With the recent gut-wrenching reports and images from Afghanistan of the Taliban appearing to wipe clean the work done over the last two decades, there has been a collective national exhale with the word: why?
Why were we there? Why has it cost Australia so much – in dollars and blood?
For many there is a real, deeply personal, sense of loss – loss of young soldiers, loss of potential to get a return on our commitment, loss of our aspirations and dreams of what we could have achieved in the beautiful, yet war-torn country. The enemy we fought have now overrun the very bases where we lived – our enemy moving freely within what was once our homes. It burns acidic right in the pit of my gut.
But I would like to offer another perspective and, with some thought, highlight the four positives we should acknowledge.
First, the Australian military has matured from our time in Afghanistan. Overlaid with our experiences from East Timor, Iraq and smaller recent deployments, we are now a much more capable organisation than we would have been had we not participated. Without the experiences of working with the large coalition forces, we would still be reliving ancient training methodologies, working with outdated equipment, and blinkered with small-scale mindsets.
Second, Australia has benefitted from the talent we grew and tested. It is no coincidence that several top public service roles have recently been filled by former military commanders whose formative strategy and leadership experience was gained during the ADF’s time in the Middle East – experience difficult to gain in any other profession. For example, it is not surprising that General John Frewen, a man who headed Australia’s contribution to the Middle East over 2017, is now the government’s choice to manage the complex and troublesome national COVID vaccination rollout. And while these are the high-profile roles, we have generated a generation of professionals who are now feeding back into Australia’s public and business sectors with their unique skills and experience.
Third, on the global stage we have shown ourselves as a reliable and effective coalition partner, and a trusted and compassionate friend. For our larger allies, we are seen as a steadfast and formidable military, one worth having on their side. This will continue to have broader security, intelligence sharing and diplomatic benefits, well into the future.
Finally, for the people of Afghanistan, we have allowed a possible future of peace and stability. We have allowed a generation to grow up who have never known the suppression of women, who have had a taste of democracy, and who have been through schooling based not solely on religious doctrine. I hope the seed we have sown will help the people of Afghanistan nurture and grow a more progressive and tolerant future.