Sunday, January 16

‘A tragic and wasted opportunity’: Australia’s ignominious departure from Afghanistan | Australian foreign policy


During the two decades that Australia was locked in an unwinnable war after dragging the United States into Afghanistan, a succession of our political leaders spoke reassuringly about how they would not abandon the Afghans.

“We will not leave Afghanistan,” said then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard. declared in 2011.

His successor, Tony Abbott, said we should never “cut and run.”

And yet, without a formal announcement, Australia finally withdrew from Afghanistan in mid-June with hardly a whimper, pulling out the last of its 80 servicemen before the final withdrawal of US troops in late August.

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

Australia’s adventure in Afghanistan is ending in glory.

The Taliban are making a comeback capture of Afghan National Army bases and threatening many who worked with the United States, its allies, and NATO, including hundreds of interpreters who assisted Australian forces. The divided and corruption-ridden central government, backed by the United States, is unable to defend itself adequately with its fragmented and undisciplined military. Fear of an uncertain future grips Afghanistan.

The conclusion that Australia has left Afghanistan at the far end of the United States seems inescapable.

The optics are pitiful. Embarrassing even.

The remnants of the Australian Army departed unceremoniously, the only public sign that they had made it a news report two weeks later.

The aspects of the US withdrawal have been more ignominious. This week, under cover of night, US forces sunk their main base of operations at Bagram in darkness, cut off the power supply and abandoned the headquarters to looters as they exited through the open back door.

The Americans did not bother to tell the Afghan commander who remained in Bagram that he was now in charge.

‘We have left Afghanistan’

Retired Admiral Chris Barrie was head of the Australian Defense Forces when Australia joined the US invasion of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in late 2001, following the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

“We are leaving in an indecent hurry, as the Americans have done,” says Barrie. “We followed the Americans and we weren’t going to stay an hour longer than them. We really have left Afghanistan. Twenty years of effort translates into almost nothing. “

The invasion had the express objective of ridding Afghanistan of Al Qaeda terrorist bases and capturing or killing Osama bin Laden.

“It is impoverished and its infrastructure has been destroyed in many places,” says Barrie. “Many of the breadwinners of many families have been killed by many coalition forces, including ours. The Taliban are on the rise and I am concerned about the unfolding events.

“But we weren’t really there to do the people of Afghanistan any good, we were there to help America. And it begs the question, what role did we have in making decisions in Washington about the prosecution of the campaign? ”.

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Maintaining the US alliance was always one of the main reasons for Australia’s ground-floor involvement in the invasion of Afghanistan. Then-Prime Minister John Howard, who was in Washington on September 11, almost immediately invoked the 50-year-old Anzus treatise committing Australia, New Zealand and the US to support each other in case one is attacked.

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

In Australia’s “hearts and minds” rebuilding strategy (sometimes in parallel with combat operations) there was much talk about the infrastructure (roads, hospitals and schools) that would help girls receive the education they would need. Taliban had denied them.

Now the Taliban are likely to destroy them, if they haven’t already.

Are lies. This is a political turn. ‘

If everything, as Barrie puts it, has come to “next to nothing,” a critical question overshadows the past two decades: Was it worth the monetary cost and, more importantly, the price in human lives and lasting suffering?

It depends on 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 is a terrible loss … But it is … a contribution to Afghanistan, not a contribution to the valley in which they might have died. or, indeed, the province, but ultimately about Afghanistan “, then-chief of the army, now head of the defense force, Angus Campbell said in 2016.

When asked last April if it was all worth it, Scott Morrison answered unequivocally: “Yes. Freedom is always worth it. Australians have always believed that.”

Hugh Poate’s 23-year-old private army son was killed in Afghanistan in August 2012 when a rebel member of the Afghan army opened fire and killed Robert Poate and two other people.

“I couldn’t believe Campbell said that,” says Poate. “I kept rereading it. He couldn’t understand how a person with such a high level of command in the Australian Defense Forces given the number of deaths and the fact that nothing had been accomplished … could make such a statement. And here 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, ”says Poate.

His recent book on Robert’s death, Failures of Command, alleged superior military incompetence and duplicity surrounding the murder of his son.

Of Morrison’s comments, Poate says: “Once again, I was horrified. 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 one way of trying to justify the loss of 41 lives in Afghanistan, the ruin of 261 [through serious injury] and about 500 who have since killed themselves … are lies. This is a political turn. “

Poate and Barrie say the first phase of counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan was successful.

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

Were we ever there?

Former police officer and war crimes investigator David Savage was severely disabled and nearly killed by suicide bomber boy while working on an Australian relief project in the Afghan province of Uruzgan in 2012.

“We did some good things,” Savage says now. “We got one and a half or maybe two generations of Afghans exposed to higher education, and then we came to countries like Australia to do postgraduate studies that were destined to be the future of Afghanistan. But now, with the return of the Taliban, would you return to Afghanistan if you just finished your master’s or doctorate here? I do not believe it.”

Like Poate, Savage criticizes Australia’s “mission advancement” and “unclear objectives,” and its gleeful willingness to follow Washington into an unwinnable military dead end.

“I don’t think anyone can think of anything except the tragic and wasted opportunity that was for us. We had this enormous capacity and opportunity to improve the place for the people of Afghanistan … it’s almost like, were we ever there? Only a few remnants of bases and buildings remain. It all seems to have been essentially for naught, ”says Savage.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining because I’m injured … we all know that people are going to get hurt and killed.” [in war]. You take the risk for the right reason: that good is going to come out of it. But when you realize that the mission itself was essentially set to fail, it’s pretty clear that people like me, who were dispatched at the last minute to try and flood the place with development … to keep them happy while the ADF 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 defense minister for 18 months until 2009, says he was sometimes frustrated because the military objectives “were confusing and vague.”

“The question is whether the US should have been left out [of Afghanistan]. Because once the United States was inside, 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 have to show that we have our own vision of the world and that we are independent.”

Sitarah Mohammadi, a A former Afghan Hazara refugee and international law student, she cares for Afghan women who are likely to face new oppression, and persecuted Hazaras, who fear a return from the systemic persecution they have endured for generations.

“Australia and, indeed, international forces entered Afghanistan in an attempt to overthrow the Taliban regime, ensure democracy and the supposed reconstruction of the country. But none of them have been achieved. We wanted peace, but international forces are leaving Afghanistan in the worst situation it has ever been in.

“Security deteriorates day by day, the advances of the last two decades are at great risk and peace is still very difficult to achieve.”


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