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Welcome to War Powers Reform Bulletin #68
War in Afghanistan: 18 years of lies and obfuscation
Part 1 of 3
"It is fatal to enter any war without the will to win it." Douglas Macarthur

In December 2019 the Washington Post created an international sensation when it released the results of its three year legal battle with the US government for access to top secret information about the Afghanistan war. Through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, the Post secured material generated by an internal review of the war, called Lessons Learned. The documents include records of interviews with hundreds of military leaders, diplomats, aid workers and Afghan officials. They tell a story that ‘violently contradicts’ what the US government and three successive US presidents have told Americans, and the world, about Afghanistan.

Key revelations:
  • There was a behind-the-scenes consensus the war was not well-managed. There was no strategy, no real plan, no real knowledge who the enemy was.
  • What started as retaliation for 9/11 to fight al Qaeda soon became something else because within six months al Qaeda’s leaders had been captured, killed or had fled to other countries. Thus the mission quickly became very murky and muddled.
  • Confusion reigned. Al Qaeda is gone, why are we still here? What are we fighting for?
  • The interviews show that the people in charge of the war were constantly disparaging how it was being carried out: planning was a disaster, things were not going well. Yet, in public, the same people were claiming otherwise: it’s a tough fight, but we’re making progress. We’re turning the corner. It’s worth investing more money and more troops.
This first part in our series gives an overview of the Australian experience in the Afghanistan war.
Part 2 contains quotes from Australian politicians and officials, interspersed with private remarks revealed by WikiLeaks cables, and the occasional candid remark from a politician or military leader, which together show that the same general long-running deception of the public, and often outright dishonesty, occurred here. The American experience echoed across Australia.

In Part 3 AWPR President, Paul Barratt AO, examines the real story behind the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. He examines some of the background to the invasion, which is almost always overlooked but which casts a very different light on the whole ill-conceived project.

Ten years ago, following the WikiLeaks cable release, Paul made what remains today an important point as to the corrosive effect on democracy of such deception by politicians:

Perhaps the most serious case of deception relates to the prospects for the war in Afghanistan. The stock line from western governments is that they are optimistic, that things are going well, though perhaps not quite as well as we would like, that we are making progress. What we find from WikiLeaks is that the real assessment – no doubt shared by all our NATO allies – is quite different. In January 2008 Rudd confessed that Afghanistan ‘scares the hell out of me’ and in October 2008 Rudd told visiting US members of congress that the national security establishment in Australia was very pessimistic about the long-term prognosis for Afghanistan...

This gap between the public statements and the government’s real views is outrageous. The situation it suggests is that all western governments involved know the outlook in Afghanistan is very bleak, but none is prepared to confess this to its public…

What the WikiLeaks cables revealed were patterns of behaviour on the part of our political leaders that involved very substantial breaches of trust. This is a matter of the highest importance. Democracy both depends on trust, and thrives on it, as many great examples of democratic societies in difficult circumstances demonstrate. (Read full article)

Dec 2019: In a blockbuster story representing the culmination of several years of investigation and pursuit of government documents, The Washington Post reports that US officials have been misleading the American public about the war in Afghanistan for 18 years. John Yang talks to The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock, lead reporter on the story, about what the classified document trove revealed.

Australia has been involved in Afghanistan since 2001. It’s the longest war in Australia’s history. Despite our participation, which continues, the revelations by the Washington Post have engendered no corresponding examination by Australian media of the parallel 18 year trail of lies and obfuscation by successive Australian governments and military leaders under five prime ministers. There’s been no public grilling of former PMs or military chiefs as to what they knew of the chaos in the US government and how that impacted decision-making in Australia. Why not?

The cost of the war to Australia has been significant:
  • More than 26,000 Australian soldiers served in Afghanistan from 2001-2014
  • 42 Australians have been killed while serving in Afghanistan
  • 261 personnel have been seriously wounded
  • The cost to date exceeds $10 billion, comprising military expenditure of $8.3 billion (to 30.6.19) and official development assistance of $1.8 billion (to 30.6.20, figures here and here). This does not include additional programs such as the police training program.
ADF personnel at Multi National Base, Tarin Kot, Afghanistan, Dec 2010. Image: US Army
AFP police training program in Afghanistan
What Australian government officials said behind the scenes (23.12.09)

Officials are skeptical of how successful a police training program in Afghanistan will be. [Ric] Smith questioned what AFP trainers would be able to accomplish given the “train wreck” that they had been given to work with in the Afghan National Police. Even [Frank] Prendergast, who was generally optimistic about AFP efforts in Afghanistan, noted that the odds were stacked against success. Current training programs are hampered by illiteracy, corruption, drug addiction and insurgent penetration within the pool of trainees. Prendergast also said that for the time being the government has ruled out running any AFP programs “outside the wire” due to security concerns. This places major limits on what the AFP can be expected to accomplish. He believes that a successful police training program will take 20 years to be effective in Afghanistan.
What the minister told the public

Brendan O’Connor, Minister for Home Affairs and Justice, in a media release to farewell sixteen AFP officers bound for Afghanistan:

“Earlier this year I travelled to Afghanistan to see first-hand the great work that our Australian Federal Police are doing to help rebuild Afghanistan. The AFP is achieving some remarkable results with more than 800 members of the Afghan National Police trained and mentored since late 2007…

“The continuing deployment of AFP officers reinforces the commitment of the Gillard Government to working with our coalition partners to develop an effective police force in Afghanistan and provide high quality policing advice. The Gillard Government has provided funding of $32.1 million over two years for the AFP to undertake its vital role in Afghanistan.”
Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, March 2010. Image: ISAF Headquarters Public Affairs Office

Summing up the situation in December 2019 the New York Times was bleak:

Since the war began… more than 38,000 Afghan civilians have died, with countless more injured. The Taliban now controls much of the country, which is awash with refugees, and opium production has quadrupled… In September, the [Coalition Air Forces] dropped more bombs and other munitions in Afghanistan than in any other month in nearly a decade. Civilian casualties are appallingly high…

There have been plenty of lessons to draw from the war in Afghanistan: the corrosive effects of corruption, the lack of strategy and accountability, civilian deference to assurances from military leaders, and the seductive idea that the United States — and not the Afghans — was in control of what was happening in the country. But there’s little evidence that the American government has learned them.

There’s little evidence the Australian government has learned these lessons either.

In September 2019, Scott Morrison, Australia’s sixth prime minister since the start of the Afghanistan war, signalled he intends to continue Australia’s obsequious approach to the US. Mr Morrison said Australia’s decision to contribute to the mission in the Strait of Hormuz…demonstrated that it was “always prepared to do the heavy lifting when it comes to our alliance partnerships.”

Hugh White, writing in October 2009, was prescient, “By far the most likely outcome, therefore, is that one day – after spending billions more dollars and who knows how many more lives – Australia will leave Afghanistan pretty much as we found it. So why not quit now, if the interests at stake are illusory and the chances of success are so low? The answer, of course, is politics.”

A week-long partial truce came into effect across Afghanistan early Saturday 22 Feb, with the Taliban, the US and Afghan forces all signed up to a lull that could be a turning point in the long conflict. Read the story.
How could Australia have managed the Afghanistan war differently?

The Defence Act should be amended to ensure that:
  1. A debate and vote occurs in Parliament before troops are committed to overseas conflict
  2. Regular reports are required to be provided to Parliament during the conflict
  3. Independent inquiry and report published soon after any conflict on all aspects of Australia’s participation
  4. Appropriate provisions to allow immediate deployment in an emergency.
The views expressed in this Bulletin are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Australians for War Powers Reform. Readers should note that Australians for War Powers Reform seeks a diversity of views and opinions in order to identify common ground.
February 2020 © Australians For War Powers Reform. All rights reserved.

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