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Long, difficult war in Afghanistan leaves mixed legacy

On Sunday, with little fanfare, Defence Minister Peter Dutton announced that on June 18 the final six Australian troops had left Afghanistan. A war that began 20 years go after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and which then gradually merged into a nation-building exercise, is now officially a closed chapter in Australia’s combat history.

It’s a military and financial commitment, however, that will be much scrutinised over coming years. With Afghanistan itself in such a state of internal conflict and political flux – the US troop withdrawal deadline of August triggered a resurgent Taliban effort to win back territory – the eventual consequences of the war for the Afghan people will be playing out for many months, and possibly years, to come.

In Australia, it will no doubt leave a mixed legacy.

An Afghan soldier walks past vehicles left by the American military.

An Afghan soldier walks past vehicles left by the American military. Credit:AP

The darkest cloud is being investigated by the Office of the Special Investigator, a $75 million agency created by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mr Dutton in response to the damning findings of the Brereton war crimes inquiry. That report uncovered credible allegations, reported extensively in The Age, that a small number of special forces soldiers committed murders in Afghanistan and covered them up by maintaining a mafia-like code of silence. We welcome the enormous efforts being taken to get to the bottom of these shocking allegations. It is important not just for those Afghans seeking justice, but for the reputation of Australia’s military.

Our long war in Afghanistan has also created a responsibility for us to help the hundreds of locals who worked with our troops – work that now puts them in potential peril. We hope Prime Minister Scott Morrison is as good as his word when he said recently that Australia would be generous with approving visa applications.

It should though not be forgotten that many thousands of Australian troops – the vast majority of those we sent – showed enormous commitment and courage during their deployments in Afghanistan. As part of that recognition, Mr Dutton has floated the idea of a national day of commemoration focusing on honouring those troops.

It is not unusual to have a day to remember battles or wars: Victory in the Pacific Day is commemorated on August 15 and Vietnam Veterans’ Day is soon after. These are predominantly opportunities for the military to remember and mourn their own dead and injured. For most Australians, though, all these sacrifices are commemorated on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day, and the service of our Afghanistan veterans will become increasingly prominent and important on those days.

The Afghan commitment was too long, its mission too ill-defined. Some of what went wrong there can be sheeted home to those facts, for which the politicians and generals must take responsibility. In the words of war historian John Blaxland recently, they deployed our troops “with only woolly ideas about exactly what they were trying to do there”.

The federal government has recently agreed to a royal commission into veterans’ mental health – which is to be commended – and has reversed ADF chief Angus Campbell’s decision to strip meritorious service awards from thousands of Australian special forces troops who served in Afghanistan.

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