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Win or lose, their sacrifice is not for nought

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COMMENTS

2 June 2011 14:26

Crispin Rovere is a PhD candidate at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

It would be no indictment of Raoul Heinrichs to be emotional at the sight of yet another two diggers killed in Afghanistan. The consensus is building, both in the US and Australia, on both left and right, that the Afghanistan conflict is either unwinnable or not worth the blood and treasure required to carry on the fight. Even Greg Sheridan has thrown in the towel.

I acknowledge Rodger Shanahan's point that what drives soldiers is not Australia's strategic interest so much as their personal experiences on the ground. Indeed this lack of mutual understanding has underwritten much of the tension between uniformed soldiers and civilian strategists like Raoul and myself for many years.

If you are a commander motivating soldiers in Afghanistan, you are not going to point to Australia's alliance management policy, but to the young girl who can now learn to read, or the development project bringing electricity and clean water into the village for the first time.

Yet those motivations, noble and altruistic as they are, do not come without costs and risks which, to Australia's national interest, grossly outweigh the benefits.

The Afghan central government perverts elections, is involved in drug trafficking and is perceived by the average Afghan as a corrupt tax collector as much as a service provider.

The West's relationship with Pakistan — a country with 180 million people and a nuclear armed state — continues to deteriorate. Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan after living there for years, and the Taliban continues to straddle the border while destabilising the country itself. Yes, women in Afghanistan can now get an education, and yes that would be imperiled if we left, but for the $400 billion the coalition has spent in Afghanistan, how many lives could be transformed through aid programs elsewhere all around the world?

There is also a difference between a government that wastes lives in a war than cannot be won, for reasons that it will not admit, and the worth of a soldier making the ultimate sacrifice. I passionately reject the idea that if we leave Afghanistan the diggers who gave up their lives for its cause died for nothing. There is no such thing as a good war, and we are fools to be persuaded otherwise.

No matter what the outcome of a conflict, in victory or defeat, in self-preservation or foreign adventure, diggers who perish carrying out their orders with dedication to duty and loyalty to their mates deserve to be remembered as heroes. The Australian soldier killed in Vietnam or Afghanistan did not sacrifice less than one who died stopping the spread of Nazism; they should be honoured the same.

I appreciate the commitment of soldiers to the memory of their comrades, but the argument to stay the course in a losing war is akin to gambling a second rent payment on pokies because we want to make up the first. The truth is that we are in Afghanistan because we are trying to be good mates to our American friends; I agree we should stay until they leave, but concurrently encourage them to do so.

Our purpose is to show our commitment to the ANZUS alliance, and this can be achieved with reduced risk to our troops. Afghanistan is utterly trivial to Australia's interest, and is a long way from Australian shores. It is not trivial for the aforementioned school girl, nor for the digger risking their life. But for the Australian people who bury them, it makes very little sense at all.

Photo, of a Commando bowing his head during a minutes silence at Sergeant Brett Wood's memorial service, courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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