soldiers in fatigues stand with hands folded
(Image: AAP/Paul Miller)

It’s been almost 20 years since Australian troops began fighting in Afghanistan.

Seven years since then-prime minister Tony Abbott declared that Australia’s longest war was ending.

Four years since an inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel in Afghanistan kicked off in secret.

Three years since the ABC reported on a trove of documents, the Afghan Files, which revealed misconduct and potential unlawful killings by elite special forces.

One year since the Afghan Files led to raids on the ABC.

Most Australians know little about our military involvement in Afghanistan. Even if they know we still have troops there, they’d be hard-pressed to explain why.

As US President Donald Trump flirts with the idea of bringing troops home for good, months after a peace deal that hasn’t really brought peace, it’s worth looking back at just what Australia has achieved in Afghanistan.

Why are we still in Afghanistan?

The invasion of Afghanistan began in a different world. In October 2001 Australian troops joined George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing”, invading Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power, rob al-Qaeda of a safe haven and get retribution for 9/11.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda were defeated within months. The troops stayed.

In 2011 Osama bin Laden was tracked down in Pakistan and killed. The epicentre of the global terrorism threat shifted to Iraq, and then to cells of disaffected young men across the world.

So why are we still in Afghanistan? The short answer: because the United States is.

“It’s to maintain the terms of our ANZUS alliance,” says former military intelligence officer and Australian National University honorary professor Clive Williams. “It’s not got much to do with security in Afghanistan.”

Over time the rationale for Australia’s military presence has shifted, said Monash University associate professor Kevin Foster, author of Don’t Mention the War: The Australian Defence Force, the Media and the Afghan Conflict.

“When we first went in, it was about clearing out the Taliban,” he told Crikey. “Then we were there to turn Afghanistan into the next Switzerland. Then it was to look after the rights of women and girls.”

There are about 300 ADF personnel left in Afghanistan, assisting the US coalition and Afghan forces in “institutional capacity building”.

What have we achieved?

Australia’s military presence in a long, protracted Afghan conflict has delivered very little for either country.

“I don’t think there’s been any benefit for Afghanistan from it,” Williams said. “And the gains that there were were transitory ones.”

The planned American withdrawal could well hand the country back to the Taliban, leaving things essentially where they started in 2001.

The campaign hadn’t made Australians safer either, Williams said, because there was never any real, believable connection between the security situation in Afghanistan and the security situation in Australia.

For our efforts, 41 Australians were killed in Afghanistan, and 249 wounded. It’s a campaign that cost Defence close to $10 billion.

What will we remember?

In spite of being our longest war, Afghanistan never really made a big dent in the national consciousness. It had been forgotten before it ended. One reason was a deliberate attempt by the ADF to stifle reporting on it.

In 2013 then-ABC defence correspondent Michael Brissenden warned that the ADF had an “irrational fear of the media”, a concern shared by other senior journalists and former defence personnel.

Unlike other members of the coalition, Australia did not have reporters embedded with troops in Afghanistan until 2010, and aside from Sally Sara’s year-long posting in Kabul in 2011, the ABC hasn’t had a full-time Afghanistan correspondent.

If there had been more reporters on the ground, the narrative out of Afghanistan might have been different, Foster said.

“If you’d had proper defence correspondents, who made contacts, developed relationships and read the wind, somebody would’ve picked up a whisper of [alleged] war crimes, because it was an open secret,” he says.

In the past few years, a string of investigations have revealed allegations of war crimes committed by Australia’s elite Special Air Service regiment.

Reports emerged of Australian special forces killing unarmed Afghan civilians, all covered up by a “warrior culture” where the SAS was deified and protected.

Ben Roberts-Smith, a Victoria Cross recipient and Australia’s most decorated Afghan veteran, could face war crimes charges. He denies all charges and Crikey is not suggesting Roberts-Smith is guilty of any crime.

Reports this week said a senior special forces chief had acknowledged war crimes had been committed, which he blamed on “poor moral leadership”.

But these stories, like the war in Afghanistan, could well be forgotten. Foster said the ADF’s reputation is incredibly resilient thanks in some part to decades of political fetishisation of Anzac Day.

“I think they’re going to argue that it’s just a few bad apples,” he says.