Tuesday, 31 August 2021
[by video link] Overnight, the last US troops in Afghanistan flew out of Kabul. The Afghanistan conflict has been Australia's longest military commitment, a war repeatedly endorsed by this parliament and a war that has ended with an ignominious collapse.
There is no great secret as to why we went into Afghanistan in the first place. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, Prime Minister John Howard invoked article 5 of the ANZUS treaty, the first time that provision had ever been invoked. We sent our special forces and the RAAF to Afghanistan as part of an international campaign against al-Qaeda. First and foremost, it was a down payment on the ANZUS treaty and the US security guarantee that comes with it for this country. Over time, however, the rationale for our military efforts evolved. The shift can be discerned from the statements made by Australian government ministers as the years and, indeed, decades went by. In August 2002, for example, Minister for Defence Robert Hill declared:
The focus is shifting away from destroying concentrations of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan – a job now almost complete – to tracking down any remnants and preventing them from regrouping.
In 2008, Labor Minister for Defence Joel Fitzgibbon declared that Australia's military efforts were committed to:
… ensuring that a tyrannical regime which provides safe haven for terrorists cannot take hold in Afghanistan again.
In December 2009, Minister for Defence John Faulkner said:
… the challenge is to ensure we see the Afghan national security forces able to take responsibility, full responsibility for security and stability in the province. That's when the job is done.
In October 2010, Prime Minister Julia Gillard declared that Australia would not abandon Afghanistan. That's right—we would never abandon Afghanistan. In February 2012, Minister for Defence Stephen Smith declared that we were on track to transition to Afghan-led responsibility for the Afghan national security forces by 2014. In the seven years since 2014, a lot more blood and treasure were spent in Afghanistan, but to no avail.
The truth is that Australia should have left Afghanistan much earlier. Our political leaders should have acknowledged the deeply corrupt nature of the Afghan government. Corruption was the cancer that destroyed the regime in Kabul. The patient was always on life support, as billions of dollars of assistance was wasted. Once President Trump took office, the writing was on the wall. The US no longer had the will to continue fighting. The cost was too high, and Afghanistan was not actually very strategically important.
Against that background, in a speech to the Senate in October 2019, I called for the Australian government to quickly wind down its military commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq. I said then that, given the current state of flux in American policy and erratic character of decision-making in Washington, there was an urgent need for Australia to look closely at current Middle East operations and ask some very searching questions about the risks involved in our long-term strategic interest. I further argued that we were unquestionably entering a new era of competition between major powers focused on East Asia and the Pacific, and, in those circumstances, Australia must face significant strategic challenges closer to home; that was where our national interest lay.
That was in October 2019. But the government sat on its hands, mired in political inertia and unwilling to do anything in advance of the United States. Then, when the United States did begin to pull the plug, our government moved with indecent haste, abruptly pulling out our remaining troops and shutting our embassy in Kabul. Hundreds of Afghans who had helped our forces were left at risk. Had we begun an orderly drawdown of forces two years ago, we would not have seen the shambles of recent weeks.
Are there lessons to be learned from all this? Absolutely there are. After 20 years of conflict, we need a fully empowered inquiry into Australia's war in Afghanistan.
There should be an independent inquiry carried out by independent Australian experts, with full access to all relevant government records, cabinet papers, military assessments, operational reports and intelligence files. Of course, there's little appetite for such an inquiry from either the coalition government or Labor, so this might prove to be a task for future historians. Fortunately, the cabinet papers for 2001 will be available for public access next year. We will have to see just how much will be redacted on the dubious grounds of national security. Meanwhile, we should remember that those who ignore and fail to understand the past are often condemned to repeat it.