Afghanistan: ‘Can we handle 16 more deaths?’

In late June, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel made the claim that “a half of al Qaeda has been eliminated in this last 18 months.” More recently CIA Director Leon Panetta appears to have validated this statement when he told ABC News that al Qaeda maintains only a small footprint in Afghanistan. He said that “at most, we’re looking at maybe 50 to 100, maybe less” al Qaeda left in the country.

But whereas at first glance this sounds like desperately needed good news for Australians still coping with last months deaths of three Australian commandos and two Engineers, a closer look at the facts shows that it may be way too soon to be getting our collective hopes up that our troops will be returning home safely anytime soon.

Back in 2004 President George W. Bush told radio host Rush Limbaugh that three-quarters of known al Qaeda leaders have been captured or killed in the war. And more recently outlets such as MSNBC suggested that the war must certainly be coming to a close following the death of Al Qaeda’s #3 man, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid.

Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, better known as Sheikh Said al-Masri (aka Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law) was the financial director for Al Qaeda, so his death was hailed by some media outlets and ‘official sources’ as a big victory in terms of counterterrorism.

But even this apparent loss of leadership and a reputedly diluted al Qaeda headcount on the ground appears to have done little to impede their ability to kill our countrymen at their convenience.

So whilst I’m a proud ex-serviceman who to date has been 100% supportive of Australian soldiers doing their part to, as Senator Faulkner stated “improve conditions in that country”, I have recently started questioning the governments claims that our men on the ground are vital for international stability and for the security of Australia.

The tally of Australian troop deaths has hit 16 in our close to decade long campaign on the ground in this troubled part of the world, but I wonder why we are keeping our boys there when all the data suggests we shouldn’t be and when public support for this campaign is at an all time low. Consider two key recent developments…

General Stanley McChrystal recently resigned as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, citing that he no longer had faith in President Obama and the U.S. governments’ plans for the region. Then we have CNN host Fareed Zararia recently publicly criticized the war in explicit detail, asking “if Al Qaeda is down to a hundred men there at the most, why are we fighting a major war?”

Zararia also questioned the costs of the war in both human and financial terms, noting the 100+ deaths of NATO soldiers in the past month and the fact the war is estimated to cost the US more than $100 billion this year alone. So if the military leader in charge of the war doesn’t want to be there, and the mainstream media is starting to refuse to tow the party line, what chance is there that we’ll see local support soon for an end to this debacle?

This weeks government announcement that we could start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan within two years, at least a year earlier than previously forecast, may well be the olive branch we’ve been waiting for.

Whilst Senator Faulkner was quick to clarify that this announcement was not a reversal on the governments’ commitment to stay the course, saying that the timetable depended on “the conditions on the ground”, it is a welcome glimmer of hope that may reflect the long awaited change of heart by the people who govern this nation.

National opposition to our involvement in the protracted conflict has increased, fuelled more recently by our tragic troop loses, so the notion of a quicker withdrawal will be welcomed by many Australians. So to the 1,550 Australian soldiers and other personnel deployed in Afghanistan I offer you my heartfelt wishes that you stay safe from harm long enough for our government to do the right thing by you all.

In closing, I feel the need to repeat Senator Faulkner’s sound bite from earlier in the week, for I believe it reflects our national sentiment and it can never be said enough.

He said “our men and women in uniform continue to do outstanding work in this demanding and dangerous environment. They deserve our very highest praise. They deserve our gratitude.”

Well on behalf of those whose country you serve I’m happy to say: You have it!