The big lesson from Afghanistan

After the chaotic, violent withdrawal of US, NATO and Australian forces and nations from Afghanistan, it’s time to consider the big lessons for Australia.

The handwringing and hysteria about the durability of American power are still fresh, strident and, like most in-the-moment calls, probably wrong. The main theme in the lamentations and garment-rending is that this is the moment when American power and credibility collapsed. Or the moment when the current US president embodied the fatal weaknesses of the wrong side of politics or the hubris of American imperialism, depending on the handwringer’s political leanings.

The human tragedies we’ve already seen in Afghanistan—in the last few weeks and over the past 40 years—are heart-wrenching and show no sign of slowing given the amount of weaponry and the proliferation of fractured, dangerous armed groups in that society of 37 million people.

There are some important analyses to be done, including about why the mission failed and why, when so many people knew it was failing, things proceeded largely unchanged; whether nations should—and can—ever do nation-building in places where they have limited histories and understanding; and what the practical limits of military power are.

The big lesson, though, for Australian decision-makers is that strategic change happens faster than their advisers and intelligence agencies forecast and understand. The fall of Kabul and of the Afghan government and the lavishly supported, trained and equipped Afghan National Security Forces happened not in months or years, as predicted, but in days and weeks.

This fact joins big examples of the speed of change over the past five years—the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The South China Sea went from a set of submerged features and reefs to a heavily militarised set of Chinese bases complete with missiles, aircraft, radars and ships in the time it took Australian agencies to write the 2016 defence white paper. The military facilities changed the strategic balance in Southeast Asia. The white paper was overtaken by events before its implementation began.

As an enclave within the broader Chinese system, Hong Kong was operating under the ‘one country, two systems’ construct put in place for 50 years from the 1997 UK handover. The political tensions between Hongkongers and Beijing’s proxies administering Hong Kong—Carrie Lam and others—were deep and had boiled over during 2019 and into 2020. But no one outside China that I know of predicted the breathtaking speed of Beijing’s repression through its sweeping national security law, publicised on 22 May and put into effect on 1 July 2020, followed swiftly by the rolling campaign of arrests and company closures.

Hong Kong is now just another part of mainland China, with embers of difference being crushed by Beijing and the consequences still unfolding for foreign firms that operated under the different rules and freedoms there for decades.

Xinjiang is another example of a strategic change happening much faster than predicted. The Chinese government’s construction and filling of the mass detention camps holding over 1 million of the 12 million Uyghur and other Turkic Muslim populations of Xinjiang happened at a speed and scale that overwhelmed any international appreciation, let alone response. And, while most of the camp construction took place over an intense two years, it was paralleled by equally intense and rapid work by Chinese authorities to create local, personal, surveillance and informant networks and lace together digital data mining and repressive tools to control the Uyghur and other Turkic peoples outside the camps. All this happened while global firms like Volkswagen maintained economic partnerships and presences in Xinjiang and others—like Apple and Nike—dealt with allegations that suppliers used forced labour sourced from there.

The big lesson connecting these four big events is that strategic change isn’t the slow-moving, incremental, predictable thing we assess and articulate in white papers—foreign, defence or digital. Strategic change, it seems, works more like glaciers or ice shelves: you can assess the incremental change over time, but the moment when the glacier breaks off and falls into the sea or when the ice shelf collapses come suddenly and have enduring effect.

We’re also very bad at predicting when these moments will happen and fall instead into the comfortable trap of expecting the slow, incremental change to continue forever—or at least for the time we can bother to worry about. Yes, this sounds like climate change.

For strategic and defence decision-makers—and their policymakers and intelligence advisers—this is a profound idea to come to terms with that has direct meaning for what Australia decides, invests in and does in the next one, two and five years. A key example is defence—because Australians have told ourselves—and been given direction by the prime minister and government in the 2020 defence strategic update—that we’ll no longer have at least 10 years’ warning time of major conflict (not the kind of deployments, however difficult, we’ve seen to East Timor, Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan).

But how our institutions, politicians and policymakers have responded to changes and trends we’ve experienced and observed recently gives no cause for comfort.

Instead, it seems predictable that the impact of this new fact—that major conflict involving Australian forces is credible well within the next 10 years—will be read and heard but not taken to heart. Instead, there’ll be a default to thinking, ‘Oh, that’s bad, but we’ve still got 10 years.’ And we’ll fall into the pattern we’ve seen with Afghanistan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang: we know what’s likely to happen, but we’ll be shocked when it does happen and when it happens faster than we hoped or planned for.

There’s another strategic change where time is important. Anyone who thinks we have a solid 10 years to prepare for, and deter, major conflict in our region is on strange ground. As an example, anyone following the debate about Beijing using force to unify the Taiwanese democracy with authoritarian China knows that the debate has been centred on whether Beijing might act in six, seven or 10 years or not at all.

Those suggesting that these projections are badly based or maybe wrong have been criticised for warmongering or failing to understand—perhaps because to think it’s credible that such an event might happen sooner is all bad news. It would mean having to do things about it when we’d rather put this off because it’s hard and dangerous work and, if the US and key partners and allies must deter Beijing, then let’s at least proceed slowly.

But can we look at the fall of Kabul and the reassuring assessments and statements from those advising our leaders—and from our leaders themselves—about the durability of the Afghan government and forces and retain confidence in these other forecasts and assessments? Maybe the glacier’s fall and the ice sheet’s collapse are nearer than we think, and maybe we should have plans and actions underway now in case that’s true, particularly as three of the examples of rapid change outpacing policy and response can be laid at the feet of the regime now so focused on Taiwan.

So, back to the bald statement that Australia no longer has 10 years’ warning time. If strategic change is outpacing decision and response, we must stop working as we do now.

We need to reassess the stately way the massive investment in stronger military capabilities is occurring and redirect a large chunk of the national treasure into things that deliver well before the 2030s. And we probably need to upgrade the massive, slow set of processes and institutional machinery that develops capability ideas and turns them into reality over decades, as with the submarines, frigates and infantry fighting vehicles that are scheduled to start being delivered to Australian Defence Force personnel in the early 2030s.

The purpose of the $270 billion being spent on defence capabilities over 10 years should be primarily to equip the ADF we have now and over the next three, five and 10 years to operate in and be sustained in conflict in our region, and to help deter such conflict. That’s not the path we’re on now with much of Defence’s huge integrated investment program, no matter what the demonstration days and successful innovation hub grant proposals try to show.

The big lesson we need to act on out of Afghanistan is that time is not our friend—strategic changes and events we don’t want to see happen can and do happen, and at paces and times we hope they won’t. And accepting that they’re likely, but talking ourselves into believing they won’t happen any time soon, results in chaos and danger. That’s no way to run a government or a defence organisation.