Where Australian fools rushed in: the Afghan war was always unwinnable

Dec 2, 2021
ADF Australian Army in Afghanistan 2010
(Image: Flickr/ResoluteSupportMedia)

America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, where it had aimed to bolster international security, will create a new breeding ground for terrorism.

The day after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Australian prime minister John Howard, without reference to Parliament, invoked Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty in support of the US and its proposed attack on the Taliban in Afghanistan. Australian troops served in Afghanistan until the end of 2002, when they were withdrawn. They redeployed in August 2005 in Operation Slipper under the Special Forces Task Group. By 2008 the Australian Defence Force (ADF) brief involved training and mentoring Afghan security forces.

Defence minister John Faulkner told Parliament in June 2010: “Our fundamental objective in Afghanistan is to combat a clear threat from international terrorism to both international security and our own national security. Australia cannot afford, and Australians cannot afford, to let Afghanistan again become a safe haven and training ground for terrorist organisations.”

The precipitate US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August this year is likely to again make Afghanistan a breeding ground for terrorism. No provision was made with the occupying forces of the Taliban for the welfare of the civilian population. Food is short, there is little work, the cash economy has collapsed and the US refuses to release $12 billion of Afghan reserves. Winter is approaching, and by next summer those young men who survive will be very angry and putty in the hands of ISIS.

Australia built a scenario under which Afghan military forces would take over security in 2012-14; this wasn’t to be. Acts of terror did not end in Europe. Between 2004 and 2014 there were 15 major terror attacks. And from 2016 to 2020 there were 59 attacks in major European centres. Clearly the Afghan mission had failed, despite 120,000 troops deployed from 42 nations, although 33 countries contributed fewer than 1000 personnel. They were deployed under the auspices of NATO and were known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

It was clear to me by 2008, having served in Afghanistan with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) during the Russian occupation and having a family history with the British army in India and a knowledge of history, that the US-inspired expedition was doomed to failure. It was not a view shared by the urgers in Canberra and the media.

In May 2007 Professor Rory Medcalf, then with the Lowy Institute and now head of the National Security College at ANU, wrote in an online forum sponsored by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI):

“In Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has proven a willingness to inflict and sustain large-scale casualties. This should belie any perception among others — such as China — that the US politically was capable of waging war only of the minimal-risk kind seen in Kosovo … Australia, with its recent decision to send special forces back to Afghanistan, is one of the few US allies willing to risk battle there.”

Writing in The Canberra Times in 2008, Major-General Jim Molan, said:

“The Afghanistan war is winnable. We are not being asked to do the impossible. It is not going to be worse than just about any other war. No wars go well initially and the average length of a counter-insurgency is nine years. We are really only in the second year and, just as we did not get serious about the Iraq war until its fifth year, we are not yet serious about the Afghan war.”

The ABC reported ASPI, in May 2008, calling for an increase in Australian troops in Afghanistan. An article in the ASPI publication Strategic Insights (No. 40, 2008) by Raspal Khosa argued a strong case for Australian involvement in Afghanistan.

Australian security expert Dr David Kilcullen believed in 2008 that the war in Afghanistan could be won. His views modified with time. Both Gareth Evans and Kim Beazley gave their support to the ADF presence in Afghanistan.

Writing for the ABC’s The Drum website on March, 28, 2008, I said:

“[Joel] Fitzgibbon [then Australian defence minister] is in denial at the prospect of allied military success in Afghanistan. The main backer of the Taliban is Pakistan … The US-dominated NATO command is employing the failed tactics of the Russians and the outcome will be the same.

“The Russians tried to train an Afghan army and failed and the prospect looks equally gloomy for NATO. The Afghan army, such as it is, is shouldering very little of the burden… The British fought three major Afghan wars from 1839-1919 without gain and the Russians had a most uncomfortable occupation from 1979-1989 with the same result.

“The factors defeating these interlopers were topography, the people and the strategic location of Afghanistan and so it will be again…

“Australia should seek to engage with all elements in Pakistan who are fostering the Taliban and assisting Osama bin Laden. Australia needs to acquire an independent understanding of the motives and attitudes of the Taliban and their backers.”

In On Line Opinion on January 5, 2009, I said:

“Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, 19 December, 2008, ‘Turn the tables on Afghanistan’, retired Australian general Jim Molan claims that the success achieved against terrorists in Iraq can be translated to Afghanistan and he calls for an increase of up 6000 Australian troops.

“I think Molan premature when he talks of Iraq being a success. The destabilising effect of the invasion will, in my opinion, be felt within Iraq and the region for another decade at least. He talks of the Afghan people when in fact there is no such entity. The majority are Pushtuns who dominate and mistreat minority groups including the Hazaras, Tadjiks and Turkmen. Molan ignores the divisive influence of topography on both military activity and nation building and possesses the blind optimism not seen in Australian military and diplomatic analysis since Vietnam.

“Molan claims that ‘our great weapons are our morality and openness to scrutiny… our information must be truth’, which unfortunately does not apply to reporting on the war in Afghanistan… the US has learnt none of the lessons of Vietnam. Its presence conveys a sense of occupation, the destruction of property and homes and the deaths of innocents translates into recruits prepared to fight for a warlord, the Taliban or whoever else will arm and fed them…

“The policy driving the war and the manner in which it is being prosecuted makes the war in Afghanistan unwinnable. Terrorism is founded in belief, ideology and emotion. Does anyone in the Western alliance seriously believe they can blast, kill and maim their way to a victory in which no known terrorist is left standing in Afghanistan?”

And I wrote this in early 2009 when the ASPI and other right-wing organisations and individuals were advocating troop increases and declaring victory in sight.

Writing in The Drum in October 2009, I posed a number of questions:

“Policymakers in Australia need to ask what it is they hope to achieve from the Australian military presence in Afghanistan. Is it just support for the US/Australia alliance or is Australia seriously engaged in a fight against international terrorism? If it is the latter, then it needs to be explained how this commitment is achieving that and in what way does it impact positively in the short and long term on the lives of Australians. And this is not intended to goad the AFP into conjuring up confected baddies from the ranks of the misguided and dispossessed.

“Are US objectives realistic? Can they be achieved? At what cost and over what period of time? Is the Australian commitment making a positive contribution? Are we getting value for money? Is there a downside and if so, what is it? Is it vital to our national interest to be putting the lives of young Australians on the line over Afghanistan?”

The ASPI and right-wing camp followers never sought answers to those questions and the Coalition did not seek to ask them. Kevin Rudd made half an attempt but was slapped down by the US.

In November 2011, again The Drum, I addressed what had become known as “green on blue” killings:

“To believe that the Australian commitment to Afghanistan has not changed as a result of the killing of three Australian and two Afghan soldiers by Afghan soldiers said to be loyal to the Australian military contingent, is to ignore some basic human emotions and to ignorantly or wilfully misunderstand the average Australian soldier.” 

There had been a similar attack in October 2011 and another in August 2012. By far the largest number of war crimes committed by Australian soldiers occurred in 2012 and 2013. Both sides by 2012 loathed each other, and racism on the part of NATO soldiers was a feature of their existence in Afghanistan, as it had been for US troops in Vietnam.

I finished the article with this:

“The war in Afghanistan can’t be won, and Afghanistan isn’t ours — or anyone else’s — to lose. Australia will not form part of the peace process or be required to broker a peace deal. Many lives have been lost, many others ruined and money squandered in Afghanistan, but it is not a sign of weakness to admit that we’ve made a mistake. Rhetoric about progress being made will not recast the war in a more favourable light. It is what it is. Futile.”

It is not by coincidence that the same people who backed the war in Afghanistan, led by the ASPI, are now at the forefront of the anti-China push. They segued from fighting Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan to fighting Asian communists in China. These are angry and fearful people. They were wrong about Afghanistan. The intelligence they relied on needs to be questioned, whether Five Eyes or domestic agencies. Too often their analysis appears to fit Western ideology, political imperatives and the needs of the industrial/military complex than the situation on the ground.

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