As the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan finally captured Australians’ attention, Scott Morrison had some well rehearsed talking points during a Monday media blitz dominated by COVID and the lost war.
The questions were predictable. The answers were, to be blunt, mostly trite.
Had it all been a waste?
“It’s always Australia’s cause to fight for freedom, and whatever the result, whatever the outcomes of that, Australians have always stood up for that.”
But it hadn’t achieved anything?
“Everyone who has fallen in an Australian uniform, for our values and under flag, has died in the great cause of freedom, and they are great heroes.”
What had been the point?
“The point was to deny Osama bin Laden and to hunt him down, and to deny al-Qaeda a base of operations in Afghanistan.”
Morrison said he was “absolutely devastated” about the future for the women and girls.
The government is currently concentrated on getting out Australians (there are more than 130 in Afghanistan), and Afghans who have previously assisted our forces, as translators and the like.
Morrison insisted this is being undertaken efficiently, although things seem slow, and it surely could have helped if we’d kept our embassy open a few weeks longer while the processing was being done. The accountability will come later.
It’s obvious Morrison does not want to engage in any substantial debate about the whole Afghanistan debacle – another war in Asia in which the United States and its allies have been routed.
Morrison is on strong enough ground when he says the point had been to deny – after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in the US – a base to al-Qaeda and to hunt bin Laden.
That indeed was a proper justification for the initial attack. Afghanistan was a terrorist haven and the west could not afford to leave it as such.
But what came after was another matter. To suggest it is always worth Australians dying for the cause of freedom, win or lose, does not really cut it as an argument.
Of course Australia is a bit player in this long-in-the-making disaster. The Afghan government had been a fragile house of cards, even if its collapse was surprisingly fast once the Americans (first Trump, then Biden) instituted the US exit.
America and its allies, including Australia, had failed to successfully train and motivate an Afghan military force to have the strength and will, when left on its own, to resist the Taliban. The US withdrawal also took out vital capability the Afghan military needed to function.
The Australian forces, and those of other countries, did good things for civilians over the past two decades including for women and their daughters. But after a glimpse of another, better life, all or much of that will now be reversed, and the outlook is bleak for a generation of girls.
During a private trip to Afghanistan in 2002 I met Benafsha, then 19, who told me she wanted to be a doctor, or an engineer.
She was in ninth grade at Ferdous High School in Kabul, run by Catholic Relief Services, where she was catching up on the time when she couldn’t study during the Taliban regime.
“I will be educated. My life will be better than my mother’s,” Benafsha said. It’s not a hope the average 19-year-old girl in Afghanistan will be able to feel today.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne did not exaggerate when she told Sky: “For women and girls I fear this is devastating”.
Morrison, Payne and Defence Minister Peter Dutton said in a statement late Monday, “The Taliban must cease all violence against civilians, and adhere to international humanitarian law and the human rights all Afghans are entitled to expect, in particular women and girls”.
Not much chance, on the Taliban’s previous record.
Promoting democracy and rebuilding a country proved to be much harder for the coalition that went into Afghanistan than inflicting an initial military defeat.
Determined insurgents, fanatically committed to their ideology, are the most difficult enemies to overcome. They regroup.
John Howard took Australia into Afghanistan, and then out of it at the end of 2002, to facilitate supporting George W Bush’s ill-judged mission in Iraq. He re-engaged Australia in Afghanistan in 2005.
Howard has told the Canberra Times, “I have absolutely no regrets about the decision my government took 20 years ago to involve this country. It was the right thing to do.” But reportedly he wouldn’t be drawn on whether it had been wise to stay.
The Howard government’s decision to return in 2005 is hard to justify in terms of Australia’s national interest.
Australia’s prolonged involvement in Afghanistan, and its role in Iraq were driven by its commitment to the US alliance, as had been its participation in that other failure, the Vietnam war.
Successive Australian governments have judged that the alliance, as the bedrock of Australia’s military security, demands quid pro quos when the US asks us to join in military operations.
The 70th anniversary of the ANZUS treaty is imminent. Howard invoked ANZUS for the first time in the wake of the September 11 attacks, which occurred while he happened to be in Washington.
The alliance is much broader than the formal ANZUS treaty, but the anniversary is a time to reflect on the extent to which the alliance has made some of our key international decisions virtually automatic, regardless of what might be our own distinctive interests.
Sadly but inevitably, Afghanistan’s pain will soon fade from the attention of both the Australian media and our politicians. For all the present talk, the fate of the Afghan women will disappear from our consciousness. When we in Australia talk about “women’s issues” we are usually distinctly near-sighted.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra