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Veterans should reflect on 20-year Afghanistan conflict

By Keith Wolahan

It is a well-worn truism of war that we fight so our children won’t have to.

Sadly, many sons did in fact follow their fathers into the war in Afghanistan.

As the United States and Australia prepare to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by September – US President Joe Biden has nominated September 11 as the withdrawal date; the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks – it is fitting that we begin a process of reflection.

Time will tell how a complex legacy is assessed, but our sons and daughters may find themselves in other wars and they deserve to benefit from every lesson we can pass on.

This is a difficult task, even for those writing books or PhD dissertations. Yet there are lessons we can and should speak about now.

To that end, I hope veterans will consider putting themselves in the shoes of decision-makers – perhaps even write opinion pieces or share your thoughts on social media.

If you could go back in time, what lessons or observations would you pass on? Are they strategic, operational or tactical lessons? Each category matters.

If you will indulge me, I keep coming back to two strategic lessons from the earlier years of the war:

1) The window from 2002-2005 was a missed opportunity

The resurgence of the Taliban in late 2005 was not an accident and the window to win over the population was arguably closing by 2006.

While US military and political planners were preparing for the invasion of Iraq, Mullah Omar and his aides held the first meeting of the Leadership Council in Quetta, Baluchistan, in March 2003. This was the beginning of what would be a coordinated effort to commence the insurgency and take back Afghanistan.

Taliban insurgent activity increased every year after 2002. Late 2005 is seen as the turning point in insurgent activity. In all of 2004 there were 147 bomb blasts. Overall insurgent incidents averaged 600 per month in September 2006 (up from 130 per month in 2005) and insurgent-related casualties were four times as high.

US, Australian, Canadian and British soldiers did not deploy to the south of Afghanistan in meaningful numbers until the start of 2006, accounting for a significant loss in momentum.

We will never know if a substantial NATO surge in 2002-2005 would have made a meaningful long-term difference, but if the theory of counter-insurgency warfare required the consent of the local population, it is reasonable to conclude they were losing patience for capacity building by 2006 – let alone by the key years of 2014 or 2021.

Lesson: if there is a window, take it.

2) The Afghan constitution was flawed, perhaps fatally

There is something we share with the US that should have also been shared with Afghanistan: federalism.

Federalist constitutions are designed to decentralise power and unify disparate people. It was federalism that arguably played a huge part in unifying the US after their civil war.

Afghanistan is one of the most decentralised cultures on earth, where tribal affiliation matters most. Yet it was given one of the most centralised constitutions possible, with power concentrated in Kabul.

Beginning with the Bonn agreement in 2001 and becoming codified in the constitution in 2004, almost all power (executive, legislative and judicial) resides centrally in Kabul: against the wishes of many non-Pashtun minorities and in defiance of the country’s failed history of centralised control. The chance to enact a properly decentralised federation was missed.

Despite Afghanistan being made up of a significant diversity of tribes, cultures and races, local representation is very poor. More than 50% of the 32 governors initially appointed by President Hamid Karzai were militia commanders who cemented their power by placing factional allies in government positions. It is telling that the constitution does not even mention (let alone provide for the election of) governors.

The Taliban knew that a bottom-up strategy was central to success. Accordingly, it is arguable that the 2004 constitution permanently set the new Afghan government on a centralised path to failure. I hope that is not correct and this fledgling democracy finds a way through.

Lesson: the heart of legitimate governance is consent at the local level.

We will never know

Perhaps a successful counter-insurgency could only have worked in those early years (when the Taliban was at its weakest and goodwill was at its highest) and under the umbrella of a federation.

We will never know. And the act of reflection does not in any way detract from the role we all played in reinforcing our most crucial alliance with the US and doing our best with the information and circumstances we had at the time.

Veteran reflections on Afghanistan matter. We can record them in the hope that our children, country and allies might learn from them.


Keith Wolahan is the endorsed Liberal candidate for the federal electorate of Menzies and a three-tour veteran of Afghanistan.

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