After 20 years in Afghanistan, lessons remain unlearned

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Samuel Garrett

As the formal war in Afghanistan ends, the Afghan people are living with the consequences of the mistakes of foreign powers. The chaotic withdrawal of the US and its allies has brought international attention back to Afghanistan, but the outlook on the ground has been dire for some time. While much has been made of the withdrawal symbolising a superpower in decline, it is ultimately ordinary civilians, as always, who will bear its brunt.

The well-publicised scenes at Kabul airport revealed a reprehensible lack of preparation for the evacuation of visa-holders and at-risk citizens. However, moreover, it has exposed long-term injustices: Afghan citizens have consistently faced years-long delays for visa applications. Australia’s humanitarian assistance remains limited — perhaps unsurprisingly, given the treatment refugees, including those from Afghanistan, have faced in Australia in the 20 years since the Tampa affair.

The faster-than-expected pullout served to exacerbate these ongoing bureaucratic and political failings and pressured decisions on evacuations. The operations of US allies were further impacted by a domino effect on foreign embassies and security, with the withdrawal of already-limited US forces creating both a perception and a reality of weak protection that led to the closure of many embassies well before the fall of Kabul. Australia was the first of the coalition nations to withdraw its forces and end its diplomatic presence with the closure of its embassy mere weeks after a “new chapter of our diplomatic relationship” was announced by Foreign Minister Marise Payne in May.

This is not the first diplomatic exodus from the country, similar scenes having played out during the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 at a time when the US was funding the Afghan mujahideen. Nevertheless, the lack of in-country diplomatic representation, justified or otherwise, is likely to hamper both accurate intelligence and continued dialogue with Afghanistan’s new rulers. Conversely for those countries whose embassies remain, notably China, Russia, and particularly Pakistan, whose military establishment has a history of support for the Taliban, it represents an opportunity to expand their influence both domestically and regionally.

From the beginning, the withdrawal was undercut by seemingly catastrophic intelligence failures. The failure to notify Afghan forces ahead of the abandonment of Bagram air base on July 2nd was indicative of an underlying lack of trust in Afghan forces that jarred with positive intelligence assessments of their capabilities. Some have moved to shift blame for the Taliban’s victory onto the Western-trained Afghan National Army, but it was never a unified fighting force and suffered from endemic corruption, with many of its soldiers poorly trained and paid. Its failure to ‘defend’ Afghanistan is more an indictment of the West's 20-year failed ‘nation-building’ project than it is of individual soldiers. The diversity and division of Afghan society