In his classic account of how the rival big powers were defeated by the indigenous Afghans in the 19th century Peter Hopkirk wrote in The Great Game – a term made famous by Rudyard Kipling, although he did not coin it – that if heeded, the lessons of long ago would have saved myriad lives and national reputations.
‘Little appears to have been learned from the painful lessons of the past,’ he said. ‘Had the Russians in December 1979 remembered Britain’s unhappy experiences in 1842, in not dissimilar circumstances, then they might not have fallen into the same terrible trap…
‘The Afghans, Moscow found too late, were an unbeatable foe. Not only had they lost none of their formidable fighting ability, especially in terrain of their own choosing, but they were quick to embrace the latest techniques of warfare.’
In another hefty tome, Return of a King, ‘The Battle for Afghanistan’, the acclaimed historian William Dalrymple took a similar tack, irresistibly quoting Kipling’s Kim (‘When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished. Not before’) and writing that in 2001, less than twenty years after the Russian withdrawal, ‘British and American troops arrived in Afghanistan where they proceeded to begin losing what was, in Britain’s case, its fourth war in that country…
‘The Afghan resistance succeeded again in first surrounding then propelling the hated Kafirs into a humiliating exit. In both cases the occupying troops lost the will to continue fighting at such cost and with so little gain.’
History repeats… In late July this year the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said the main opposition, the Taliban, had seized ‘strategic momentum’ over the Afghan military forces – the training of which was core to the American and Australian mission in the country.
‘There’s a possibility of a complete Taliban takeover,’ he said, then added, in a possible nod to Kipling, ‘I don’t think the end game is yet written.’
The Taliban had already taken control of more than half of Afghanistan’s 420 districts and were aiming to isolate the capital Kabul and other major cities.
Australia sent troops to distant Afghanistan following the ‘9/11’ (2001) attacks in the even-more-distant New York and Washington. Neither an ignorance of history nor an unwillingness to heed its lessons were the reasons for our country’s commitment. Simply, we followed America’s lead, as we had in the war in Vietnam, with similar results.
Australia pulled out of Kabul on 1 July, a week before the main American forces withdrew under the cover of darkness, not even telling their Afghan allies they were leaving. Afghans who had helped the Americans would be allowed to emigrate but only if they could make it to Kabul where the embassy remained under guard. Australia prevaricated about whether to assist those who had helped us, as well as those needed to give evidence via Zoom to the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation/war crimes case.
During Australia’s involvement some 42 ADF personnel were killed. As we know now, a number of soldiers from Special Forces units committed crimes of atrocity against Afghans, whether combatants or not. The number of those – 39 – was nearly as many as the soldiers we lost in battle.
These actions were investigated in an official inquiry conducted by Major General Paul Brereton AM RFD, an experienced and senior Army Reserve Infantry Officer and a Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. His 461-page report, while heavily redacted, noted, ‘The nature and extent of the misconduct allegedly committed by ADF members on operations in Afghanistan is very confronting.
‘The Report discloses allegations of 39 unlawful killings by or involving ADF members. The Report also discloses separate allegations that ADF members cruelly treated persons under their control. None of these alleged crimes was committed during the heat of battle. The alleged victims were non-combatants or no longer combatants.’
One of these ADF members, allegedly, was then-Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith who undertook six tours of Afghanistan and engaged in a number of actions for which he was highly decorated, including winning the Victoria Cross. Suggestions, including in the media, that he was one of the soldiers who ‘cruelly treated’ Afghans under the ADF’s control prompted him to launch defamation action against some Australian media organisations and certain journalists.
One of the latter is Chris Masters who is credited on a screed in the Australian War Memorial (AWM) as being one of the key people involved with curating its Afghanistan gallery. The chair of the AWM’s Council is no less than Seven West Media’s Kerry Stokes who is reliably said to be funding Roberts-Smith’s legal action again rival media outlets and the journalists.
Roberts-Smith is a highly visible presence at the AWM. Upon arrival one sees him in a video loop shaking hands with Kerry Stokes. Just inside there’s a model of the towering figure in his Afghanistan fighting kit. Displayed elsewhere are his medals and the Michael Zavros portrait commissioned by the AWM.
Zavros observed that when he asked Roberts-Smith to pose in a fighting stance – it’s a pistol grip - “He went to this whole other mode. He was suddenly this other creature and I immediately saw all these other things. It showed me what he is capable of … it was just there in this flash.”
Australia’s ill-fated Afghanistan involvement has spawned not only an official inquiry but, after considerable pressure from Australian families and supporters, a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, formally established in July 2021.
Even setting the Terms of Reference attracted massive interest, with the Attorney-General's Department receiving more than 1800 submissions, including many from serving personnel, veterans, family members and academics.
The Royal Commission is due to provide an interim report on 11 August 2022 and a final report on 15 June 2023.
In a media release about the Royal Commission Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “The death of any Australian Defence Force member or veteran is a tragedy that is deeply felt by all Australians,’ adding, ‘As a Government we are committed to addressing the ongoing impact of service, including preventing future deaths by suicide and providing opportunities for healing.’
However, no mention was made of the contributors to this sad situation, notably the Afghanistan deployment, and to a lesser extent, Iraq, East Timor, other peacekeeping missions and longer ago, Vietnam.
Doubtless the spotlight that has fallen on Australia’s role in Afghanistan as a result of the Brereton inquiry, ABC Four Corners widely seen ‘Killing Field’ report of 2020, and Ben-Robert Smith’s court action will be triggering emotional distress for many serving and ex-personnel.
Suffering PTSD and other conditions after participating in or witnessing violent acts has long been known as an impact of soldiering. Even the Royal Commission, while well intentioned – albeit called by a government that could no longer resist the pressure to act - will likely trigger many adverse memories and responses. Losing one’s mates, or one’s own health, in pursuit of an unwinnable goal is hardly conducive to sound mental health.
Less predictable is whether the Royal Commission will hold officialdom to account for sending around 30,000 Australian troops along the paths trod so disastrously by the English and the Russians well over a century ago.
Perhaps such sentiments as the following will be uttered: ‘[The Afghan War] was a war begun for no wise purpose carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it.
‘Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.’
The words, quoted by Dalrymple, came from a British army chaplain, Rev. G.R. Gleig, in 1843 after his return from the Afghan ‘slaughterhouse’.
Should our leitmotif for military engagements not be ‘Lest We Forget’ but ‘Why Don’t We Remember?’