'What is Kevin Rudd like?" "What type of man is he?" "Will he win the election?" Afghan friends and colleagues assailed me with these questions when I returned to Afghanistan in October last year. Their obsession with our federal election bemused me. Ten years ago they didn't know when Australian elections were or that Australia had a prime minister.
My friends explained: "Your next prime minister is very important to us. We need to know whether he will be someone else who believes that guns are the answer to everything. You see if he is different, and if the next American president is different, if they are people of peace, then maybe there is hope for us."
Fifteen months later, Kevin Rudd, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and US President-elect Barack Obama insist that scaling up the military intervention will make Afghanistan and the world safer. But war can resolve neither Afghanistan's conflicts nor the spectre of global terrorism. More troops and more guns will only plunge Afghanistan further into violence.
At the 2020 Summit, public psychologist Kate Barrelle explained how military interventions and economic sanctions can enforce compliance by "putting a lid on" resistance. The longer that lid remains in place, the more resentment wells up beneath it. When military or economic force increases, the pressure erupts in spurts of violence, such as increasing numbers of suicide bombers. Eventually, the lid gives and widespread violence explodes.
The military intervention might have worked had it moved immediately from deposing the Taliban to disarmament and then rapidly scaled down. It didn't. NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan now numbers 47,600 troops, including 1090 Australians. With special forces and private security companies there are 70,000 troops in a country of about 32 million - one foreign soldier for every 460 Afghans.
The Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief reports that non-government organisations cannot work in many regions where military units are active. Many rural communities consider international troops a major threat to their safety. And then there are the guns. Interceptions of "illegal munitions" receive international media coverage
as "bad guns". We only hear about "legal" weapons when "terrorists" destroy military consignments en route to Afghanistan.
According to the Kabul Times, private security firms imported more than 800,000 guns last year - one for every 40 Afghans. The Afghan Government's attempts to stem this influx were overruled. These are "good guns". Instead of disarming Afghanistan, we've super-armed it.
Some aid and development workers refuse to travel in military planes, patronise coffee shops that have armed guards or travel under "armed protection". This is partially self-interest - keeping such company is dangerous - and partially a principled refusal to support a security industry that generates and depends on fear. War economies thrive when fear erodes the foundations of peace.
Pedestrians lower their heads when they pass armed men in uniform: police, soldiers, guards. "Lambs by day," they say. "Wolves by night." Experience has taught them what empirical studies show: the availability of firearms and their presence in public directly correlates with the prevalence of violence.
In 2007, about 70 Afghan nationals were reported kidnapped in Kabul each month. Each morning, a family sends its four children in four directions to attend four schools. Why? "We don't want to lose them all at once."
I walked to the Kabul office one morning when two boys passed slowly on a bike. They asked each other, "Dakheli ya khareji?" ("A local or a foreigner?") I responded, "Khareji ya dakheli, chi farq mekuna?" ("Foreigner or local, what difference does it make?") They laughed. "If you had been a foreigner, we'd have thrown you into danger." I played along with the joke, "And may peace be upon you, too!"
The overwhelming majority of Australian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan are brave men and women willing to die for the sake of others. Our desire to honour our soldiers does not oblige us to continue a counter-productive military campaign.
As an Afghan acquaintance confided, "Your governments think they are 'stamping out terrorism' ... They keep a score card and think they are winning because they count more dead Talibs than dead Americans. That's not how it works. But, if arithmetic is all your governments understand, tell them to look beyond their tally cards and see the trouble multiplying on the ground. For every Talib you kill, you make 10 more. For every mother you hurt, a thousand Talibs are born. You are breeding terror, not stamping it out."
Our motives and what the war costs us are not the main issues. The human consequences are much more important. Local capacities for peace and non-military alternatives need to be taken seriously.
This will necessarily involve conversation, respectful dialogue - and drinking tea.
What type of man is Kevin Rudd? Does he believe that guns are the answer to everything? A year ago, I told my Afghan friends: "I will vote for Kevin Rudd. I hope that he and his government will be different."
Rudd understands that he can best promote human rights in China within the context of respectful relationships. The same applies in Afghanistan. Rudd is rightly committed to promoting nuclear disarmament. The human suffering caused by small arms should prompt Rudd to extend his commitment to promote demilitarisation more generally. I would like to tell my Afghan friends that our still-quite-new Prime Minister is a man of peace. But I still don't know.