During the two decades in which Australia was ensnared in an unwinnable war after trailing the US into Afghanistan, successive Australian leaders like Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull all spoke reassuringly about how they would not desert the Afghans.
However, this is exactly what we have done.
Afghan friends following the unfolding drama in their former homes can’t believe that after all the fighting, after everything they and their families went through the Taliban is back. Violence, discrimination and persecution of women and young girls has returned.
The Taliban is stronger right now than at any time since the US invasion. The United Nations reports record civilian casualties. In recent weeks, the militants have stepped up offensive in key cities Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, Kunduz and Herat.
This is critical. The Taliban has strongholds in rural areas but taking back cities is a decisive change potentially tipping the balance of power in its favour. Foreign Policy magazine this week said:
“The urban offensives also have demographic implications. If the Taliban seize cities, the insurgents would bring an even more sizeable share of the population under their control.”
Australian journalist Stan Grant who worked as a foreign correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan has written thoughtfully about the issue based on his experiences.
In 2014, former Australian Army Colonel and defence strategist for US General David Petraeus and Security Advisor to Condoleezza Rice, David Kilcullen, forecast exactly what is now happening in Afghanistan. “The worst-case scenario is not that ISIS and al-Qaeda continue to be rivals, it’s that they pal up. You end up with a precipitated withdrawal from Afghanistan, creating space for the Taliban to come back, just like ISIS did in Iraq.”
I pictured an Australian soldier today, back from extended tours of duty in the Middle East, watching the news on television. The hard-fought battles to defeat the Taliban in places like Uruzgan province and to then improve security and assist villagers re-build their lives, must have seemed a complete waste of time. The country seemed to be back where they had started from. Right in front of them on the screen all the good work that he or she thought they had done, was unravelling in fast moving pictures.
Several years ago, at the Byron Bay Writers Festival, I interviewed Major General John Cantwell, Commander of Australian Forces in Afghanistan in 2010, and I asked him was the effort by Australian, and allied forces, worth it? What had we achieved in Afghanistan? Was it worth all the lives that had been lost? Cantwell answered that even though such comments seemed disrespectful to a life-time soldier, steeped in a sense of duty and service, he had to answer, “No. It wasn’t worth it.”
The whole mess has been summed up in the Guardian Australia by writers Paul Daley and Ben Doherty as a tragic and wasted opportunity.
We could have done more.
We could have done better.
We’ve let the people of Afghanistan down.