Announced as shocking beyond anything Australian audiences would have heard before, Channel Nine yesterday evening ran a story on how a highly decorated veteran of the Afghan conflict is allegedly not a choirboy. The most serious allegation was of the unlawful killing of an Afghan civilian, the rest was footage of soldiers partying like a bunch of drunk teenage boys certain their Dads are not going to appear at the front door.
Aside from the allegation of unlawful killing of a civilian, what we saw is what you would expect when young men are lied to and sent overseas to kill or be killed. They went in to fight the Taliban, to stabilise a troubled nation, and prevent it from becoming a haven for terrorists. That’s what they believed, and then they most likely figured out it was all bullshit. The Afghans may well fight each other, but they are on the same team when it comes to foreigners getting involved in their family feuds. I remember a documentary on the subject of Australian troops in Afghanistan and a young soldier saying that when they leave their base to go on patrol, “You know you are approaching an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) because the children watching cover their ears”. It was the same situation that in Vietnam led to the My Lai incident; soldiers realising they are risking their lives for people who hate them. There are countless other examples of how war dehumanises all involved, recently I was listening to a WWII veteran describe how the Soviets having taken a town or village would go hunting for women and girls to rape. They were in Germany alone, successful 200 thousand times.
The time to intervene in a manner that might have brought peace and stability to Afghanistan was in the early seventies when the entire population was starving whilst the then king was away partying in European resorts. Everyone knew of the need, below is an extract from a New York Times article dated June 1972 and written by James P Sterba,
CHAKHCHARAN, Afghanistan, June 9—The boy’s spindly body sank slowly to the dusty gravel road. He lowered his head to the pebbles, resting his sunken cheek on his hand. His dry, cracked lips did not close. He tried to cover his feet, but the torn, dirt‐encrusted rags he wore were not long enough. He placed an empty tin can, his only possession, near his stomach. And then he started to cry.
Fifty feet away, near a mud building, another small boy lay motionless in the midmorning sun. in a ditch 20 yards away was a tiny, rag‐covered body, and beside it still another boy, perhaps 6 years old, sat on his haunches and stared blankly at the road, his eyes not following two bearded men as they coaxed their sagebrush ‐laden mules toward the bazaar.
The reality is clear: Afghanistan has been suffering from the worst food shortages in memory.
The final days of life for the sick and starving children in this small, dust‐swept provincial capital in the barren hills of central Afghanistan are spent pleading for a nugget of mutton fat from the town butcher, drinking water from a puddle, dodging the flailing sticks of the newly arrived sellers of wheat, flour, onions and tomatoes, picking a precious few spilled grains of rice out of the dirt, and trying to swallow roots and the toxic grass that swells their faces and puffs their eyelids nearly shut.
The final nights are spent stumbling from mud house to mud house, knocking on locked doors and gates moaning for food and warmth, and huddling in corners of abandoned buildings to escape the cold wind.
The final hours are spent alone.
No one knows how many children, abandoned by parents who had no food for them, have died or are dying in Chakhcharan, in the surrounding hills of Ghor Province or in the other towns and hills in central and western Afghanistan. Fewer are dying now. Roads are opening and food is beginning to trickle in.
Then was the time for humanitarian aid and assistance in forming a new and responsible government. As it happened, there was a coup d’etat which saw a communist government come to power, and here we are fifty years later still paying for the mistake of not caring. Can we blame the Afghans, who have long memory, for their contempt? Can we blame our soldiers?
Now and cynically, I’d also say there is one aspect of Afghanistan unknown in the seventies and that is trillions of dollars of untouched minerals lying under its mudbrick villages.
That some of our SAS soldiers behaved badly is undeniable, but a large part of the fault must be accepted by successive governments which sent them into battle under-resourced and over-extended. There is also a failure of leadership, of the senior officers who failed to identify based on historical experience, that the conditions under which our men were fighting was bound to result in breakdown of moral, of belief in the mission, and their men would react as human beings do when dehumanised. They are not the tin soldiers a spoilt child received for Xmas. What we need is senior officers who are warriors but who would nod in agreement hearing General Dwight Eisenhower when he said,
“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”