As Australian troops pull out of their twenty year engagement in Afghanistan, I find myself reflecting on the similarities of the outcome of this conflict and the war that I served in- Vietnam, half a century ago.
In the 1960’s the Australian Government made a decision to deploy a specialized team, the AATTV, to assist the South Vietnamese Government in what we now know was a civil war. The decision was made as part of the policy of assisting our ‘great and powerful friend’, the United States, in its campaign to contain Communism. This grew at its peak to a task force of three Battalions and support personal. I was a National Serviceman who served as a Medic at 8th Field Ambulance, Nui Dat, 1970/71 during the ‘wind down’ and final withdrawal of our troops from Nui Dat in October 1971.
Following “9/11”, the Bush administration embarked on a military campaign to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan on the pretext they were harbouring Osama Ben Laden, blamed for the attack on the World Trade Centre. Prime Minister, John Howard, who happened to be in Washington at the time, immediately committed our military to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Ben Laden was subsequently captured and killed, not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, an U.S. ally.
Compared to Vietnam, our commitment was small. The Government knew that a National Service type scheme to increase Army manpower would be electorally unpalatable .Unlike Vietnam, Regular Army and Support personal were deployed on a rotational basis. As a result many Afghanistan Veterans completed multiple tours. Vietnam Veterans rarely completed more than one 12 month ‘tour’. In view of my experience and its impact on my mental and physical heath, the rotation of troops to Afghanistan on such a recurring basis over the twenty years of the conflict may prove to be unwise in terms of these veterans’ health issues in future years.
The collapse of South Vietnam in the closing days of April, 1975 is etched indelibly on my memory, as is the shock, trauma and disbelief that I experienced during that period. The images on the nightly news of Vietnamese scrambling to escape and being beaten back by Embassy guards; the final scene of people boarding a helicopter on the roof of a Saigon high-rise building, are as vivid to me today as they were then.
The unholy haste of our troops departing Afghanistan, as America realizes that the two decade long war is lost, is a stark reminder of our final days in Vietnam. No doubt many Vietnam Veterans are feeling again, as I am the regrets of today’s soldiers as they depart from another conflict with an outcome; Mission failed. It would be traumatic for todays ‘veterans to discover, as we did, that political considerations are paramount.
Finally my heart goes out to the people of Afghanistan who have endured at least a century or more of war. First the British, then the Russians, lastly we and others, who have invaded, then left this war torn country in ruins. Following the Communist victory in Vietnam, I spent years wondering about the fate of Vietnamese who backed the wrong horse, particularly those with whom I worked and came to know as friends? The fate of those who backed the wrong horse in Afghanistan remains unknown. However if the pronouncements of the Taliban are correct, their future is bleak indeed. Leaving our Afghanistan co-workers to their fate at the hands of the Taliban fills me with dread .Our departure from Vietnam was chillingly similar.
Looking to the future; once the Taliban takes power there will be terrible retribution, as was the case in Vietnam. However as the Vietnamese government discovered, such policies are counterproductive. While Iran with its strict Islamic rulers is yet to discover its hard-line policies have been a disaster for their people, one hopes that the Taliban will realise that rapprochement with the West will be necessary for the war torn country’s recovery. That realization may take years.
In the meantime as happened after 1975, when many Vietnamese became the ‘boat people’; many Afghanis, unable or unwilling to live under brutal ‘sharia law’, will flee Afghanistan for the West. We will once more be faced with a flood of refugees. I fear for their future, unless this Government, like the Frazer Government shows some compassion for the people crisis it helped to generate.