Why does Fred Smith support the war in Afghanistan?

Fred Smith, folk musician and government bureaucrat, is a supporter of the Australian government’s participation in the invasion of Afghanistan. The following article calls into question his support for the war and the ongoing involvement of the US, Australian and other militaries and businesses in Afghanistan. Next week Smith is celebrating the chief pro-war ritual of the Australian and New Zealand states: Anzac Day. Indeed, he is a part of the official Australian government service in Canberra–something his leftie fans should keep in mind when they see him at the Street Theatre the night before. Smith once styled himself as a left-wing critic. Today he is just another deceptively sweet voice justifying imperialist war under the cover of humanitarian aid.

In the longer term, naive views about the wars of today are every bit as dangerous as war itself. Singer Fred Smith wants us to join in his heartfelt praise for the Australian army in Afghanistan, and the schools and other infrastructure he has seen them build there. But behind his meek feel good folk rock, Fred provides a sad example of the dangers of naivety. Fred is notable for endorsing the war in Afghanistan while taking a stand against the war in Iraq. Here we call on him to go the whole way and denounce both wars.

When the US and its allies–including Australia–invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the governments involved and their medias and allied public relations firms, put it about that the US had launched a humanitarian war. Additionally, in the wake of 911, the US government said it was embarking on a war to finally crush terrorism. To those that would listen–and they were many–the US presented its crusade as one against a backward Islamic fundamentalism and the last hold-outs of authoritarian rule in the Middle East. But to sweeten the deal, the US also trumpeted its humanitarian chops, arguing that their real concern was for democracy and the reestablishment of just, well-resourced governance.

We now know these claims were false. The war in Afghanistan was launched by the US with the intention of its extension to Iraq. Additionally, the US’s geo-strategic interests in Afghanistan date back at least to their support of the Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union–not to mention the US’s more long-term interests in securing its oil and other interests throughout the region. Afghanistan has large untapped energy and mineral resources–a fact established by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the British geological surveys. Given the many widespread problems caused by the burning fossil fuels, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the war there is crucial to the current exploitation of the globe. 

Exploitation needs infrastructure. Not just mines, roads and factories, but also–and especially–the schools and hospitals Fred witnessed being built. That Fred wants to emphasise the “giving” moment of the broader question of capitalist exploitation only shows us that he wears his blinkers tight. Exploitation never gives, it only takes. And without schools and hospitals there can be no markets, exploitation or wars.

In 2016 SIGAR confirmed that poverty, unemployment, underemployment, violence, out-migration, internal displacement, and the education gender gap have all increased since the US led invasion. In 2016 over half of children receive no education and 60% of them are malnourished–while opium production is at near record levels. Unemployment is sky high, between 40% and 70%. Only 27% of people have access to clean water (see here).

Fred Smith presumably believes that these are the very problems that infrastructure, installed by US led military, will fix. But neither the Afghan people nor anyone else can afford to just sit around and wait, lulled by folk rock. The truth is that in the wake of the business opportunities opened by the US invasion, daily life has become more not less precarious for Afghanis. Indeed, there has been no humanitarian triumph to date.

To consider this further, let’s briefly look at the origins of the Taliban, the Islamicist force the US-led invasion attacked. From the 1980s on, the Afghani Mujahedeen forces–from which the Taliban would later emerge–were in fact funded by the US and her allies to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The US adopted this strategy for two chief reasons: firstly, the Mujahedeen would fight a proxy war for the US against their number enemy of the day, the Soviet Union; and secondly, in the wake of the defeat of the Russians, the US hoped that the Mujahedeen would form the basis for a stable state, and so to for the profitable exploitation of Afghanistan. Indeed, the US government is no intractable enemy of fundamentalism or authoritarian dictatorship. It supports the Islamic theocracy of Saudi Arabia, and also the presence of Christian fundamentalists at the highest levels of the state and private business. Christian fundamentalists in the US, moreover, ensured overseas wars–such as that the one in Afghanistan–are well funded, and, for instance, pushed for massive increases in Cold War weapons funding during the 1980s.

Fundamentalism of all stripes reacts to the uncertainties of modern capitalist society by encouraging work, traditional families and civil obedience. In other words, by making society stricter. And more profitable. For instance, the US not only differentiates on questionable grounds between the “good” fundamentalism of the Afghani Northern Alliance and the “bad” of the Taliban and others. Christian fundamentalism continues to play a role in US military life. This is both in terms of governmental support for military funding, and in terms of religious commitments of many soldiers.

How then can a military invasion of Afghanistan remedy a humanitarian crisis already bound up with exploitative fundamentalism? After the invasion, reports came out of increasing attacks on effeminate men. In 2008 it was impossible to find a gay rights organisation in Afghanistan. Today, punishment of gays has become more extreme–for instance, three gay men were brutally executed in 2018, whereas previously they would have suffered only the shaming familiar in western society (here) Additionally, the maternal death rate is higher than before the invasion. Not to mention that the murder of civilians by both warlords and US and allied armies have been covered up, and often hidden behind the so-called “humanitarian” work that Fred Smith applauds–see, for instance, the revelations of brutal crimes committed by Australian soldiers by ABC news here, here, and here. Indeed, Fred’s blindness to what else is going on apart from what he has seen with his own eyes, speaks only to his refusal to listen to what other people have seen and heard.

Incidentally, besides not just fostering but embodying fundamentalist ideals, there is another reason the Afghan war has failed to prevent terrorism. Recall that preventing terrorism was the other purported aim of the Afghan war, allied to the humanitarian one. The reality for many people today in Afghanistan–as well as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries that have been caught up in the extension of the US war against terrorism–is often death from US military intervention. One thing is clear, no one feels safer today–maybe not even the political and economic stooges of the US and Australia. It is hard to believe that ongoing war, increasing poverty, fundamentalism, despair and anger, are ways to prevent future terror.

One answer to this is to provide solidarity to people who are opposing the wars in the countries in question, and the poverty and destruction in their wake. However, such solidarity immediately poses the necessity of opposing the war machines in the heart of the war-making countries like Australia and the US. A struggle against militarism and the politics of war in our own cities and towns assists those fighting against war in Afghanistan. Additionally, it should not be forgotten such a movement involves genuine care for the US and Australian and other allied soldiers who fight the wars for their political masters, and in the process are maimed, traumatised or die.

Fred Smith has played acoustic folk rock for more than two decades now, a musical form that at its best helps us make this exploitative society we find ourselves in, feel–and be–less heartless. But the radical promise and potentiality of folk rock is broken once Fred supports war in Afghanistan. By obscuring the truth of what has happened–and continues to happen–in Afghanistan, Fred endorses a key part of the globally destructive and anti-humanitarian project of the US and Australian governments and militaries.

Having already had the good sense to oppose the war in Iraq, Fred is capable of being an inquiring and engaged person. We therefore call upon him to be consistent and still more thoughtful. At his Anzac Day eve performance at the Street Cafe, we call on Fred to renounce his support for the war in Afghanistan. Recent history and careful consideration show that he was wrong about it. Now the time has come for him to show his own courage and admit his mistake.

Anthony Hayes & Gerald Keaney
April 2019