27 May 2011

Tom Switzer's war

For every problem there is always a solution that is simple, obvious and wrong.

- Mark Twain

This is one of the clearest pieces on the war on Afghanistan that I've read in a long time. It is also dead, hopelessly wrong.

In it, you can see the febrile mind of Tom Switzer having to rely on pointy-headed academics to support him on his half-hearted jag through a real policy issue (as opposed to the culture-war bullshit in warmed-over pieces from The Weekly Standard on which Switzer's reputation is made). You can see his weak attempts to frame the Prime Minister under the Damned If She Does, Damned If She Doesn't Act, when you know that a) Gillard is following a policy set in place by Howard and b) jerks like Tom Switzer would cane her for departing from it. Talk about the need for balance on the ABC.
“We will be there seeing the mission through.” So said Julia Gillard in response to this week’s tragic news of the 24th Australian death in Afghanistan.

Yet why does the mission, for which 1,550 diggers are fighting, justify more Australian blood and treasure in a backward tribal nation of 25 million? There is, after all, no clear strategy or decent end in sight.

The same could have been said for Gallipoli, or Tobruk. It could also have been said for the postwar occupation of Japan in the 1940s. Basically, Western forces in Afghanistan have made it impossible for fake militant Islam to use the government of that country as a front for pursuing activities designed to maximise chaos throughout the world. They remain there to stabilise the country. As with Japan in 1946 and Korea in 1951, this is a backward country smashed by misgovernment and war, that most terrible of symptoms of political failure. Without postwar occupation, the sort of resentments that led to militarism in the 1930s would have reared their ugly heads again. The status quo in Afghanistan is only relevant insofar as it provides an indication of the future.

There is no clear strategy or decent end if you think the current government - of Australia, as well as Afghanistan - is incapable of clarity and decency. At that point you would have expected Switzer ritually to commend Australian troops for doing a fine job under terrible circumstances, but it would take a bigger man than he to lift his eyes above the partisan.
The Prime Minister says: “We're there to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't become a safe haven for terrorists.” Yet even before the death of Osama bin Laden earlier this month, there was no substantial Al Qaeda presence in the country: according to CIA estimates a year ago, only 50 to 100 Al Qaeda fighters have been left there.

To the extent that the Al Qaeda network remains operational, it is far more likely to be based in Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Pakistan. As former foreign minister Alexander Downer has pointed out, the original objective of the 2001 operation was to destroy Al Qaeda, not fight the Taliban. That aim has been accomplished.

The ongoing presence of Western forces in Afghanistan has cauterised fake militant Islam in Afghanistan's neighbours of Pakistan and Iran. Failing to prop up the existing Afghan government makes aggressive clandestine movements more fluid and less easy to monitor. The CIA would never have been able to get any sort of estimate about the strength of al-Qaeda on the ground in Afghanistan without a significant Western presence there: the CIA failed to anticipate the downfall of the Soviet Union and September 11 itself, so when it comes to intelligence gathering they need all the help they can get.

As former foreign minister Alexander Downer and Tom Switzer should know, World War II was provoked by the invasion of Poland and it ended with Poland still under foreign occupation. That's the problem with war, it rarely ends with its original aims in mind. War represents the failure of politics, that's why it is sound politics - and not lefty appeasement - to avoid war except where it is unavoidable.
Moreover, the Afghan Taliban does not yearn for global martyrdom; it merely wants to restore Pashtun rule in Afghanistan. That may not be ideal for the people of that war-torn country, but it hardly represents a serious threat to US and Australian interests.

Ah yes, the all-Taliban-are-Pashtun thing. This is the sign that Switzer is a dilettante when it comes to Afghanistan. Non-dilettante observers note that many Pashtun are Taliban but while the causes of race and ideology overlap they are not identical.

Now draw in Switzer's hysterical writings in the Oz (those under his own byline and those he commissioned) about refugees. Consider how many Pashtun Afghans have fled to Australia only to be demonised by arsewits like Tom Switzer. Now, finally, we can look these people in the face and recognise that they indeed "hardly [represent] a serious threat to US and Australian interests".
Gillard says she wants “democracy and a functioning government to take hold”. But after nearly 10 years it should be clear to anyone that democracy is not an export commodity to such a tribalised and xenophobic land. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest and most primitive societies.

Its infrastructure is poorly developed. Its terrain is more forbidding than even Iraq’s. Poppy fields are in bloom. Elections have been deeply flawed. The local army can’t stand up to the Taliban for long. Indeed, the corrupt Karzai government is negotiating with the Taliban...

In other words: with all other options cut off or exhausted, the Afghan government is negotiating. It's bringing people inside the tent. It's cutting deals and hammering out solutions. In other words, it is behaving like a normal government: any goon can lob a grenade into a makeshift hospital, but the slow patient grind of goverment is something usually imposed on Afghanistan rather than performed by its own people.

Owing to the secrecy surrounding this exercise, we can only see in retrospect the lesson that the US and other Western participants have been teaching Karzai and the Afghan elite political class: only when you start negotiating and building alliances will we back off and leave you to it. Only when you realise that fake militant Islam is a threat to you all will our work be done.

It was always too much to hope for the sort of profound cultural shifts that might have engendered recognisable democracy with an intolerance for corruption, or an end to the systematic ill-treatment of women and girls that comes from regarding them as second-class people.
... which makes sense given that the Taliban will still be there after western forces turn tail and run, as they will eventually will.

Could this be any more offensive? What a gutless worm this so-called Tom Switzer is. As explained, the fact that Karzai is talking to the Taliban is a sign of success.
It is true, as Gillard argues, that Australia’s commitment to the all-important US alliance means a special obligation to support what Robert Menzies called “our great and powerful friends”. It also explains why Canberra has supported all of Washington’s (and London’s) major wars in the past century.

The point, though, is that many leading political and diplomatic figures in Washington (and London) can’t wait to end what is the longest war in American, indeed Australian, history.

In the US, a growing number of congressmen on both sides of the political fence oppose the $10 billion monthly funding bill for the operation ...

Leading strategists and intellectuals – from Les Gelb (Democrat) to Richard Haass (Republican) – counsel significant drawing down of the US presence, lest the quagmire further damage American prestige and credibility. Nearly two thirds of Americans say the war is no longer worth fighting.

That's exactly how people felt in 1945 (or about Vietnam in 1969), Tom - sick of all the carnage and waste, keen to wrap it up as soon as possible. The fact is, though, "as soon as possible" does not mean "RIGHT NOW!!!1!1!!" or before tomorrow's edition of The Australian is "put to sleep bed". The war is clearly winding down, and Australians in uniform and not are doing what they can to ensure there is something to show for the past ten years.
Meanwhile, the administration is considering direct talks with the Taliban even as it begins phasing out 5,000 US forces in July.

Tom, you're an Australian writing for an Australian audience. It does not do to refer to the Obama Administration as just "the administration", as though our government is that of the United States. This is a case where sloppy writing has resulted from sloppy thinking (it also shows that Jonathan Green's paeans to Fairfax subediting doesn't apply to his own work at The Drum).
The US and NATO have flagged their complete combat withdrawals by 2014. (Two thirds of the 140,000 coalition troops are American.)

In Britain, prime minister David Cameron has called for a withdrawal of British troops within the next two years. The Dutch have quit Afghanistan for good. The Canadians are in the process of pulling out all their troops.

You'd hope, wouldn't you, that Switzer would have applied this knowledge to the silly rhetorical questions at the start of his piece. He's shown his whole argument to be vacuous hype
And yet, even as the deteriorating position of the US-led coalition becomes increasingly evident, Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott keep insisting we must complete the mission. Last October, the Prime Minister even warned that Australian soldiers would be in Afghanistan for another decade.

What they're doing there, Tom, is telling the Afghans not to lapse back into the Hobbesian milieu to which they are accustomed. The 2014 endgame is in place for our benefit, not for the benefit of the bad guys looking to regroup: the threat to stay another ten years is a warning that no backsliding will be tolerated.
But the logic that suggests that because Australia and the Coalition have stayed so long, we may as well finish the job, is based on a false premise that assumes a defined endgame exists and is achievable. But no endgame exists, let alone is achievable.

It's not a false premise, and a defined endgame does in fact exist. You said so yourself, and then you ignored it: this, not some partisanship, leads one to conclude that you are a fool. The endgame is in sight, it would be foolish to slacken and run the risk that a decade's work and sacrifice might be lost. Retreats are the most dangerous aspects of any battle.
This is no way to conduct a war. We’ve been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, and like America and Britain today, we are out of patience, political rationale and public support.

What did you have in mind - a reprise of George W Bush's premature ejaculation over "Mission Accomplished"? There is a significant amount of Australian goodwill toward the troops and to successive governments that sent them there, and to withdraw now would be to blow that.

This is typically lazy stuff from Switzer. Everything he describes - except the endgame announced by President Obama and other leaders - was in place in 2007, yet there was none of this ennui from people like Switzer. Howard's spending on Defence and refusal to put it under much scrutiny warranted closer examination in a time of war. An Abbott government elected in 2013 would be credited with all the adulation that is due to those who are holding the line now; a Gillard government re-elected would get it anyway. Thus, Switzer condemning the incumbents for a bipartisan policy.
A political settlement with the Taliban is the best way to produce a speedy withdrawal of Australian and Coalition troops. It is time to scale down our ambitions and reduce our commitments.

No, it is not. What you're seeking there, Tom, is the sort of figleaf that the US achieved in "negotiations" with the Viet Cong in Paris during the early 1970s. Why have fake victory now when you can - with just a bit more commitment, Tom - have the real thing in a matter of months? But that would mean credit for your political opponents, and a culture warrior in search of preselection and some sort of direction in an otherwise pointless life could never rise to that.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

- Rudyard Kipling Tommy Atkins

Switzer really is a latter-day Tony Abbott. Abbott fell into journalism when sport, law and the Catholic Church failed to sustain him, before lolling about in non-profit organisations (The Bulletin, Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy)waiting for preselection which finally came in 1994. Switzer headed for Washington to see the rise of Gingrichism without learning anything from it, and returning to Australia to act as some sort of culture-warrior.

Now that the US right-wing model has collapsed into the Tea Party, now that Glenn Beck is too embarrassing even for Murdoch, now that Thatcherism has imploded to deliver warmed-over Majorism of David Cameron, and now that Malcolm Turnbull is pointing out that peak Abbott is behind us rather than ahead - Tommy boy is wanting things resolved sooner rather than later. He can't hang around with academics all his life, and going back to journalism looks like going backwards. He is not the man to save a dying industry.

Tom Switzer is trying to engage with the big issues in an area from which Australian politics has really retreated a long way (defence and foreign policy), he's doing all the right things to secure Liberal preselection for a seat in Federal Parliament. Time is running out and opportunities are few, and there are limits to the extent to which his rightwing mates can deliver:

  • Switzer lost preselection in Bradfield to someone roughly the same age as him;

  • In terms of safe Liberal seats in Sydney: Mitchell, Cook and North Sydney are also held by people of similar age to him;

  • Wentworth wouldn't have him even if Turnbull quit; and if he becomes the next leader, forget it;

  • Warringah is held by Tony Abbott, and their taste for another shallow-thinking boofhead might not be as strong as Switzer would hope;

  • That leaves Berowra (Ruddock) and Mackellar (B. Bishop) as longer term prospects, but Switzer can only keep up the profile for a little longer and the right can't guarantee anyone anything since they drove John Brogden over the edge;

  • Senator Switzer? Someone has to replace Coonan but it probably won't be our Tom. Payne and Fierravanti-Wells have long-established constituencies and Heffernan will be replaced by another rustic.

Switzer's article is a metaphor for its writer: a man who is watching all he believed in crumble before his eyes, while the opportunities he assumed were within reach are also slipping away. His position isn't quite as dire as that of the Taliban, but you can see why he's hoping for some tail-turning in Australian politics sooner rather than later.


  1. "Basically, Western forces in Afghanistan have made it impossible for fake militant Islam to use the government of that country as a front for pursuing activities designed to maximise chaos throughout the world. They remain there to stabilise the country."

    Sure. And that's the reason a benevolent Australian government is about to invade Somalia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Sudan and probably Zimbabwe as well, all of which qualify as countries where immigrant insurgents might use (or are using) the government as a front... etc. Maybe we're just waiting for the US to go ahead and start it so we can slavishly follow along.

    The logic of your arguments is as much hogwash as you accuse Switzer's of being. We're in Afghanistan because the US is there, and the US is still there for domestic US political reasons, because they don't know how to counter the irrational fear that in US voters that if they leave the Taliban to it that it will be a defeat, and the Taliban will be on the next plane to the US to wreak havoc. So the US stays in Afghanistan.

  2. "We're in Afghanistan because the US is there" - sure, don't disagree with you there. What I'm saying is that there are a whole lot of other effects which should not be discounted or ignored, as they are b people like Switzer and yourself.

    "... countries where immigrant insurgents might use (or are using) the government as a front ..."- sounds like bullshit to me, Anon. Glad I've never made an argument like that.

  3. "sounds like bullshit to me, Anon" - That's the point, it is bullshit, just as much bullshit as our reasons for being in Afghanistan. Now that we are in there it is very difficult to leave.

    We really must get out of the habit of getting in these stupid US wars started for US domestic political reasons. Afgahistan had a reason way back when, not any more, but Iraq had no reason at all except Dubya's ego. Our lapdog tactics are necessary in a world that is basically run by realpolitik, but smart lapdogs know when to go hide at the right moment.

    I don't have any issue with your views on Switzer, he is a flyweight, however I wouldn't ignore the possibiity that our involvement in Afghanistan may end with a a Vietnam style "peace with honour" cut and run exit.

  4. rubiginosa29/5/11 5:18 pm

    "...sloppy writing has resulted from sloppy thinking..."

    Watch Switzer (and the equally vacuous Mark Lawson) valiantly attempt to exit the paper bag over at Deltoid:


  5. David Irving (no relation)30/5/11 12:47 pm

    I always thought Switzer was intellectually dishonest as well as shallow, but this really is pushing a friendship. He's probably hoping that all his readers have the attention span of a guppy, seeing as he was such an enthusuastic booster of the GWOT not so long ago.