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As Australia withdraws from Afghanistan, we must consider the legacy of the ADF

By Luke Gosling OAM MP

After two decades, the international component of the war in Afghanistan is finally coming to a close. But while the allied forces may leave, the war will undoubtedly continue.

It's deeply poignant for this announcement to come so close to Anzac Day. This is a sensitive time for those who served there, the families of those who died there, and the nation at large.

We are not leaving Afghanistan as victors. Indeed, the conflict has been marked more by ambiguity than any clear-cut indications of progress and success. We cannot claim victory, but neither do we leave in defeat.

For me, Afghanistan is deeply personal. I never served there in uniform, but I played a role in 2003 in Kandahar securing the elections for the Loya Jirga in the south. This elders' council was part of a process to draft a national constitution.

It was essential to have Pashtun voices at the table to forge the new constitution, because if they didn't have a voice, a democratic nation would never have a chance.

I worked with the Afghan elections team, the UN, and the US military. We held elections for elders, including women representatives, to participate in the constitutional convention. The men were proud, and the women were strong and impressive. I wonder what future awaits them post-withdrawal.

The process of drafting a new constitution was an important step, but as former commando and Afghan veteran Keith Wolahan said recently, perhaps Afghanistan would have been better served by a shift to a federal system of government, rather than the Kabul-dominated, centralised presidential system it ended up with.

There have also been public reflections lately by some of my parliamentary colleagues on the primary purpose of the Australian Defence Force.

The Member for Herbert, Phil Thompson, told the ABC: "Their job is to defend our nation, our interests, our values, our sovereignty, but also when we go on operations, have an unapologetic aggression and violence to get the mission done."

Assistant Defence Minister Andrew Hastie also told the ABC that the core business of the ADF "will always be the application of lethal violence in the defence of our values, sovereignty and interests".

I respect these fellow veterans, but on this narrow definition they're wrong. The ADF defends Australia and protects our interests through many more strategic efforts than just the application of violence.

Go to the Australian War Memorial and you'll find proof of the multi-pronged efforts of the ADF in Afghanistan - medics giving check-ups to children, engineers working on infrastructure, soldiers on patrol.

With the exception of the unprofessional behaviour outlined in the Brereton report, our soldiers were exemplary ambassadors for our country and its values. The same could be said for any number of deployments where our soldiers take on nation-building roles.

The ADF's non-combat efforts create a large wellspring of goodwill towards Australia. It is this positive influence-building that is our strength, the way we can compete with more powerful countries, and our lasting legacy.

I hope the Coalition government recognises this, and continues to use the ADF in a positive way in the region, such as responding to the current humanitarian crisis in Timor-Leste and assisting the effort to find lost Indonesian submariners.

This article was first published in The Canberra Times, 24 April 2021


Luke Gosling OAM MP is an ADF veteran and the Federal Member for Solomon that takes in military establishments at Darwin and Palmeston. Luke comes from a military family, his grandfather having served in World War II, his father in Vietnam and he and his two brothers having all served in the ADF.

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