Afghanistan

On 19 November 2020, the Chief of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, released the findings of the Brereton Report, so named for the New South Wales Supreme Court Judge and Reserve Major General Paul Brereton, who led the investigation into war crimes allegations against members of the Australian SAS. The report had been a long time coming – with good reason. Over four years, Brereton and his team scrutinised more than 20,000 documents, examined 25,000 images, and interviewed 423 individuals – Afghan victims and their families, eyewitnesses, whistleblowers, and the alleged perpetrators. The final eight-volume, three-part report came in at 3,251 pages. Everybody knew it would be bad, but few had anticipated quite how confronting its findings would be.

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When the last C-17 cargo plane left the Hamid Karzai International Airport on 30 August with the remaining US soldiers and diplomats, America’s longest war officially came to a close. The swift return of the Taliban was a deeply distressing and tragic end to a war whose close, nevertheless, came partly as a relief. The inevitable question as to what lessons America – more particularly, its military and federal government – has learnt or should learn was followed by substantial criticism of President Joe Biden’s handling of the withdrawal and dire predictions for the future of American power and prestige abroad. The process of confronting uncomfortable realities and debating the meaning of such an event is both natural and necessary, yet the history of previous American conflicts overseas tells us that the period of actual reckoning will be brief and few lessons may be learnt.

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In late August, it took only a few days for the Taliban to secure control of Kabul in the wake of the final withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan. The breakneck speed of the takeover was accompanied by images of mass terror, alongside a profound sense of betrayal. As in the closing days of the Vietnam War in 1975, the international airport quickly became the epicentre of scenes of chaos and collective panic, as thousands rushed onto the tarmac in desperate attempts to board the last planes out of the country. Queues stretched for kilometres outside the country’s only passport office. It is still too early to tell whether the Taliban’s promises of a more ‘inclusive’ government and amnesty for former collaborators of the Western forces will be met. What is certain is that Western governments owe them safe passage, though, from the announcements coming from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office in late August, it seems unlikely this will be properly honoured.

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In 1994, the Afghan mujahideen commander, Abdul Haq, rebuked the United States for forgetting about Afghanistan once the communist-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah had fallen in 1992. He predicted that Washington would rue its neglect: ‘Maybe one day they will have to send in hundreds of thousands of troops,’ he told The New York Times. ‘And if they step in, they will be stuck. We have a British grave in Afghanistan. We have a Soviet grave. And then we will have an American grave.’

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Few organisations defend their reputation more vigorously than the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Long since clasped to the national bosom, the ADF has no intention of being shoehorned out of its prized position at the heart of Australian identity and culture. The first duty of its public affairs personnel is to protect ...

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To go into any bookshop, if you can still find one, is to be amazed at the space devoted to militaria: endless shelves of books not just about the two world wars and Vietnam, but all wars in all times. This vicarious fascination with war echoes another phenomenon of our time: the rise of overt public respect for soldiers.

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