MAPW calls on PM to support peace in Afghanistan

16 APRIL 2009. MAPW President Dr Sue Wareham OAM has written to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, urging that Australia support a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and withdraw Australian soldiers from the region, together with rebuilding of the country.

12 April, 2009
The Hon Kevin Rudd MP,
The Prime Minister
Parliament House
Canberra, ACT 2600

Deair Prime Minister

Re: Afghanistan

As the war in Afghanistan continues, with no clearly achievable goals or end points having been announced, MAPW shares with many other Australians grave concern at the prospect of an escalation of the war, possibly with Australian assistance. After over seven years of armed conflict and a very heavy loss of innocent Afghan lives, there are many unanswered questions about the role of warfare generally, and especially the war in Afghanistan, in combating terrorism.

It is disappointing to note from comments that you have made recently that the concept of a “war on terror” remains at the forefront of Australia’s approach to security. It is legitimate to ask therefore what the end point of  such a war is, for example whether it is the deaith of every known or potential terrorist, and how the reemergence of extreme violence as a political tool will be prevented if the underlying causes remain.

Civilian deaiths as a result of the war in Afghanistan are not easy to number with certainty, but are likely to be in excess of 20,000. In other words, the civilian toll far exceeds that of the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. President Karzai himself has accused the US and NATO of being “careless” with civilian lives, as the effects of aerial bombardment have risen. It should be noted that civilians, including children, have died as a result of Australian military action in Afghanistan.

As with wars elsewhere, the effects on the civilian population go far beyond the immediate deaiths and injuries. In the face of never-ending conflict, many Afghans, including women and children, turn to the solace of opium, leading to family breakdown and children growing up in seemingly hopeless situations. Terrorism thrives in the midst of such desperation.

A report titled “Fight Poverty to End Insecurity: Afghan Perceptions of Insecurity” released in March by the Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium, states that the Afghan population feels increasingly insecure as the incidence of violence in their country rises. The plight of women in Afghanistan remains dire, with appalling human rights abuses.

In summary, rather than addressing the hatred that fuelled the attacks of September 11, 2001, the ongoing war in Afghanistan is seen by many as a perpetuation of innocent suffering, which, far from removing terrorism, will augment it.

In addition to the civilian deaiths, over 1,000 coalition military deaiths have occurred, including, of course, Australians. For the remainder, a significant number will suffer severe psychological trauma, probably for life. A large number of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War still suffer psychological disability as a result of that war, and their children are three times as likely to commit suicide as their peers. Similarly service in the 1991 Gulf War is associated with an increased rate of psychological disorder among Australian veterans.

Australia is reported to have spent $2 – 2.5 billion on the war in Afghanistan, while many essential health and other services here suffer desperate shortfalls in funding. Climate change and critical levels of environmental degradation threaten the health and general security of Australians directly and severely, and yet these problems seem to have been afforded lower priority in government pronouncements and spending than a war that, at very best, is having a neutral effect in combating terrorism, and is in fact likely to be worsening the problem.

According to media reports, attacks by Taliban on coalition forces have increased markedly over the past year, and these attacks are not confined to the Pakistan border area. They are occurring deep within Afghanistan. The presence of foreign troops enables the Taliban to portray themselves as patriots, fighting for the country’s freedom.

There have been warnings enough of the political dangers of a reliance on  armed force in Afghanistan, especially airpower. Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Australia, Jalil Jilani, recently commented that “Killing one innocent Afghan can turn the whole village against the coalition and the Afghan government”. Indeed, this is hardly surprising. There is no reason to believe that Afghan families are any more willing to sacrifice the life of a child or mother or father than Australian families would be in the fight against terrorism. Nor should they be.

Many Australians were privileged to hear recently a message of hope from former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, who urged not only a respect for the rights of all people in the Middle East, but also a reconsideration on the part of Western nations of their role in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Khatami, mindful of the impact of instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan on his own country, referred to the failure of occupying forces to reduce terrorism or to alleviate poverty for the people of Afghanistan, and advocated their departure. Khatami’s centrally important message is that there must be a dialogue between civilisations, rather than clashes between them.

The historian Gwynne Dyer poses two significant questions in relation to the war in Afghanistan, which he, like many, likens to the war in Vitenam.. He writes, “Did Osama bin Laden want the United States to invade Afghanistan in response to 9/11? The answer to that one is: yes, of course he did. And second: Of all the tens of thousands of people the US has killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, would a single one have turned up in the United States to do harm if left un-killed? Answer: probably not.”

No-one can pretend that there is a clear way forward in resolving the problems of terrorism and destructive and repressive forces such as the Taliban. It is becoming increasingly clear however that war is not the answer, nor even part of it. The war in Afghanistan has augmented the suffering of the Afghan people, magnified the terrible human cost of the crimes of September 11, 2001, provided an impetus for further Taliban recruits, and brought us no closer to stable governance for the country.

A political solution will eventually be necessary, as will the rebuilding of Afghanistan so that terrorism’s breeding- ground of desperation and hatred has no place to go. Australia’s best contributions would be to offer the strongest possible level of support to these goals, both diplomatically and economically. Our relationship with Pakistan will obviously be of great importance in this. The goals should be pursued with the same determination and willingness to commit resources with which Australia has pursued a military solution.

MAPW (Australia) applauds your foresight in ending our role in the ongoing war in Iraq. We urge you to finally close the door on a period of our history that many Australians regard with deep shame, a period when governments on our behalf blindly accepted the notion that war can end terrorism. The deaiths of thousands of civilians cannot end terrorism. With the deepest respect, we ask yo u to bring our troops home from Afghanistan.

Yours sincerely

Dr Sue Wareham OAM
President, Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia)