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Cabinet papers chronicle start of Australia’s long Afghanistan war

Posted By on January 17, 2022 @ 06:00

‘History is lived forwards but it is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.’

C.V. Wedgwood [1], William the Silent, 1944

Canberra’s annual unveiling of 20-year-old cabinet records is always proof of the Wedgwood truth—call it the Dame Veronica verity.

This year’s release by the National Archives of Australia of the 2001 decisions [2] by John Howard’s government takes us back to the start of Australia’s longest war in Afghanistan.

Here is the Veronica verity at its sharpest. The cabinet papers are the Canberra launch point for a two-decade journey that reached its dark conclusion with the fall of Kabul in August 2021.

We know the end. Now we sift the beginning.

Prime Minister Howard was in Washington DC in 2001 on the day of the 11 September attacks in New York and on the Pentagon. ‘Being in Washington had a powerful effect on me,’ Howard recalled [3]. ‘The sheer scale of the death and destruction was extraordinary.’

Howard flew out from Washington at 4.30 pm on 12 September 2001, on US Air Force Two, the first flight from US airspace after the attacks. During the flight, he spoke by phone [4] to Foreign Minister Alexander Downer: ‘We agreed that, subject to cabinet approval, the ANZUS Treaty should be invoked.’ Then Howard walked to another section of the plane and told the US ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer, about the plan.

So, on 14 September, cabinet met in Canberra and invoked ANZUS, the only time that has happened in the treaty’s 70 years [5]. The action needed no formal paperwork from the bureaucracy, as recorded in a cabinet decision with the heading, ‘Australian response to terrorist attacks on the United States—Application of the ANZUS treaty—Without submission’.

The statement [6] issued by Howard later that day said:

The terrorist attacks on the United States were discussed today at a special Cabinet meeting that I convened on my return from the United States.

The Government has decided, in consultation with the United States, that Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty [7] applies to the terrorist attacks on the United States. The decision is based on our belief that the attacks have been initiated and coordinated from outside the United States.

As the prime minister said when he fronted the microphones [8] that day, invoking ANZUS had ‘a symbolic resonance but it also means something in substance’.

The details of what that substance would demand started flowing to cabinet.

In a submission on 2 October, Defence Minister Peter Reith said the 11 September attacks raised ‘important questions about our strategic fundamentals [9]’. Some answers would come from the US-led campaign in Afghanistan, he said, but Australia also faced urgent danger because ‘support of actions against terrorism raises our profile with the terrorists themselves’.

Cabinet decided that the Australian Defence Force should mount a six-month effort to enhance responses to terrorist attacks from chemical, biological, radiological or explosive weapons. Early in 2002, Defence should come back to cabinet with a long-term, whole-of-government plan to refine security.

By 10 December, ADF chief Chris Barrie briefed cabinet [10] on Australia’s deployment to Afghanistan, which included 100 special forces troops ‘serving in front-line operations’; negotiations for bases in the region to support coalition operations in Afghanistan; a US request to help with ‘protective escort’ of US vessels sailing through the Strait of Malacca; the possibility of Australia contributing to US military operations beyond Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism; and the possibility of a ‘firm request at some stage’ that Australia commit peacekeeping and stabilisation forces to Afghanistan.

Cabinet directed that Australian forces would not join ‘counter-terrorism-related military operations outside Afghanistan unless a specific request’ from the US government had been accepted by Canberra.

Further, ‘the government was not inclined to commit significant ADF assets or personnel to any medium-term or long-term stabilisation or peace keeping force in Afghanistan’. That negative view was overturned in a week.

On 17 December, another cabinet decision [11] taken without formal paperwork was headed, ‘UK request for Australian contribution to Multinational Stabilisation Force in Afghanistan—Without submission’.

The defence minister had given an oral report on the request from London, and cabinet ‘indicated an inclination, on balance, to engage further with the UK authorities on a possible Australian contribution’.

The 2001 cabinet papers offer footnotes affirming the simple, defining truth about Australia’s war: it was always about the alliance.

The Veronica verity suffers a slight blip. Despite all the twists and tragedies of the history, you can still clearly capture the policy intent of that beginning, because it’s the same rationale Australia maintained till the end. Amid the policy debris, one policy stands.

The disastrous history sprawls across the two decades: the ultimate defeat; all the lives lost or ruined; Afghanistan’s agony; damage to the image and psyche of the great ally; and the $8.548.3 million [12] spent on ADF operations in Afghanistan from 2000–01 to 2020–21.

Yet the central Canberra purpose of it all stands, as constant today as it was when ANZUS was invoked on 14 September 2001.

Shortly after the fall of Kabul last year, Howard and the Labor leader in 2001, Kim Beazley, took part in an ASPI program on Afghanistan and the 70th anniversary of ANZUS [13].

Beazley commented that Australia went for one reason—our ally had been attacked and Australia followed the alliance into Afghanistan. ‘While ever the United States was there, if we were upholding our treaty, we’d be there,’ Beazley said. ‘Whenever the US withdrew, we’d withdraw.’

Beazley said that in talking to Australians who served in Afghanistan, he tells them that ‘war in the end is politics’ and the primary reason they’d gone to our longest war was ‘to uphold the treaty’.

The US went to Afghanistan and lost a war. Australia went to support [14] and sustain [15] the alliance.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/cabinet-papers-chronicle-start-of-australias-long-afghanistan-war/

URLs in this post:

[1] C.V. Wedgwood: https://www.azquotes.com/author/20740-C_V_Wedgwood

[2] National Archives of Australia of the 2001 decisions: https://www.naa.gov.au/explore-collection/cabinet/latest-cabinet-release

[3] Howard recalled: https://ad-aspi.s3.ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/2021-08/ANZUS%20at%2070%20-%20v3.pdf?VersionId=4xMoTYOT1rSmnlNycZGdUEHOBSMFxOlG

[4] spoke by phone: https://www.harpercollins.com.au/9780730499640/lazarus-rising/

[5] treaty’s 70 years: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/anzus-70-past-present-and-future-alliance

[6] statement: https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/release/transcript-12169

[7] Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Completed_Inquiries/jfadt/usrelations/appendixb

[8] fronted the microphones: https://pmtranscripts.pmc.gov.au/release/transcript-12308

[9] strategic fundamentals: https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=203019716

[10] briefed cabinet: https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=203019721

[11] cabinet decision: https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=203019281

[12] $8.548.3 million: https://ad-aspi.s3.ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/2021-10/An%20informed%20and%20independent%20voice-v3.pdf?VersionId=G199xyf002IQElX0fS5zYQQE46Zqp5Pd

[13] Afghanistan and the 70th anniversary of ANZUS: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/policy-guns-and-money-episode-100-with-john-howard-and-kim-beazley/

[14] support: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-domestic-politics-of-the-long-war-in-afghanistan/

[15] sustain: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/the-leaving-of-afghanistan-no-sense-of-defeat/

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