We could have done better

During the two decades in which Australia was ensnared in an unwinnable war after trailing the US into Afghanistan, successive Australian leaders like Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull all spoke reassuringly about how they would not desert the Afghans.

However, this is exactly what we have done.

Afghan friends following the unfolding drama in their former homes can’t believe that after all the fighting, after everything they and their families went through the Taliban is back. Violence, discrimination and persecution of women and young girls has returned. 

The Taliban is stronger right now than at any time since the US invasion. The United Nations reports record civilian casualties. In recent weeks, the militants have stepped up offensive in key cities Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, Kunduz and Herat.

This is critical. The Taliban has strongholds in rural areas but taking back cities is a decisive change potentially tipping the balance of power in its favour. Foreign Policy magazine this week said: 

“The urban offensives also have demographic implications. If the Taliban seize cities, the insurgents would bring an even more sizeable share of the population under their control.”

Australian journalist Stan Grant who worked as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan has written thoughtfully about the issue based on his experiences

In 2014, former Australian Army Colonel and defence strategist for US General David Petraeus and Security Advisor to Condoleezza Rice, David Kilcullen, forecast exactly what is now happening in Afghanistan. “The worst-case scenario is not that ISIS and al-Qaeda continue to be rivals, it’s that they pal up. You end up with a precipitated withdrawal from Afghanistan, creating space for the Taliban to come back, just like ISIS did in Iraq.”

Kilcullen continues to write about the situation.

I pictured an Australian soldier today, back from extended tours of duty in the Middle East, watching the news on television. The hard-fought battles to defeat the Taliban in places like Uruzgan province and to then improve security and assist villagers re-build their lives, must have seemed a complete waste of time. The country seemed to be back where they had started from. Right in front of them on the screen all the good work that he or she thought they had done, was unravelling in fast moving pictures. 

Several years ago, at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, I interviewed Major General John Cantwell, Commander of Australian Forces in Afghanistan in 2010, and I asked him was the effort by Australian, and allied forces, worth it? What had we achieved in Afghanistan? Was it worth all the lives that had been lost? Cantwell answered that even though such comments seemed disrespectful to a life-time soldier, steeped in a sense of duty and service, he had to answer, “No. It wasn’t worth it.”

The whole mess has been summed up in the Guardian Australia by writers Paul Daley and Ben Doherty as a tragic and wasted opportunity. 

We could have done more. 

We could have done better. 

We’ve let the people of Afghanistan down.

Ageism is a Global Challenge

According to a recent United Nations Report ageism is a global challenge. 

Every second person in the world is believed to hold ageist attitudes. This leads to poorer physical and mental health and reduced quality of life for older persons as well as costing societies billions of dollars each year.

If you are over fifty and reading this, the concept will not be news to you. In established Western societies being ignored or being unable to find a job are often the reality for people over fifty, particularly if you are a woman. 

My colleague, Liz Byrski, wrote a really thoughtful book called Getting on: some thoughts on women and ageing. She writes: “once past fifty, older women begin to sense that they have become invisible. From visual displays in the mall to the pages of magazines and television screens at the heart of our home, young women with perfect skin, bouncy, enhanced breasts, pouting lips, long straight hair and perfect teeth gaze down on us.”

But the UN report on ageism also highlights the challenges for more vulnerable people during the COVID 19.  “The pandemic has put into stark relief the vulnerabilities of older people, especially the most marginalised, who often face overlapping discrimination and barriers.”   This refers to those who live in poverty, those with disabilities, who live alone or belong to minority groups. Women from a refugee background who live in refugee camps are particularly hard hit.

Ageism costs our societies billions of dollars. The discrimination means people of the older generation are not getting the care they require physically and mentally.  And as Liz writes the ageing population is traditionally viewed as a problem – a drain on financial resources, health, housing and community services. She argues that living longer and living well are the triumphs of a civilised society. We must do more to include people as they age.

Estimates in Australia suggest that if 5% more of people aged 55 or older were employed there would be a positive impact of AUD $48 billion on the national economy annually.

“Ageism harms everyone – old and young. But often it is so widespread and accepted that will do not recognise its detrimental effect on our dignity and rights”.

Micelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human rights

We need to fight ageism head-on as a deep-rooted human rights violation.