By Garth Callender, former soldier and Chairman of Bravery Trust
With the recent gut-wrenching reports and images from Afghanistan of the Taliban appearing to wipe clean the work done over the last two decades, there has been a collective national exhale with the word: why?
Why were we there? Why has it cost Australia so much – in dollars and blood?
For many there is a real, deeply personal, sense of loss – loss of young soldiers, loss of potential to get a return on our commitment, loss of our aspirations and dreams of what we could have achieved in the beautiful, yet war-torn country. The enemy we fought have now overrun the very bases where we lived – our enemy moving freely within what was once our homes. It burns acidic right in the pit of my gut.
But I would like to offer another perspective and, with some thought, highlight the four positives we should acknowledge.
Firstly, the Australian military has matured from our time in Afghanistan. Overlaid with our experiences from East Timor, Iraq and smaller recent deployments, we are now a much more capable organisation than we would have been had we not participated. Without the experiences of working with the large coalition forces, we would still be reliving ancient training methodologies, working with outdated equipment, and blinkered with small-scale mindsets.
Secondly, Australia has benefitted from the talent we grew and tested. It is no coincidence that several top public service roles have recently been filled by former military commanders whose formative strategy and leadership experience was gained during the ADF’s time in the Middle East – experience difficult to gain in any other profession. For example, it is not surprising that General John Frewen, a man who headed Australia’s contribution to the Middle East over 2017, is now the government’s choice to manage the complex and troublesome national COVID vaccination roll-out. And while these are the high-profile roles, we have generated a generation of professionals who are now feeding back into Australia’s public and business sectors with their unique skills and experience.
Thirdly, on the global stage we have shown ourselves as a reliable and effective coalition partner, and a trusted and compassionate friend. For our larger allies, we are seen as a steadfast and formidable military, one worth having on their side. This will continue to have broader security, intelligence sharing and diplomatic benefits, well into the future.
Finally, for the people of Afghanistan, we have allowed a possible future of peace and stability. We have allowed a generation to grow up who have never known the suppression of women, who have had a taste of democracy, and who have been through schooling based not solely on religious doctrine. I hope the seed we have sown will help the people of Afghanistan nurture and grow a more progressive and tolerant future.
For our veterans, my colleagues and former colleagues. You should hold your heads high and be proud of what we achieved under constrained circumstances. We fought a cunning and resourceful enemy, and on the battlefield we were largely victorious. But like so many past conflicts, the campaign was lost through global political and diplomatic decisions.
Under our watch we made it bloody hard for the Taliban, we saved lives, we protected the innocent, we rebuilt infrastructure, we supported the fragile democracy, and we morphed into a cutting-edge military, one the world is in awe of, and all Australians can be proud.
While it hurts, and will continue to hurt, we are a better Defence Force, and by extension a more secure nation, because of our military commitment to Afghanistan. As veterans, don’t overlook what you have learned, the contribution you have made, and the powerful experiences you have had that the rest of Australia can only imagine.
As we did over there – strive to excel at every task you take on, look after yourselves and each other, and call for help when you need it.
Garth Callender was one of the first casualties medically evacuated out of Iraq when his armoured vehicle was the target of a roadside bomb, and he later served in Afghanistan. Throughout his 25-year military career he served with distinction in combat, intelligence, training and strategic roles. He is the author of After the Blast, which chronicles his military deployment and recovery from the attack in Baghdad in 2004.
Mr Callender is Chairman of Bravery Trust, a national military charity providing financial aid and financial counselling to veterans who are ill or have been injured as a result of their service. Any serving or ex-serving member of the Defence Force facing financial hardship as a result of injury or illness sustained during service can call 1800 272 379 to make an appointment with Bravery Trust’s specialist staff.