Last Monday, like many Australians, I woke to the news that Kabul had fallen to the Taliban. Whilst many of us weren’t shocked that Kabul had fallen, most of us were surprised at the speed at which the Taliban had advanced across the country and the speed at which they took control of the capital, without firing a shot, in essence. After 20 years of conflict, the war in Afghanistan was over. No matter how you spin it, the Taliban had won.
Like the many invading forces that had come before them, like the Russians and the Brits, the Western forces were defeated in what has become known as the graveyard of empires. The West—the US, NATO, Australia and New Zealand, among many other countries—and their forces, with all of their modern military might, having spent billions and billions of dollars, had lost to a much less resourced and capable fighting force. Western forces were not vanquished by some single major military loss but through a war of attrition and of patience. The Taliban simply waited us out. They waited until the resolve of the West had declined to such a point that the West and indeed the Afghan National Army had simply lost the political will to fight. That is the sad reality. But, like in most wars, it was the civilian population which bore the brunt of this war’s pain and suffering. Whilst we don’t have any true exact figures, it’s reported that around 40,000 civilian lives were lost and countless others were wounded.
This was a war which cost the lives of 41 Australian service personnel. Many more were wounded physically, emotionally and mentally. We must never, ever forget their sacrifice and that of their families, and the sacrifices their comrades and their families continue to make in our name in many parts of the world, both here and abroad. As a nation, we throw our collective arms around our diggers and our ADF personnel and their families. We are proud of you. We thank you for your service.
I’ve never served in the ADF, but over the past five years in this job I’ve worked closely with many that have and still do. I’ve been to Afghanistan twice, most recently almost two years ago to the day. In my dealings with members of the ADF, particularly those on deployment in Afghanistan and in Iraq, they had an immense pride in the work that they were doing. They felt that they were making a difference, not just in the lives of the Afghan soldiers that they were training over the past eight years or so but in the lives of all the civilians that they touched on deployment.
We must never fall into the trap of joining the popular commentators’ chorus in extolling that the cost did not justify the end. That cost is measured in both blood and billions of dollars, but to suggest that the end did not justify the means does not accurately reflect the impact Australians had on the local Afghan population. I can just hear certain segments of the media yelling: ‘What about the war crimes?’ How can you talk of the good works that were done when the IGADF report held that there was credible evidence of the existence of war crimes having been committed by Australian special forces whilst on deployment in Afghanistan?’ We must never join in that chorus, because it belittles the work of the 39,000 ADF members who deployed to Afghanistan and the outstanding contributions that they made in combat, in reconstruction and in training the ANA. In any event, the allegations made against a very small number of special forces operators are just that: they are allegations. Just like every other Australian, they deserve the right to the presumption of innocence.
Like many Australians, my heart is breaking for the civilian population of Afghanistan, who are now left to the mercy of the Taliban. We’ve seen over the past week the spin doctors of the Taliban trying to convince the world that the Taliban 2.0 is not like the murderous regime of the late nineties and early-2000s. They have changed, we’ve been assured. Well, time will tell. But, if recent reports of the murder and torture of those connected with the West can be trusted, I fear for those left behind, especially the women, children, minorities and civil servants. Even artists are apparently the subject of brutal reprisals. Much of the world’s media is confined to Kabul airport, not able to venture out beyond the confines of its high concrete walls. I’ve received reports that the Taliban 2.0 are acting just like the Taliban of old in provincial Afghanistan, away from the glare of the world’s media. I fear that that will be repeated and in fact amplified when the last door of the last mercy flight leaves Hamid Karzai International Airport.
It would be remiss of me not to recognise our hardworking diplomatic corps in Afghanistan over the past 20 years in particular. They’ve worked in extremely difficult conditions, under constant threat of attack. Away from friends and family for months on end, just like our ADF personnel, they went at the request of their government to further the interests of the Australian people. I want to acknowledge their professionalism under the leadership of Geoff Tooth, who was the ambassador I stayed with in Kabul just two years ago. I also want to acknowledge the work of the most recent Australian ambassador, Paul Wojciechowski, and his team, who, in what now seems like a stroke of genius, withdrew from Kabul in May of this year, enabling them to concentrate on getting Australians out of Afghanistan without having to deal with the immediacy of having to leave their post in emergency conditions, as many other countries’ diplomats have had to do.
There are so many learnings to be gleaned from our military involvement in Afghanistan, not just for us but for the entire West. Now is not the time for reprisals or finger-pointing between us and any other nation. Now is the time to get as many people out of Afghanistan that want to and are able to leave as possible. We have all seen those harrowing pictures, and we are seeing them today, of people and of families queuing up, of babies being lifted over razor wire. Now is not the time for reprisals; now is the time for pulling together as a nation and the West working together to get as many souls out of Afghanistan as possible.
But make no mistake: difficult discussions should be had between friends about what went wrong. As a sovereign nation, we should not repeat the mistakes that have been made in Afghanistan. A friend is not someone who just blindly does whatever is asked of them. A true friend will ask questions and pressure test ideas, and a true friend will listen to those questions and concerns, and a true friend will respect the other for having asked them.