By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
“No Australian who has ever fallen in our uniform has ever died in vain, ever," a sombre Scott Morrison asserted when asked if the 41 Australian soldiers killed in the 20-year war in Afghanistan died in vain.
It was a fatuous and ignorant claim.
Any number of Vietnam veterans would beg to disagree with Morrison, as would anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the first World War when bumbling British generals callously ordered pointless charges that led to the slaughter of thousands of Australian diggers.
It was in response to Morrison’s claim that journalist and author Peter FitzSimons tweeted: “Disagree. No better example than the 1900 Diggers killed at Fromelles in 1916 in 14 hrs, given INSANE orders to charge across 400 yards of swampy ground straight at German machine-guns in bunkers firing 600 bullets a minute. Not a yard gained. 1900 death-knocks around Oz.”
During the ABC interview in which Morrison blithely asserted that no one wearing the Australian uniform has ever died in vain, the platitudes came thick and fast. Morrison, never one for sober reflection or nuanced thinking, was unblinking in his justification of Australia’s involvement in the Afghanistan war, despite having not one achievement to show for it. “Freedom’s always worth it, fighting for it, whatever the outcome,” Morrison insisted.
In a similar vein, Morrison told Channel 9 that Australians who died in Afghanistan died “in a great cause”.
“We were there in the cause of freedom,” Morrison said. “[E]very Australian who fell in that cause…is a national hero. And for that, we are forever thankful.”
We cannot know for sure whether Morrison believes his own blather. We know that the prime minister goes weak at the knees at the very sight of khaki, but if he believes that Australians will be “forever thankful” that any Australian life was lost in what was arguably our most pointless and unjustified war, he is even more tin-eared than is widely held.
It would be too much to expect a frank admission that Australia had no business being in Afghanistan in the first place, or that the war was comprehensively lost. Instead, Morrison insults the intelligence of Australians not only by defending Australia’s participation in the war but insisting that it was worth the cost of, in his own words, “so much blood and treasure”.
“Let me say this about our presence there [Afghanistan],” Morrison says. “We went there to stop Osama bin Laden and to stop al-Qa'ida having a base of operations in Afghanistan. And that's what was achieved.”
‘Our mission was never about nation-building’
Morrison is parroting US President Joe Biden who argues that the US went to war in Afghanistan with “clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11, 2001, and make sure al-Qa'ida could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that.”
The US also succeeded in hunting down and killing Osama bin Laden in 2011. “That was a decade ago,” Biden said. “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be about nation building, it was never supposed to be creating a unified centralised democracy.”
So why was the US still in Afghanistan?
Even if we accept the premise that John Howard, invoking the ANZUS treaty, was right to commit Australia to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in response to 9/11, the continued presence of Australia (or the US) after 2011 is more difficult to rationalise – particularly given that nation-building was not the objective of coalition forces in Afghanistan. What was Australia hoping to achieve that had not been achieved in 10 years?
The war in Afghanistan long ago ceased to be Australia’s war, but once again, without the benefit of an independent foreign policy, once committed Australia was duty bound to stand shoulder to shoulder with its ally the US for as long as it chose to remain in Afghanistan.
Australia’s involvement in the Afghanistan war – both the original decision and the duration of its participation – are matters that will need to be reviewed, if not by the Morrison government by future governments. But one aspect of the war for which the Morrison government is directly accountable is the failure to plan for the urgent evacuation of Afghan interpreters and other staff who assisted Australia’s mission in Afghanistan.
It’s true that even the US has been caught flat-footed by the swift collapse of the Afghan government, but as was noted on these pages, Australia closed its Kabul embassy in May and final troop withdrawals were completed in June: “It is unconscionable that former Afghan civilian interpreters, security personnel, aid workers and other workers loyal to Australia, and their families, remain in a perilous limbo in Afghanistan.”
Australian veterans had been calling for the fast-tracking of humanitarian visas and evacuations for weeks prior to the fall of Afghanistan.
As of yesterday, according to Morrison, “over 130” Australians working in the UN, NGOs and elsewhere remain in Afghanistan.
They are entitled to feel betrayed
“[W]e are working to bring them and their families home,” he said in a statement. “We are also assisting those who have been granted humanitarian visas and others who are in the process of applying for protection.”
It is beyond comprehension that at the end of a 20-year war so little provision was made to ensure the safety and repatriation of those Afghans who committed themselves to Australia in the expectation that their loyalty and service would not be overlooked. They are now stuck in Afghanistan and in fear of their lives. They are entitled to feel betrayed.
Since April, 430 locally engaged Afghan employees and their families have been resettled in Australia, according to Morrison. “We are still working to ensure that we can safely remove people from that situation with our partners and our allies,” he says.
That is simply not good enough and their prospects are not promising.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton says it is too dangerous for Australian forces to land in Kabul. They will remain stationed at an air base in the United Arab Emirates until they can enter Afghanistan. “There needs to be order restored to the airport so that there can be safe passage of planes in and out,” Dutton says.
That seems a sanguine assessment given the horrific and heartbreaking scenes at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as terrified Afghan citizens scramble to escape Afghanistan before the medieval nightmare of Taliban rule begins in earnest. In some cases people were clinging to the fuselage of US military aircraft as they taxied for take-off, making for harrowing images that will live on for decades to come, much like the images from the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Morrison glorifies the Australian Defence Force’s role in Afghanistan but instead of pride he should be feeling shame and remorse for Australia’s participation in a war whose legacy will be brutal repression and the slaughter and barbarous punishment of innocents.
There is no doubting the courage and valour of the 41 Australian soldiers who died in Afghanistan and of their comrades who fought beside them, many of whom will suffer extreme mental anguish as a result of their service in Afghanistan, but it is too glib to claim that this heavy toll was not in vain.
Australians – not to mention the men and women who fought in Afghanistan – deserve an explanation as to what end this sacrifice was made.
It is not good enough to state that “no Australian who has ever fallen in our uniform has ever died in vain”. Such jingoism is another way of saying that there is no such thing as an unjust war.
If the long, bloody and expensive – and ultimately fruitless – Afghanistan war has taught us one thing it is that it should not be so easy for a government to commit Australia to war.
Scott Morrison should spare us the platitudes and ensure that in future it is Parliament, not the government of the day, that has the final word on whether Australians are sent to war. That won’t guarantee that Australia never again engages in futile wars, but it will at least curb the rash impulses of hawkish governments.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.