Commentary |
16 April 2021

The final reckoning in Afghanistan as Australia and the US withdraw troops

Originally published in The Australian.

Rodger Shanahan
Rodger Shanahan

In the end, it will finish with a whimper rather than a bang.

President Joe Biden has called an end to the United States coalition’s 20 years of military operations in Afghanistan. As he pointed out, he is the fourth president to preside over the conflict and he wanted to be the last.

In the past he had seen the Afghanistan campaign through a counter-terrorism rather than a nation-building lens and believed that strategic aims for military intervention should have been more limited than they were. He did not want a fifth president have to face the same problem.

The argument for military operations in Afghanistan was compelling at the time it was made. Al-Qa’ida had used the country as a base to plan terrorist operations against the West and the Taliban rulers had allowed them to do that.

The Taliban’s sovereignty over Afghanistan was only recognised by three countries and they were given an opportunity to hand over the terrorist group’s leadership but elected not to.

Washington and its allies, including Australia, had every right to intervene in Afghanistan to destroy the anti-Western terrorist group the Taliban had willingly supported. There is also a strong argument that if Washington’s focus had remained on Afghanistan, attempts at nation-building may have had more success. But the Bush administration’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq wasted the gains made in Afghanistan and by the time focus shifted back to Afghanistan it was too late.

However, administrations must deal with the world as it is rather than the world as they wish it to be, and the Biden administration has decided that Afghanistan is now a second-order security priority.

Domestic economic and pandemic responses and great-power competition are the security threats that focus the attention of the White House these days, and that is as it should be.

Australia played its part in Afghanistan but it will also likely depart at the same time as Washington. Australians were also killed in the attacks on 9/11 and al-Qa’ida has targeted Australia and killed Australians overseas so we were justified in joining the US in attacking al-Qa’ida’s Afghanistan safe haven.

However, most of the security gains made in Oruzgan, where the Australian main effort was focused, have been lost to the Taliban. That will be a bitter pill to swallow for the families of those soldiers killed and wounded serving there and elsewhere. And with the revelations contained in the Brereton report about the actions of a small element of the Australian Special Operations Task Group in Oruzgan making for distressing reading, it is tempting to conclude that not only was there little point to our contribution but that the army’s reputation has been stained as a result.

But first of all the public needs to understand that soldiers go where they are sent to do the job asked of them — there is no guarantee of success. All we ask is that they perform to a standard that brings credit to them and the country from which they come.

The findings of the Brereton report should be seen in context, though, as they represent a fraction of the military personnel deployed to the country.

And, while these revelations will inevitably colour our perceptions of the military’s role in Afghanistan, the public should nevertheless understand that neither the special forces nor Oruzgan province defined our military effort in Afghanistan. Our contribution extended well beyond Oruzgan, and hence we should avoid the tendency to focus solely on the provincial level and what went on in Oruzgan as the only measure of mission success or failure.

Like others, we were part of an Afghanistan-wide coalition military campaign.

Nowadays, the Australian government, like the US, has also acknowledged a shift in our strategic focus and hence there is a much greater priority accorded to our near region.

The dogs bark, and the strategic caravan moves on. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should forget Afghanistan or the lessons that have emerged from it.

Changing the aim of the mission without allocating the resources to achieve the aim, conducting two ambitious nation-building campaigns simultaneously and failing to recognise strategic realities early enough are all serious mistakes that played out before our eyes. It is easy to understand these in hindsight but the frustrating thing is that enough people knew this to be the case at the time but were powerless to stop it.

So was the Afghanistan intervention a strategic defeat?

History is the ultimate judge, of course, but these days concepts of victory and defeat are much less clear-cut than they used to be.

If the measure of success was to turn Afghanistan into a liberal democratic state, then of course it has failed and was always destined to do so. But if the measure was to deny Afghanistan as a safe haven for Salafi-jihadi groups to plan and train for attacks against the West, then it may well be considered a longer-term success.

Even the Taliban will understand there is too much downside to allow such groups the freedom they enjoyed prior to September 2001. What is more contested is the durability of improvements in the social indicators such as infant mortality rates, life expectancy, healthcare, education and employment opportunities, particularly among women, that have undoubtedly been achieved over these two decades. If these end up being frittered away, the Taliban dominate the government and the provinces and the Afghan middle class decamp to the West in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan, then there will be a much stronger argument that it was all for nought.

But if these gains prove to be durable, even if only in the urbanised areas, then some good will have come from this endeavour. As with all wars though, the loved ones of 41 Australian soldiers, thousands of coalition and Afghan soldiers and tens of thousands of Afghan civilians will forever question the cost.

The withdrawal of troops will be criticised by some as being premature and hence not honouring the sacrifices of the thousands of soldiers killed during the campaign, or as betraying the Afghans whose lives have been improved as a consequence of these past 20 years by handing over control of the country to the Taliban.

Many others, Biden included, will feel the decision was too long in coming. The reality though is that any president’s decision to withdraw would have been criticised by sections of the public.

President Donald Trump had made a decision to exit by May 1 but as with so many of his decisions, there was never a sense that it was the consequence of much thought on his part regarding the second-order effects of his decision.

By contrast President Biden’s team, including himself, are more experienced and have a much greater understanding of the consequences of the decision made.

Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and served in Afghanistan