Julia Gillard’s tactic of targetting Tony Abbott’s refusal of an offer to join her trip to Afghanistan was certainly a bit tacky, but it pales into insignificance beside the cynical efforts of Abbott and his team to extract maximum partisan advantage from the Afghan engagement by hook or by crook (mostly crook).
Indeed it’s abundantly clear that the real reason Abbott declined Gillard’s joint visit offer had nothing to do with either jet lag, the UK Tory conference or existing unchangeable plans. It was solely to allow Abbott to profess a desire for responsible bipartisanship on Afghanistan while in practice doing exactly the opposite. The Coalition would not have been able to maintain its idiotic call for more troops and tanks for as long as it managed had Abbott joined Gillard in Afghanistan and been briefed by military leaders on just how silly these demands were.
However, even this silliness has now been exceeded by Abbott’s thoroughly unprincipled politicking on the manslaughter charges against three Australian commandos over the killing of 5 Afghan children in Oruzgan province last year. It seems that no stance is now too low for Abbott in his unrelenting efforts to attack the Gillard government at every conceivable opportunity and simultaneously appeal to the lowest common denominator of Alan Jones talkback audience ignorance:
The broadcaster Alan Jones has been railing against the charges and Mr Abbott, appearing on Jones’s program yesterday, empathised.
”The last thing people want to see is soldiers being stabbed in the back by their own government and … a lot of people think that’s what’s happening.”
As Jones savaged Brigadier McDade as ”this woman who’s never been on the frontline”, Mr Abbott said it appeared ”these soldiers have been doing the right thing by Australians” and ”are being thrown to the wolves by the government”.
He said the government had failed to provide the men with the best available legal counsel.
How are Australia’s soldiers being “stabbed in the back by their own government” by virtue of 3 soldiers being investigated and then charged for serious crimes under the “best practice” independent military justice system originally established by the Howard government with bipartisan support? The charges have nothing to do with the government, which would have been acting improperly had it interfered in the military justice system.
How is it relevant that Brigadier McDade has never been on the frontline? She’s a respected senior lawyer with long years of military service. How many Commonwealth and State DPPs, for example (the civilian equivalent of Brigadier McDade’s office) have served on the frontline of police law enforcement? I venture to suggest the answer would be zero. It’s simply irrelevant.
How do we know ”these soldiers have been doing the right thing by Australians”? Surely in part at least that is what will be tested in the forthcoming military justice proceedings. Moreover, the primary question there will not be whether they did the right thing by Australians but whether they committed 5 homicides of Afghan children.
Abbott’s pandering to these sorts of ignorant prejudices is utterly disgraceful. I wonder why the mainstream media has not so far condemned him for it? Moreover it’s worse than disgraceful, it might in fact in a perverse way actually exacerbate the peril our troops face in Afghanistan. As the SMH’s Peter Hartcher observes:
Firing blindly will never defeat an enemy hiding in the midst of a civilian population. It will only infuriate the civilians. And if you lose the support of the population, you lose the war. The enemy will always have a place to hide.
That’s why the current strategy is much more intelligent. It’s not counter-terrorism but counter-insurgent. And the best way to counter an insurgent is to have the local people do it for you.
This is the new mission, but the Australian commander in Afghanistan is frustrated that it’s not properly understood. Major-General John Cantwell said: “Our mission is not to defeat the insurgency in Oruzgan. That’s not our mission. It’s not our mission to hunt down and kill or capture every Taliban or insurgent in this province.
“Our mission is very clear – train the Afghans to manage security around the key population areas of Oruzgan. That’s a limited scope . . . Our mission is to train those guys. And we need, I think, to make that clearer to the public and in some case to our own soldiers.”
Perhaps the first person to whom this message needs to be made clear is the federal Opposition Leader. If the Afghan people are given the message that Australian troops are effectively above the law and can behave with complete impunity towards Afghan civilians, they’re hardly likely to embrace the counter-insurgency strategy which is the Allies’ sole chance of resolving the Afghan engagement satisfactorily. As last Monday’s Four Corners program depicted graphically in relation to the Americans’ initial ham-fisted tactics in Iraq, it’s all too easy to alienate a population you’re trying to help and end up being seen as enemy occupiers rather than saviours.
If there are plausible allegations of criminal behaviour against the three charged commandos, as is clearly the case, justice in all its dimensions requires that they be charged and given a fair trial just like anyone else alleged to have committed a homicide. If they have a good defence, as may well be the case, then they can expect to be found not guilty. Like soldiers, police often have to act in highly confused dangerous situations too, but it’s highly unlikely that any politician would take the stance that daring to charge police officers who killed people on duty would amount by definition and without reference to the facts to “being stabbed in the back by their own government”.