After the war on terror
Among the imprinted moments that followed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, one remains especially vivid. It came on a Sunday morning in a small-town stone church an hour north of New York City.
I was among the Australian correspondents in Washington, DC, covering then prime minister John Howard’s visit 20 years ago. When the attacks occurred and he was flown out, I went to New York to report on the aftermath.
Five days after the planes hit the twin towers, I joined friends in Nyack, Rockland County, for a sombre service at their local Episcopal church. The county was mourning 81 firefighters, students and office workers killed in the attacks, and some of the bereaved were seeking comfort in the pews.
As the priest reached for words to soothe, she also asked if America should examine its own attitudes and policies to understand why such hatred had been brought upon it.
For many listening, it was too much. People got to their feet and yelled in protest. They literally shouted her down.
At that time, in those circumstances, it was the wrong question. To them, it sounded like an attempt to justify what had happened, when nothing could.
But in a broader context, the priest’s point stands: at some stage after a catastrophe, and ideally sooner rather than later, there must be reflection on what enabled it to occur.
After the September 11 attacks, America was a nation bent on revenge. What is less understandable is why, in its planning for a war that lasted two decades, there was no reflection on anything but that. Now the same absence of reflection looks like prevailing again.
As Winston Churchill observed, and others before him, that is how the catastrophes of history come to be repeated. As the United States and its allies leave Afghanistan, there must be a clear-eyed examination of what went wrong in the beginning, throughout, and in the disastrous withdrawal.
But the narrative already emerging around this sombre anniversary suggests politicians are more inclined to draw a line and move on.
The mistakes of the Afghan War started before it did. Had anyone in the US administration read a history book, they might have realised Afghanistan was a complex theatre that had claimed many powers.
Britain and the Soviet Union were chased out in the 19th and 20th centuries, the latter after the United States backed the mujahideen. In the 21st century, the Americans thought they wouldn’t be there for long. Succumbing to hubris was another key failure.
Invading Afghanistan in October 2001, the US and its allies set twin goals. One was measurable, the other not. They vowed to capture or kill 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and they declared the nation that harboured him and his organisation, al-Qaeda, would never again train terrorists.
The US supported an English-speaking president in Hamid Karzai, a man of Western sensibilities who it felt it could deal with. There seemed little appreciation he might pursue the politics of patronage that would see corruption flourish.
The Afghans were assumed to be hankering for US-style centralised democracy, but their primary ambitions were less complicated: they wanted to be freed from tyrannical forces, to have their culture and faith respected and to live in peace under local authorities they knew, rather than a centralised government they did not. Whatever little of that was achieved has proved to be temporary.
A year into the war, the allies hadn’t achieved their first objective. Their target, bin Laden, was still at large and would remain so for another nine years. But because they had ousted his protectors, the Taliban, they declared the secondary objective met and began a new adventure in Iraq.
With Pakistan’s support and foreign forces committed elsewhere, a patient Taliban re-emerged. In 2005, with the Afghan government teetering, the allies returned to the graveyard of empires.
Now, they were all about reconstruction, governance and the rights of women. They returned under the banner of nation-building – the very thing Howard said Australia should never do.
Responsibility for provincial security was divided among the coalition forces. The US persuaded Australia to partner with the Dutch in Uruzgan, a southern insurgent stronghold that was neither the worst to draw nor the best.
Reconstruction became mentoring as objectives and strategy changed. The military call this “mission creep”. It goes on the list of significant failures.
Returning to Afghanistan, the Howard government had favoured leaning heavily on Australia’s special forces. It figured it was a contribution that would be highly valued by the US but that its sharp insertion operations would keep the risk of Australian casualties relatively low.
Consecutive governments sent them back again and again. They gained god-like status within both the Australian Defence Force and the wider community. A sense of otherness and impunity grew. Some were awarded the Medal for Gallantry and four the Victoria Cross, one of them posthumously. But among much honourable service, some very bad things happened.
The findings of the Brereton report into alleged war crimes are part of the result. To call the appalling activities it describes a failure does not seem adequate. The fate of further investigation now hangs in the balance. With no Australian presence in Afghanistan and a new government unconcerned by human rights, gathering local evidence for a prosecution will be extremely tough. The Taliban may see some propaganda value in facilitating witnesses. It may not. But most evidence is likely to come from Australians.
Regardless, Australia’s future military contributions and reputation depend on reckoning properly with what happened. Whether the political will exists is, at best, unclear.
As the years ground on, public tolerance for continuing the war in Afghanistan faded. After bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May 2011, plans began for withdrawal.
Australia closed most of its remote bases in Uruzgan in late 2012. A year later, under then prime minister Julia Gillard, the last combat troops were withdrawn, a small group of ADF remaining mostly in Kabul to mentor and train Afghan forces.
When Donald Trump became US president, exit plans accelerated. Having failed militarily, the US sought a diplomatic solution – something Australia’s Defence Force chief, General Angus Campbell, said was always going to be required. Trump initiated talks with the Taliban in Qatar. His move elevated and legitimised them as an alternative government, doing nothing to encourage them to wait for orderly transfer. In February 2020, they reached agreement.
Frozen out, the Afghan government had been rendered impotent and Trump’s negotiators gave away too much. They agreed to release thousands of Taliban prisoners against the wishes of allies, including Australia, which strongly objected to freeing fighters who had murdered their soldiers.
Trump’s deal also set a withdrawal deadline of May this year, without allied consultation. There were no conditions – no undertakings required on human rights, including the rights of women; no promises to preserve institutions. With a deadline set, there was no more leverage.
When Joe Biden became president, he did not alter the terms, he simply changed the date. Worse, he selected the most totemic alternative imaginable, September 11 – the anniversary of the event that led to the Taliban’s ousting and a day at least as important to them as to the US. It became the de facto deadline for a Taliban takeover by force.
After Biden announced his new deadline in April – again, without consulting allies – Australia unilaterally closed its embassy in Kabul. Dismayed, the Afghan government diagnosed correctly that it would serve as a vote of no-confidence in security and could only worsen it. Biden’s administration was not happy either. As Australia and the US mark 70 years of the ANZUS alliance, which also involves New Zealand, bilateral relations are far from their shiniest.
Finally, it seems, the allies’ intelligence failed. When the Taliban surrounded Kabul on Sunday, August 15, and marched in as President Ashraf Ghani fled, allied forces were not ready.
Biden blamed the Afghan National Army for surrendering. They did so in the face of insurmountable odds, with 70,000 of their own dead behind them and after the US abandoned the strategically crucial Bagram air base to the city’s north and removed maintenance support for the military hardware it was bequeathing.
The Afghan soldiers had done what Afghans rationally do – chosen self-preservation and accommodated the force that was staying in their country rather than the one that was leaving.
Biden’s analysis proved the US still had not absorbed the lessons of history. What followed at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport will stain Biden’s legacy, with thousands of desperate Afghans seeking to escape, some clinging to the undercarriage of military planes and falling to their deaths from the sky.
To complete both tragedy and humiliation, a suicide bomber detonated at the main gate during the biggest evacuation airlift in history, killing almost 200 Afghans and 13 American soldiers. The mission to rid the country of terrorists had come horrific full circle.
The human and economic cost of the war has been immense. It has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Afghans and thousands of allied soldiers and civilians, including 41 ADF personnel. At least 500 more Australians took their own lives after they returned home, and thousands more were wounded, physically and mentally.
So, should the allies have left? And what has been achieved?
Foreign forces cannot stay in a country forever. The question was not if but when and how. The US need not have answered it in the way it did. The result was monumental failure.
Defenders of the war, including John Howard, argue it’s wrong to say nothing was gained. A generation of girls had a chance to be educated, although the percentage in school remains low. Some are now bravely protesting against the Taliban. Kabul grew and modernised, as did its communications. Human rights protections were introduced. But how much of this will last?
A report published by Human Rights Watch 10 days before the Taliban took Kabul examined the impact of the 2009 Eliminate Violence Against Women law, finding it had driven “slow but genuine change”. But it also said the fear of reprisals and pressure from police, prosecutors and judges was deterring women from filing complaints. That’s hardly likely to improve.
The report’s title is a devastating summary of a nation’s unmet expectations: “I Thought Our Life Might Get Better.”
The sentiment lingers like the priest’s words 20 years ago, except there is less excuse for failing to acknowledge it. Back then, the US and its allies missed their chance to reflect. They should not do it again.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "After the war on terror".
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