Challenges ahead for anti-war movement

By Chris Atkinson

The US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are in crisis. Troop morale in the US-led occupation forces in both wars is waning as the futility of trying to subdue an entire population grows clearer and the numbers of dead and wounded mount. The Iraq war in particular suffers from a growing crisis of legitimacy. A July 2007 Newspoll found that 63% of Australians want a timetable for pulling all Australian troops out of Iraq.

Recognising this, the federal ALP pledged before last November’s federal election that a Labor government would carry out a “phased withdrawal of our troops” from Iraq by June 2008. However, this has proven to be a con, as Labor PM Kevin Rudd confirmed in his March 31 speech to the Brookings Institute in Washington, at the beginning of his 17-day tour of the US, Europe and China. “We are changing the configuration of our involvement in Iraq”, Rudd stated. “Our ground combat troops will be withdrawn, but our air and naval elements are remaining.” Labor will only be withdrawing 450 troops — its “battle group” stationed at a giant US airbase in southern Iraq — out of 1570 military personnel it has assigned to the Iraq war.

The Rudd Labor government is just as committed as the previous Liberal-National Coalition government to supporting Washington’s war in Iraq. Since winning office, Rudd has stressed his intention to strengthen Australia’s imperialist military alliance with the US, describing it as “the first pillar of our foreign policy”.

While Rudd wants Australian voters to think his government is ending Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war, he has publicly proclaimed that his government is unambiguously committed to the US-led war in Afghanistan “for the long haul”. Since the death of three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan’s southern Uruzgan province late last year, Rudd has tried to prepare Australians for more body bags. “2008 will be difficult and dangerous and bloody, and the Australian nation needs to prepare itself for further losses”, he told reporters on April 27.

Australia has 700 troops on patrol in Uruzgan under a 1600-strong Dutch force. But the Dutch government has indicated that it plans to stand down its troops from combat by 2010, leaving the Australians, 300 of whom are not ordinary combat troops but highly trained Special Air Services soldiers, to try to subdue thousands of Taliban-led anti-occupation guerrillas. Faced with that reality, we should take Rudd’s pledge that no extra Australian troops will be sent to Afghanistan with a very large grain of salt.

A poll conducted in July 2007 for the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney found that 51% of Australians were opposed to involvement in the war in Afghanistan; nearly two-thirds opposed involvement in the Iraq war. But the strong public anti-war sentiment has not been matched by anti-war action. By most measures, the anti-war movement is weak. Protests held across Australia in late March to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq were attended by fewer than a few thousand people nation-wide. In the few centres where they still exist, cross-city anti-war committees have dwindled to a core of fewer than 20 mostly socialist activists.

US President George Bush’s visit to Australia for the APEC summit in September 2007 provoked a solid protest of 4000 in Sydney, plus solidarity protests in other state capitals. But Sydney Stop the War Coalition meetings returned to fewer than 20 within weeks.

Clearly, the anti-war movement has a big challenge on its hands to convert the broad anti-war sentiment into a sustained mass movement to demand the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. How can it do this?

Lessons from Vietnam

Perhaps the best starting point is to learn the lessons of the movement that helped stop the world’s richest and most powerful government from waging war in a Third World country — the anti-Vietnam War movement. It took five years of arduous and persistent work before the anti-Vietnam War movement was able to mobilise more than 100,000 people on the streets of Australia. The movement against the war in Iraq achieved this before the invasion even began, when 800,000 to 1 million Australians and 12 million worldwide joined protests in mid-February 2003.

While relatively small at first, the movement against the Vietnam War was a constant reminder of the horror and futility of the Australian-supported US war. It generated a permanent sentiment against imperialist wars among broad layers of Australians. It mobilised that sentiment into mass actions that made the political costs to the capitalist ruling class of continued involvement higher than they were willing to pay.

Ultimately it was the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese workers and peasants and their armed forces that drove imperialist troops out of Vietnam. But the regular street demonstrations in the aggressor countries were also important. They were constant reminders to the imperialist rulers that public opinion was increasingly against them. A crucial factor was the dissent and organised resistance within the armed forces themselves, most of them conscripts. Resistance in the military together with a mass action-oriented movement made the political costs of continuing the war too high for Washington.

Another lesson of the anti-Vietnam War movement is to be wary of being diverted into supporting “lesser evil” politicians’ election campaigns. Rudd’s deceptive pre-election promise to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq, and the post-election reality of Canberra’s continued support for the US war, are another reminder of this. Avoiding dropping independent anti-war campaigning for electoral campaigning for “lesser-evil” capitalist politicians is a major challenge for the US anti-war movement as the Democrats’ campaign winds its ticker-taped, baby-kissing, smiling-handshaking way to the November 4 presidential election.

As the Iraq and Afghan wars descend further into quagmire, the focus must be on building up the citywide anti-war committees through regular, open, publicly advertised events and demonstrations that involve everyone who supports getting the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

[Chris Atkinson is a member of the Sydney Stop the War Coalition and the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]