Power Politics and Imperial Gambles

In grand power politics, there are only national interests, not friendships. This is a point often missed on Australia’s dedicated Americanophiles. Faith is put in such untestable propositions as extended nuclear deterrence. Faith is also unqualified. Foreign conflicts with US forces are bound to see the company, albeit small, of Australian contingents.

When it comes to the cold play of geopolitics, such alliances can count for naught. The powerful partner will decide and loyalty will provide little capital. An example of this came in the dashing of Australian hopes that Japan’s Emperor Hirohito would face the noose at the conclusion of the Second World War. The then Minister for External Affairs, Dr Herbert Evatt, expressed the view that the emperor was as guilty as any other figure. Sir William Webb, Chief Justice of Queensland and tasked by Evatt during the war to investigate the atrocities committed by Japanese forces, was of like mind. The sentiment was outlined in an Australian cable of August 11, 1945 to the British authorities: “we must appeal to you to undertake to resist any claim of the Emperor or on his behalf to immunity from punishment, to support us in bringing him to justice and to deprive him of any authority to rule the moment of surrender [by Japan].”

US General Douglas MacArthur, and his British counterparts, had other ideas: spare the emperor; preserve order in a defeated country and win the Japanese population over. Should Hirohito be indicted, claimed the US Armed Forces’ own version of an imperial sage, “It is quite possible that a minimum of a million troops would be required which would have to be maintained for an indefinite number of years.” The tempering British response to Australian blood lust was outlined in a cable on August 17, 1945. “We consider…. That it would be a capital political error to indict him as a war criminal. We desire to limit commitment in man power and other resources by using the Imperial throne as an instrument for the control of the Japanese people and indictment of the present occupant would, in our view, be most unwise.”

A more modest version of this is playing out in US policy towards Afghanistan, a country which has drawn in Australian blood and treasure since 2001. The Trump administration has tired of a US military engagement that remains the longest in the republic’s history. The Taliban forces do not only remain strong but have fought themselves to the negotiating table. Pens, it goes to show, are not always mightier than swords. The Afghan government, pens aplenty, rues the writing the wall. The talk is about peace, even if there is not much in the way of peace to keep.

Afghanistan has left its ruinous mark on Australian forces. Atrocities have been committed and witnessed by all sides in a conflict that has often strained the military manual. One fighter, known as Hekmatullah, was responsible for killing three Australian soldiers in August 2012 at the base of Tarin Kowt while they were playing cards. He had done so serving as a sergeant in the Afghan National Army.

The Afghan government promised his execution. A date was set. Kelly Walton, wife of slain Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, told Australia’s Radio National last month that “Canberra rang us in the morning to advise that it was happening and we had full expectations that it was happening.” On the scheduled date, a series of bomb attacks took place around Kabul. The execution was called off.

Hekmatullah, found himself one of 400 Taliban prisoners, part of a larger complement of 5,000, slated for release under an arrangement reached by the Trump administration and the Taliban. Along with a small number of Taliban fighters, his case has been treated somewhat more delicately. These were men accused of killing US, French and Australian nationals, and opposition to their release frothed and bubbled. France’s foreign ministry, for instance, issued a statement in August firmly opposing “the liberation of individuals convicted of crimes against French nationals, in particular soldiers and humanitarian workers.”

Along with five others, Hekmatullah boarded a flight to Doha and placed under temporary house arrest. Their arrival in Qatar was the gesture required for the Taliban to announce their readiness to begin official and direct peace talks with the Afghan government.

The father of Private Robert Poate, one of the three killed that August in 2012, had words regarding the arrangements. “We have now come to a rotten impasse,” assessed Hugh Poate, “when the Trump administration is more concerned about pandering to the wishes of a terrorist group than the sacrifice of soldiers and families of its longstanding ally.” Australia, and other countries involved in Afghanistan, had been excluded from the negotiations. “It is a damning indictment of the Australian-American ‘alliance’ that this could happen.”

Damning it might have been but it was left to Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds to meekly state “that Hekmatullah must not be released”, having “communicated our position repeatedly and consistently and at the highest level to the Government of Afghanistan, which is solely responsible for his custody, and to the United States.” The Afghan Office of the National Security has also told the ABC’s 7.30 program that releasing Hekmatullah would not happen “without the consent of the Australian Government and the victims’ families.”

This could be wishful thinking. The Taliban have impressed the Trump administration sufficiently of their power credentials. Ruthlessly, enduringly and dangerously, they remain essential to any peace talks. The Afghan government has been told to listen. As US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged in a statement, “The opportunity must not be squandered.”

Australian views about Taliban fighters as terrorists are now modish sentiments, the sort first uttered when the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan. They are, if anything, equal partners in negotiating with the Afghan government, committed to ensuring, as Pompeo puts it, “that terrorists can never again use Afghan soil to threaten the United States or its allies.” As with Hirohito, men like Hekmatullah can count themselves lucky to be spared by the exigencies of a cold pragmatism.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com