian lives would be needlessly lost, whether there was hope for the Afghan people, or whether we, as a country, were wasting our time. We came to hear a lawyer, a scholar, a prominent feminist, a retired general, a young Afghan woman, and a philosopher. We came to hear their perspectives and experiences. We came to observe the public’s reactions; to hear how everyday people received and digested narratives of Afghanistan. I wanted to see whether people still remembered we were in war.

The topic of Thursday’s debate, “There is no justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan”, was always going to be hard to stick to. There was a sense of mission creep; a tendency for speakers to appeal to the broader merits of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, rather than centring on the specific risk to Australians (civilian and military) serving there. The affirmative team took the view that the intractability of the conflict dictated that no further Australian lives were worth risking. While each speaker had their own spin on this theme, they all concentrated on what they saw as the dire security situation on the ground, the lack of proper resourcing, and the lack of strategic interests beyond the ANZUS treaty (which, in Heinrichs’ view, we have already satisfied).

Central to the affirmative’s case was that the war in Afghanistan has been a debacle from the start. It lacked strategic direction and caused more problems than it sought to solve. Sadly, overlapping and slightly wayward directions by the first and third speakers undermined the overall coherence of their message, but in their moments, each speaker shone. In particular, lawyer Kellie Tranter impressed upon the audience that, in an environment of information shortages from the Department of Defence and Australian Government, it is difficult to appraise whether this war is worth our while. Strategist and scholar, Heinrichs, for his part, concentrated on the specific strategic interests to Australia in evaluating whether more lives lost in Afghanistan was worth the gain. Lastly, feminist Eva Cox’s gem was highlighting the disjuncture between our purported concern for the Afghan people and our treatment of Afghan asylum seekers with the recent Malaysia solution. While this was slightly off the mark, it nonetheless reflected the human complexities of the issue that the audience, no doubt, would react to.

On the negative side, MAJGEN (rtd) Jim Molan’s strong and authoritative introduction outlined the parameters of their case. The negative side would prove that there are sufficient strategic and moral imperatives for Australia to pursue in Afghanistan, and this was worth Australian lives. And indeed they did. Molan provided a frank assessment of the reasons why the strategic imperatives of regional stability and alliance management buttressed our cause there, but introduced more moral elements of the case. This latter theme dovetailed well with the impassioned and personal speech by Sonia Zaiee who reflected on her war-tainted childhood in Afghanistan. She contrasted these anguishing images with the hope of education and promise of reconstruction now possible from Australian presence, it seemed. Philosopher Peter Singer further ran with moral arguments for intervention, citing the plight of Afghan women, taking pains to stress that a vote for the motion signalled a ‘no’ for Australian aid workers in Afghanistan. While the negative team started on a strong note, the generalist approaches of the second and third speakers allowed the topic to stray away from the central element of the topic, namely “Why Australia?”

Overall, the debate represented the myriad views of the Australian public. And yet people have these divergent views about the conflict because of the piecemeal information and public narrative on offer. These opinions, coupled with questions from the audience, also highlighted, importantly, the lack of certainty with which we can say Australia’s presence there is a good or bad thing. There are indeed good things in Afghanistan for which Australian soldiers fight but there are inordinate and acute risks for what is a seemingly unclear overarching strategic interest.

And all while the debate continued, my live tweets of the event were punctuated with reports of an attack on Uruzgan province, the slice of Afghanistan for which Australia fights. The revelation of this attack, with its perfect timing, could have brought down the case of either side: for the affirmative, in support of a deteriorating security situation, and for the negative, in support of the need to maintain presence. For me, each side’s unwitting ignorance of the exact and immediate situation on the ground, with all its complexities, reflected the incomplete way in which we, the Australian public, seek to understand this conflict. And all the while, our theorising and arguing parallels another reality on the ground. Such is the nature of how this conflict plays out in the Australian psyche. Either way, the audience decided that the negative case had been the more compelling, and that there was justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan.

12 thoughts on “There is no justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan: a review

  1. Good coverage of that slightly odd occasion. You capture the strangely disjointed elements of the debate very well.
    As you point out, no-one seemed quite to be on the same page (or perhaps there are too many terraces on the high moral ground, and no room for reasoned, factual points!).
    Of course, I thought Raoul’s effort was the best, the most coherent set of arguments, and it was terrific to see you all there supporting him. Regards Raoul’s dad Paul.

  2. It is tricky ground full of emotional landlines (pardon the pun). I felt Peter Singer’s argument that now we are there we have a moral duty to stay and provide support, most persuasive. It is hard to imagine the situation for NGOs when their security is handed to the ANA.

    Good article though!

  3. Sonia Ziaee should have declared her interest. When introducing her, the moderator briefly mentioned that Ziaee serves on the board of a logistics company. This company appears to be NCL Logistics, a major Afghan-American logistics and security corporation that has obtained tens of millions of dollars (at least) of contracts from the forces occupying Afghanistan. Her company has a direct material interest in the prolongation of the occupation and this should have been mentioned.

    • I read about NCL, this organization provided jobs for over 1000 Afghan civilians in different provinces in Afghanistan where getting a job is not that easy. Its true that they have millions of dollars worth contracts but they are helping the forces by transporting their essentials to those dangerous places where no one else would. We must remember that Sonia Ziaee is just an employee there not the owner of the company. This clarifies that she has no material interest in the presence of the intentional forces.

      • It has been reported recently about the corrupt nature of some of these logistics companies in Afghanistan, which have been a sinkhole for millions of US dollars. Hopefully the company that Sonia worked for wasn’t part of this.

  4. I think Natalie’s assessment provides a very narrow view (not to mention an obvious bias to the 2nd speaker for the proposition). I would say that the questions from the audience changed the scope of the debate not the speakers. I don’t think you can accuse the first speakers as having overlapping and slightly wayward directions when they go first. In fact I recall heinrichs backing up the comments made by the first speaker for the affirmative particularly in relation to oz/us alliance but that may have been lost because he lacked passion in his delivery.

  5. As a Canadian member of the coalition, serving here in Kabul, I am proud to work alongside Australians, Brits, Americans and so many others. Their dedication, commitment and sacrifice has made an indelible imprint on me. The NATO Training Mission here in Afghanistan moves towards its vision to train Afghan leaders, build literacy and vocational skills and to develop enduring institutions. Training the trainers is the phrase I have heard quite often, and now I see it on a regular basis. Coalition forces standing back while Afghan nationals take over leadership and training roles.
    In a recent blog, Lieutenant General William B. Caldwell, IV (Commander NATO Training Mission Afghanistan) wrote in part:
    “Last week, Afghan security forces assumed lead security responsibility in areas across Afghanistan. This historic milestone is a testament to the sacrifice, hard work, and vision of the international community and the government of Afghanistan.
    Although we have come a long way, we recognize that transition is only the first of many difficult steps in the future. Days and months that will be challenged by difficulties, marred by setbacks, and faced with dangers. However, reinforced by the bonds of partnership, professionalism, and pride, I am convinced that the path we are on together developing the Afghan Army, Air Force, and Police will provide the Afghan people with the security they deserve, the prosperity they desire and a future they determine for themselves.
    Developing this force to endure will continue to require strategic patience and commitment, but will reap the return on investment — a capable and professional Afghan National Security Force that endures long after the last coalition combat forces have departed Afghanistan.”
    The full text of LTG Caldwell’s blog may be found at
    A secure Afghanistan, secured by Afghanistan, provides for a more secure Canada, Australia, US and beyond. It is our common goal.

    • Thanks for the comment, David. LTGEN Caldwell spoke to the Australian program, Lateline, a few nights ago about the successes and challenges of training the ANSF. You may wish to see his latest comments here.

      I agree–a secure Afghanistan, and hence a stable subcontinental region–is a common goal for us all. I’m doubtful whether an effective system of centralised management of the ANSF (one that handles their training, organisation, logistics and financing) will be in place once ISAF forces withdraw. I think that will provide the best chance of success for Afghan-led security.

  6. Our actions in Afghanistan, as with every other country involved with ISAF, needs to be more than simply a military role. The military are there to provide stability, but without the core efforts of capacity building in key areas such as health, education, infrastructure, communications etc, then the military efforts will fail.

    The Australian Government seems to think that minimal effort will achieve the goals. But that is not true. We need to take risks to achieve the goals, or the little risks will be pointless.

    For example, the Australian Police working in Afghanistan mentoring the Afghan Police are the only Police mentors in the entir country who do not leave their base, and only “mentor” from the classroom. Even the NZ Police mentors, whom you would think operate on a similar strategy, have been going out on patrol with the ANP for quite a few years now. And yet the Australian Police think they can achieve regional stability from a classroom. It won’t work.

    Australia needs to take risks, or we may as well leave, as our presence is pointless otherwise.

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