‘A tragic and wasted opportunity’: Australia’s inglorious exit from Afghanistan

During the two decades in which Australia was ensnared in an unwinnable war after trailing the US into Afghanistan, a succession of our political leaders spoke reassuringly about how they would not desert the Afghans.

“We will not abandon Afghanistan,” the then prime minister Julia Gillard declared in 2011.

Her successor, Tony Abbott, said we must never “cut and run”.

And yet, with no formal announcement, Australia finally retreated from Afghanistan in mid-June with barely a whimper, pulling out the last of its 80 military personnel ahead of America’s final troop withdrawal in late August.

The war has killed 41 Australian troops. Another 260 have been seriously injured and a staggering 500 others have taken their own lives since 2001. Australia has invested more than $10bn in a war that has also perhaps irreparably damaged the reputation of the elite Special Air Service amid allegations of war crimes against the most decorated living Australian soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith (which he strenuously denies), among others.

Australia’s Afghanistan adventure is ending ingloriously.

The Taliban are resurgent, capturing Afghan National Army bases and threatening many who worked with the US, its allies and Nato – including hundreds of interpreters who helped Australian forces. The divided, corruption-plagued US-backed central government is unable to properly defend itself with its fragmented, ill-disciplined army. Fear of an uncertain future grips Afghanistan.

The conclusion that Australia has abandoned Afghanistan on the exiting coat tails of America seems inescapable.

The optics are pitiful. Even shameful.

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The remnants of the Australian military departed unceremoniously, the only public sign they had done so a news report two weeks later.

Aspects of the US withdrawal have been more ignominious. Under cover of night this week US forces plunged their main operating base at Bagram into darkness, shutting off the power and abandoning the HQ to looters while slipping out the unlocked back door.

The Americans didn’t bother to tell the Afghan commander who remained at Bagram he was now in charge.

‘We’ve abandoned Afghanistan’

Retired Adm Chris Barrie was chief of the Australian Defence Force when Australia joined the American invasion of Taliban-governed Afghanistan in late 2001, after the September 11 al-Qaida attacks on the US.

“We’re leaving with indecent haste, as the Americans have,” Barrie says. “We followed the Americans in, and we were not going to stay an hour longer than they were. Really, we’ve abandoned Afghanistan. Twenty years of effort comes to almost nothing.”

The invasion had the express aim of ridding Afghanistan of al-Qaida terrorist bases and capturing or killing Osama bin Laden.

“It’s impoverished, and its infrastructure has been destroyed in a lot of places,” Barrie says. “A lot of breadwinners in a lot of families have been killed by a lot of coalition forces including ours. The Taliban is on the rise, and I am troubled by the unfolding events.

“But we weren’t really there to do any good for the people of Afghanistan, we were there to help the US. And it raises the question, what role did we have in the decision-making in Washington over the prosecution of the campaign?”

Maintaining the US alliance was always a primary reason for Australia’s ground-floor participation in the Afghanistan invasion. The then prime minister John Howard, who was in Washington on September 11, almost immediately invoked the then 50-year-old Anzus treaty committing Australia, New Zealand and the US to support one another if any were attacked.

Australia’s military involvement had several phases: invasion and war-fighting against the Taliban and al-Qaida; near complete withdrawal in 2003 to participate in the Iraq invasion, during which the Taliban and various terrorist organisations regrouped; more combat operations until 2013, when Australia , scaled down and concentrated on civil works and mentoring Afghan forces.

In the “hearts and minds” rebuilding strategy that Australia conducted (parallel at times to combat operations) much was made of the infrastructure – roads, hospitals and schools – that would help girls receive the education the Taliban had denied them.

They are now likely to be destroyed by the Taliban, if they have not already been.

‘These are lies. This is political spin’

If it has all, as Barrie says, come “to almost nothing”, a critical question shadows the past two decades: was it worth the monetary cost and, more importantly, the price in human life and enduring suffering?

It depends who you ask.

Yes, Australia’s military commanders have always insisted.

“The sacrifice of our people is a sacrifice that is, I would say, worthy and it’s a terrible loss … But it is … about a contribution to Afghanistan, not a contribution to either the valley in which they might have died or, indeed, the province but ultimately about Afghanistan,” said the then chief of army, now defence force chief, Angus Campbell in 2016.

Asked last April if it had all been worth the cost, Scott Morrison replied unequivocally: “Yes. Freedom is always worth it. Australians have always believed that.”

Hugh Poate’s 23-year-old army private son died in Afghanistan in August 2012 when a rogue member of the Afghan army opened fire, killing Robert Poate and two others.

“I just couldn’t believe Campbell said that,” Poate says. “I just kept re-reading it. I couldn’t understand how a person at such a high level of command in the Australian Defence Force given the number of deaths and the fact that nothing had been achieved … could make such a statement. And herein lies one of the problems with those commanders when they get to that level – they become pseudo-politicians rather than leaders of an armed force,” Poate says.

His recent book about Robert’s death, Failures of Command, alleged senior military incompetence and duplicity surrounding the killing of his son.

Of Morrison’s comments, Poate says: “Again, I was aghast. It was bullshit. What he should have been referring to was the freedom of this country. And our country was not threatened. Again, this is just some way of trying to justify the loss of 41 lives in Afghanistan, the ruining of 261 [through serious injury] and some 500 who’ve since taken their own lives … these are lies. This is political spin.”

Poate and Barrie each say the first phase of anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan was successful.

Poate says: “The reason we went to war was clearly articulated at the time by John Howard – to destroy the al-Qaida training camps and to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. They were the objectives. They were both achieved by 2011. After the final objective, Australia was still there and we lost another 18 men. Including our son.”

‘Were we ever there?’

The former police officer and war crimes investigator David Savage was severely disabled and almost killed by a child suicide bomber while working on an Australian aid project in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province in 2012.

“We did do some good things,” Savage now says. “We managed to get one and a half or maybe two Afghan generations exposed to higher education, then to come to countries like Australia to do postgraduate studies that were intended be the future of Afghanistan. But now, with the Taliban coming back, would you be going back to Afghanistan if you’d just finished your masters or PhD here? I don’t think so.”

Like Poate, Savage is critical of Australia’s “mission creep” and “unclear objectives”, and its blithe willingness to follow Washington into an unwinnable military dead-end.

“I don’t think anyone can think anything except what a tragic, wasted opportunity it was for us. We had this massive ability and opportunity to make the place better for the people of Afghanistan … it’s almost like, were we ever there? There’s just a few remnants of bases and buildings. It all looks as if it’s been essentially for nothing,” Savage says.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m bitching because I’m injured … we all know that people are going to get injured and get killed [in war]. You take the risk for the right reason – that good is going to come out of it. But when you realise that the mission itself was essentially set up to fail, it’s pretty clear that people like myself who were sent in at the last minute to try and flood the place with development … in order to keep them happy whilst the F withdrew, well that’s not what I signed up for. I was there because I thought I could make a difference and I thought we had a long-term investment to help the people and the country.”

Joel Fitzgibbon, who was defence minister for 18 months to 2009, says he was sometimes frustrated that military objectives “were confused and vague”.

“The question is whether the US should have stayed out [of Afghanistan]. Because once the US was in, given our alliance commitments, given the importance of the relationship, we were always going to be by their side,” he says.

While he still values the alliance, he says: “I think we need a more independent foreign policy … we need to demonstrate that we have our own view of the world and we stand independently.”

Sitarah Mohammadi, a former Afghan Hazara refugee and an international law student, worries for Afghan women who likely face renewed oppression, and for the persecuted Hazaras, who fear a return of the systemic persecution they have endured for generations.

“Australia, and indeed international forces went into Afghanistan in an attempt to topple the Taliban regime, to secure democracy and to so-called rebuild the country. But none of those have been achieved. We wanted peace, yet international forces are leaving Afghanistan in the worst situation it’s ever been in.

“Security is deteriorating day by day, the strides of the last two decades are at great risk, and peace remains ever so elusive.”