Where America goes, Australia goes, especially on Afghanistan

Military deaths, Afghani deaths, billions of dollars, war-weary constituents, declining public support, and a lack of moral legitimacy means that both Australia and America need to exit Afghanistan now. As we know in Australia, as soon as American gets out, so will we. So why is the exit taking so long?

A bill to expedite the exit of the U.S. military from Afghanistan has only narrowly been defeated in the U.S. Congress—251 to 204 votes. There is little politically to keep American in the almost decade long war, especially with elections due in 2012. As we know in Australia—where America goes, Australia goes. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard does not have the stomach to go it alone in Afghanistan without America. Mounting death tolls of American and Australian soldiers, in a war seen as less and less relevant and more and more problematic, is getting harder for both Gillard’s Labor Party and Obama’s Democrats to sell.

Soldiers killed in action, deaths of civilian Afghanis, and staggering costs are some of the reasons for foreign troops to exit Afghanistan. American fatalities—1590 between 2001 and 2010—and Australian fatalities—26 between 2002 and 2010—are just one element driving the debates in America and Australia. There have been accusations that soldiers from America and Australia (as well as other Coalition states) are responsible for civilian deaths, however it is unclear how many Afghanis have died as a result of soldiers negligence. To date, no American or Australian soldiers have been prosecuted.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA), Annual Report (2010), Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, along with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission recorded 2,777 civilian deaths in 2010, an increase of 15 per cent compared to 2009. Over the past four years, 8,832 civilians have been killed in the conflict, with civilian deaths increasing each year.

The cost of the war is staggering. The U.S. military will spend US$113 billion on its operations in Afghanistan in the 2010-2011 fiscal year, and is seeking US$107 billion from Congress for 2012-2013. Driving opposition by some Republicans in America is a bill they estimate to be about US$10 billion a month (at a time when the federal deficit is expected to reach US$1.5 trillion this year). Australia is spending AUS$1.7 billion a year on oversees troop commitments in Afghanistan.

Public support for the war in Afghanistan is also waning. An Australian Galaxy poll (4 June 2011) shows support for the Australian war in Afghanistan at only 19 per cent, while 62 per cent of those surveyed want Australian troops out of Afghanistan in the next six months. Only one in five Australians thinks the war in both Afghanistan and Iraq, are being won, compared with almost one in three Americans. The message is less clear in America. Following the killing of Osama bin Laden there has been an upsurge in concern that America will face retaliatory attacks. This is reflected in Pew Research that indicates only 48 per cent of Americans support withdrawal of U.S. troops. Conversely 63 per cent believe that troops will “succeed”. It is unclear how American’s (or Australian’s for that matter will measure ‘success’). An earlier CNN poll (3 January 2011) more clearly indicates that more than six in ten Americans oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The poll found that 56 per cent of the American public believes that things are going badly for the U.S. in Afghanistan.

In America, Obama is facing bipartisanship calls for U.S troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan. Recently 178 Democrats and 26 Republicans voted to pressure Obama into an immediate withdrawal. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California) has argued that: “Americans are paying a big price.” For Republican Jim McGovern (Massachusetts): “Too many people have died in Afghanistan. There is no clear mission”. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Democrat Maryland) insisted that because of the killing of Osama bin Laden, the stakes have changed: “His death is a moment for reflection on that struggle (in Afghanistan)…many of the terrorists against which we are fighting are no longer located in Afghanistan.”

In Australia, Gillard is facing pressure from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. In a minority government, Gillard requires the support of four Independents. One of those is Andrew Wilkie (Tasmania). Wilkie, a former intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessments who ‘blew the whistle’ over the emptiness of the Howard government’s claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, opposes the war in Afghanistan. He has said: “One of the big lies of the [Australian] federal election campaign [of 2010] is that we have to be there to fight terrorists for Australia’s national security.” Leader of the Australian Greens in the Senate, Bob Brown, has consistently called for Australian troops to withdrawn from its “invasion” of Afghanistan. The Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate from 1 July 2011.

Gillard it also facing pressure from the mainstream media with even neo-conservative pro-war commentators such as The Australian’s Foreign Affairs editor, Greg Sheridan, calling for a withdrawn of all troops from Afghanistan. He has recently written:  “Australia is losing the stomach to ask any of its brave and brilliant young soldiers to be the last man to die for a losing cause in Afghanistan…. No matter what we do, we cannot win in Afghanistan…. We have known that for a long time.”

The Prime Minister and Chief of the Defence Force’s mantra that Australian forces are succeeding in their mission in Afghanistan seems more and more hollow in the face of Sheridan’s influential comments. As former Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh (who served in Afghanistan from 1986 to 1988) says: “I for one am fed up with the half truths and lies emanating from senior defence officers over all aspects of Australia’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan; a war in which the original objectives have long since disappeared.”

The initial objectives (always problematic in terms of a ‘just’ war) have been replaced by an ongoing war, with undefined objectives, and lacking moral authority. Human Rights Watch 2011 World Report found a liternay of human rights breaches that have either been perpetrated by foreign troops or sanctioned by foreign governments. For example, the U.S. military is thought to be detaining 1,000 Afghanis as prisoners in their own country. It has emerged that President Hamid Karzai (who only rules with American support) has quietly introduced a law that provides amnesty to perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The U.K. and E.U. are pursuing plans to build asylum seeker detention centers in Kabul in order to repatriate unaccompanied children, despite concerns over security and lack of safeguards. Military action has caused widespread internal displacement of civilians. The Red Cross reported a thousand weapon-related injuries to civilians in 2010, double that of 2009. These claims, never mind the deaths of Coalition soldiers and Afghan civilians, and spiraling costs in the face of a global recession, should have Australian and American citizens clamoring for an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan.

It is getting more and more difficult on any grounds—politically, economically, or morally—to ‘stay the course’ in Afghanistan. Australia should withdraw now: it will once Obama does and there seems no other strategy available to the American president.

Read the 1st chapter of Obstacle to Peace for free!

Jo Coghlan

Dr Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in Politics at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. She is a regular writer on national and international human rights issues and is the coeditor of Seeking Refuge: Asylum Seekers and Politics in a Globalising World (Halstead Press, Sydney, 2005). Dr Coghlan regularly contributes on Online Opinion, Australia's premier ejournal of social and political debate. 

Comments are encouraged, but please respect the rules. Click here for terms of use.

  • MJ

    There have been numerous trials of ISAF forces over civilian deaths including American and Australian trials. Maybe there was no prosecutions because there was no evidence of misconduct. Your article mentions 8,832 civilian deaths in Afghanistan. It fails to mention that that statistic includes the Taliban (the targeted bad guys) all Taliban deaths are recorded as civilians. 8,832 deaths includes those who blown themselves up planting IEDs, suicide bombers and those killed in direct action. Let’s have a robust debate but let’s include the facts and maybe a little less emotion.

    • Pathology of Power

      MJ, your assertion that the statistic of 8,832 civilian deaths in Afghanistan over the past four years includes Taliban, and that “all Taliban deaths are recorded as civilians” is — how shall i put it? — completely and entirely false. She doesn’t “fail to mention” that the statistic supposedly “includes the Taliban” because — wait for it — THE STATISTIC DOESN’T INCLUDE THE TALIBAN.

      The methodolody of UNAMA is described in their annual reports. They don’t include Taliban deaths in their totals. Over the same period (the past four years), the US and NATO claim to have killed roughly 5,000 “Taliban” and “suspected insurgents” per year since 2007 — so if were to include that number, we would have to add another 20,000 to the number killed in since 2007.

      The writer’s claim that 8,832 civilians have been killed during the past four years probably comes from this recent article:


      The 8,832 number can be verified by simply adding up the numbers provided by UNAMA over the past four years. The numbers are listed here, for example:


      year — deaths
      2010 — 2,777
      2009 — 2,412
      2008 — 2,118
      2007 — 1,523
      Total — 8,830

      Furthermore, in UNAMA’s own reports, they acknowledge that their numbers are almost certainly undercounts of the actual death toll, since many deaths go unreported or can’t be investigated due to violence and insecurity. Other organizations, like the Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), and researchers such as Marc Herold, who has collected and analyzed reports of civilian deaths from US/NATO attacks since 2001, have published higher numbers of civilian deaths.

      The estimate of 8,832 civilian deaths from 2007-2010 is accurate (although certainly lower than the actual death toll) and it does not include Taliban deaths.

      Probably another 1,500 civilians will have been killed in the first 6 months of 2011 (the UN reported that 368 civilians were killed during May 2011 alone). According to US/NATO statements, the number of “Taliban” killed by the occupying forces has been roughly 5,000 per year, which would add another 20,000 to the total since 2007. From the period between 2001-2006, probably another 5,000 civilians died (at least), and another 10,000 – 15,000 “Taliban” and “insurgents” killed.

      These figures also don’t include Afghan police or military deaths, which have been close to 2,000 per year (1,000 police and 1,000 military).

      They also don’t include the roughly 2,000 people killed by US drone strikes just miles across the border in Pakistan, nor the thousands more from attacks carried out by Pakistani Taliban and associated groups.

      The violent death toll for the Afghan war is at the very least 50,000 at this point, and almost certainly substantially higher.

  • saadjaan

    The US and NATO plan to exit Afghanistan and inviting Taliban to join the government is shocking, the non pushtoon ethnic communities of Afghanistan specially the ethnic HAZARA who have always been on the target of Taliban are uncertain about their future in the Taliban regime be it a good Taliban regime or a bad Taliban regime in Afghanistan for them TALIBAN is TALIBAN.
    The cowardly act of America and NATO to negotiate with the terrorists is condemnable, it’s like America wants the wolves to look after the herd of sheep…BRAVO……America ….BRAVO …. NATO.
    God willing this act of negotiation with terrorist Taliban will boost the moral of terrorism all over the world.
    HAZARAS of Afghanistan and living any where in the world, join your hands together show your unity because the racist Afghan President with the help world community has once again planned to carry-out the massacre of ethnic Hazara in Afghanistan, the first phase of the plan has been started as the armed KUCHIE’s are being deployed in and around the Bamyan, Ghazni, Behsud, Hazara populated areas in the Capital Kabul, and the other areas.
    Stage protests against the negotiation between the US, NATO and TALIBAN.

  • Edward

    I find it strange that the residents of a country would need outside help to get on together. American propaganda seems to be one of the few sucesses in Afghanistan. They didn’t need the Americans before they invaded so why would they need them now?
    Anyway I do not see the Americans leaving Afghanistan because, as stated above, they have spent so much and when it comes to money and poitics there is no such thing as chance. So they obviously have good reason for spending so much on their occupation of Afhganistan. Whether they succeed in their ultimate objective or not remains to be seen,

  • violator

    Australia is America’s lap dog!