ASPI’s decades: Leaving Afghanistan

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

In October 2013, seven weeks after Australia’s federal election, the new prime minister and new opposition leader stood together in Afghanistan to declare the end to Australia’s longest war. The message from Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten as the Australians left Uruzgan was of a job nobly performed.

There was no claim of victory after 12 years of military effort, and the mission-well-done language was marked by its hesitancy. Duty had been done, the troops were told, and at that point the rhetoric meter started to falter.

Abbott captured both the tone and the balance with his opening words at the ‘recognition ceremony’ at Tarin Kowt: ‘Australia’s longest war is ending, not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that’s better for our presence here.’

Neither victory nor defeat was the most provisional of political epitaphs; the military summing up extolled the ‘professionalism and work ethic’ of the Australian Defence Force.

One political judgement was definitive: the bipartisan unanimity of every stage of the Afghanistan saga. The cross-party consensus was remarkable for showing few cracks and never publicly wavering.

Afghanistan joins World War II and Korea as conflicts that did not see Australia’s political parties at war over the war. Afghanistan, indeed, brought broad unity in Canberra on how the war should be fought, as well as the agreement that it was a war worth fighting. That distinguished Afghanistan from World War I, when the agreement on purpose was deeply shaken by the fight over conscription.

The unusual joint visit by Abbott and Shorten expressed the political reality that Labor and the Coalition had both supported an Australian role in the Afghanistan conflict all the way through. Both sides owned the war in government and neither deviated when in opposition.

During our longest war—as anything that looked like victory faded to invisibility—that bipartisan unity persisted; the consensus held even as the nature of the war changed and evolved, Australian casualties rose and popular Australian support fell away.

Unlike in any previous war, Australia’s leaders went to the funerals of those who died serving in Afghanistan, joining with families in mourning while giving assurance on the worth of the mission.

The centrality of the US alliance explains much—probably most—about the unbroken consensus of the Australian polity, as expressed by the four different prime ministers—two Liberal and two Labor—who owned the commitment to Afghanistan: John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Abbott.

Howard, in Washington on the day of the September 11 attacks, never wavered from going along with the US. Rudd performed the difficult balancing act of withdrawing from Iraq while hanging on to the US alliance; a central element in that was the turn back to Afghanistan as the ‘good war’. Whatever elements of the Rudd legacy Gillard disowned, Afghanistan was a mission she embraced as strongly as did either Howard or Rudd.

Beyond the US alliance, what sustained that unanimity? How were Australia’s politicians able to stay committed to Afghanistan when opinion polls showed that the great majority of Australians opposed the war?

One answer is that the Australian people supported the alliance while also being deeply doubtful about the war. And, while the voters expressed their rejection of the Afghanistan war when talking to pollsters, the national mourning at the return of the bodies of Australia’s fallen sons didn’t translate into any political action or activism; only the Greens stood against the Liberal–Labor consensus.

The bipartisan backing for Afghanistan rested on the US alliance, but it drew strength from the professional nature of the ADF. Liberal and Labor leaders were sending volunteers, not conscripts.

That three-way relationship between the people, a professional military and Australia’s politicians was the dynamic that allowed a series of governments to uphold the mission. The true cost was carried by the ADF. What the long mission did to Australia’s soldiers is a reality that is becoming clearer long after the withdrawal from Uruzgan.

Marking 50 years of diplomatic relations between Australia and Afghanistan in 2019, William Maley judged that what ultimately bound the countries was Australia’s strong interest in Afghanistan’s progress down the broad path set in 2001. This was a complex mixture of state-building, institutional development, economic change, civil-society activism, and enhancement of human rights and freedoms. A failure in Afghanistan, Maley wrote, would be catastrophic for regional and global security:

To start with, such a failure would undoubtedly fuel a narrative similar to the one that appeared following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989: that radical religion is a force multiplier that can defeat even a superpower. This would likely have the effect of stimulating the growth of radicalism all the way from the Arab Middle East to the Indonesian archipelago, undermining years of effort directed at countering violent extremism in Australia’s neighbourhood and beyond. A failure in Afghanistan could also trigger very large new flows of Afghan refugees.

In November 2020, after a four-year-long investigation into allegations that members of Australian special forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan, 25 soldiers stood accused of murdering 39 unarmed Afghan civilians or prisoners and cruelly treating two others.

The inquiry, led by New South Wales Supreme Court judge Paul Brereton, a major general in the Army Reserve, found credible information about 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or prisoners were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of Australian soldiers in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would be the war crime of murder. Some of these incidents involved a single victim, and some multiple victims. None of these incidents occurred under pressure in the heat of battle, the report said.

The chief of the ADF, General Angus Campbell, said the report detailed credible information regarding deeply disturbing allegations of unlawful killings: ‘To the people of Afghanistan, on behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers.’

The executive editor of The Strategist, Brendan Nicholson, made repeated visits to Afghanistan as a correspondent. He penned a piece, from both the heart and head, in response to the Brereton report’s finding:

The war in Afghanistan has profoundly changed the Australian Army and had a significant impact on the whole defence force. Around 30,000 ADF personnel served in Afghanistan and 41 died there. The vast majority of them fought and worked with great courage and decency, many living in small, isolated patrol bases in remote valleys with the Afghan soldiers they mentored.

They did not just teach the Afghans to shoot and then send them on their way; they fought, and some of them died, with those Afghan soldiers.

At the same time, Nicholson wrote, there was another war going on in the mountains and valleys a helicopter ride away. Australian and allied special forces battled through one dangerous operation after another in a conflict fought in darkness, out of sight of the media and the world at large. The special forces had become isolated from the rest of the army. A small minority of them got out of control:

This became a true corporal’s war in which junior NCOs had the authority of kings. On top of that, some officers were treated with contempt by a small number of NCOs who’d spent endless nights on dangerous operations and who undoubtedly did know more about fighting and surviving than those sent to command them. There was also a view by many in the regular army that they’d largely been marginalised through a determination to minimise casualties by using the special forces for just about everything.

When concerns were raised about possible unlawful killings, the army ordered its own investigations. What they uncovered was profoundly disturbing. Something had gone badly wrong on the Afghanistan missions—a deep-seated and distorted warrior ethos permeated parts of the SAS and an entrenched culture of impunity had taken hold there.

US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US military forces from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021 was ‘an unseemly bolt for the exit’ and Biden’s ‘first big blunder in office’, Peter Jennings wrote: ‘Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump are on a unity ticket, locked onto a bizarre sabotage mission, negotiating, and now honouring, a “diplomatic agreement” with the Taliban, while deserting the very Afghans who have fought with our forces over the past two decades.’

Because of the ‘imminent international military withdrawal from Afghanistan’, Australia closed its embassy in Kabul on 28 May.

Amin Saikal wrote in June that Canberra must ponder whether it had pursued the right strategy, and if it had ever had an appropriate end game. Australia’s diplomatic and military operations had made a positive contribution, he said, especially to the reconstruction and security of Uruzgan:

Yet, most of the good work that Australian diggers and aid workers performed in Uruzgan is now in ruins, as the Taliban have regained control over much of the province.

The closure of the embassy ahead of total military withdrawal releases Australia from a very costly and unwinnable war. Yet, being the first country to disentangle itself from Afghanistan, basically cutting and running, is not a very good look.

And the closure is bound to hamper the investigation of the circumstances surrounding 39 Afghan civilians alleged to have been killed by Australian special forces and the justice that needs to be delivered in this respect. The initial justification of fighting terrorism rings hollow.

Australia served Afghanistan, standing with its US ally and with the ISAF, which delivered a tenuous stability to the country, kept reasonable regimes in power and the Taliban out of power, and helped to begin to build a better country.

The 2021 withdrawal tested the meaning and the resilience of those achievements. As the Taliban predicted, we had the clocks, but they had the time. Twenty years after being evicted, the Taliban retook Kabul.

In mid-2021, Australia’s spending on military operations was at its lowest level since before the ADF deployed to Timor-Leste in 1999.

Drawn from the book on the institute’s first 20 years: An informed and independent voice: ASPI, 2001–2021.