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An Afghanistan veteran reflects: ‘We made a big and positive difference’

By Eamon Hale

I spent 13 months in Afghanistan over two trips. I did some amazing things with amazing men and women. I worked with some remarkable people and I am immensely proud of my time in Afghanistan.

But my life is more than just those 13 months. Afghanistan is somewhere I’ve been, rather than somewhere that defines my identity. I’m lucky in that. It’s different for some.

There has been a collective gasp across the world at the rapid collapse of the Afghan government. While I don’t necessarily agree that the war in Afghanistan is over (have a look at some of the heroic Afghans who are still fighting, such as First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh who has defiantly declared himself “legitimate caretaker president” of Afghanistan), I’m not shocked at what has happened.

To say that we didn’t expect this would be extremely naive. Happy endings are for kids’ books.

I’m not surprised because we infantilised the Afghan leaders. We treated them as children; gifting them billions of dollars of equipment but not mentally equipping them to use it. We gave them tools but not responsibility. We spoke constantly of their noble, warrior spirit and then spoiled them. We accepted outrageous levels of corruption, justifying it as their custom and something we had to ignore.

Meanwhile, some 60,000 regular Afghan soldiers have been killed fighting the Taliban since 2001. They showed the true Afghan noble warrior spirit. But our media’s superficial narrative now is that they just gave up without a fight.

Most people in the media don’t know what they’re talking about and most comment sections on Facebook are fact-free and ignorant-abundant. Context, nuance and objectivity are foreign concepts to these journalists. The desperate desire for a ‘like’ or a retweet or a share overrides reality and fact. Pushing out a narrative to get a following, regardless of the bias or truth in what you’re saying, appears to the dominant thought of some.

I am proud of our mission in Afghanistan. I am proud of the infrastructure work Australia did: building schools and encouraging education; building hospitals and immeasurably improving the level of healthcare. I am proud of the training and mentoring we provided. Our presence, alongside a huge coalition of other nations, gave the people of Afghanistan a 20-year window to experience a level of freedom they wouldn’t have been allowed otherwise.

Prior to 2001 and under the Taliban, Afghans were some of the most oppressed people on Earth. Girls and women lived lives we can’t even imagine in the West. They were treated not even as second-class citizens but as possessions, often to be brutally disposed of when men decided it.

After the 2001 US-led invasion, we removed one of the world’s most brutal regimes and the Afghan people were able to vote for their own governments. They could pursue their own hopes and desires within their cultural construct. The country opened up, perhaps not to the wider world, but at least to itself.

More important than that, millions of boys, girls, men and women were exposed to education. They went to school and university; they grew their minds and opened themselves to new ideas. That is the greatest success I can think of.

There is a generation of Afghans now who know that the world is wider than just a holy book. They can read that book too, and other books.

Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom,” said George Washington Carver, and the education of the youth is worth fighting for, say I with as much humility as I can muster.

The youth of Afghanistan may well be returning to the Dark Ages now, but they will do it with a seed planted by the education they have received. That gives me hope for their future.

As for interpreters and Afghan workers who supported the coalition, Australia has brought approximately 8500 Afghans to Australia on asylum/refugee visas and through the Locally Engaged Employee program since 2013.

There is always more that can be done, but it seems the media are saying we have just left them all behind and that isn’t true. I hope more can make it out. The stories of the evacuation from Kabul airport are inspiring.

Kabul is genuinely in crisis but the narrative from people who have never cared about Afghanistan until this week is superficial and ignorant. They argue that we have blood on our hands for “abandoning” the people of Afghanistan. And blood on our hands for going there in the first place. Regardless of what narrative they are pushing, we are being told to feel bad and guilty about it.

As for feeling bad, I don’t. I’m a soldier, not a politician. More than anything, I feel sorry Afghanistan. I mourn for them and the loss of what we fought to build there.

But I also believe they need to be responsible for themselves. We largely held them together and that’s not fair on either side. They needed to take over the running of their country but we had allowed the corruption to grow so out of control that leadership was just a means to make a fortune, not to better their people. (That President Ashraf Ghani is supposed to have fled the country in a helicopter stacked with money – so full that some bags of cash were left on the tarmac – highlights that point.)

Despite everything that’s currently happening, and despite the negative narrative in the media and even among some in the veteran community, I firmly believe we made a big and positive difference in Afghanistan.

I am proud of what we did on our deployments, whether we deployed as Army, Navy, Air Force or as civilian staff.

That’s my choice but maybe not everyone else’s. We’re all entitled to our opinions, and I hope one day the people of Afghanistan can have theirs again too.


Eamon Hale is the Vice President of the Hawthorn RSL Sub-branch in Victoria, having served in the Australian Army as a cavalryman for 16 years. Eamon is a regular contributor to Australian Veteran News.

Connect with Eamon on twitter: @eamhale

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