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Julian Hill MPFederal Member for Bruce

Julian Hill MP

The world must not abandon the people in Afghanistan, living right now under one of the world's most brutal, repressive and medieval regimes.

The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan book

Launch of "The Decline and Fall of Republican Afghanistan"

Brisbane - 17 August, 2023

As we mark the 2nd anniversary of the fall of the Republican Afghanistan, I'm delighted to speak at this Queensland launch, and do so in 3 capacities:

  • as Chair of the Australia – Afghanistan Parliamentary Friendship Group,
  • as Chair of the Parliament's Defence Subcommittee, and
  • as the Member for Bruce, so proud to represent more than 10,000 Australians born in Afghanistan – more than any other electorate in our country.

It is impossible to do justice to this wonderful book in a speech. But such is the nature of a launch, that I must try. But buy the book! Read the book!

Start with some comments from Australia's perspective, and then touch on some of the critical issues raised by the authors about this recent, modern tragedy. The fall of Republican Afghanistan and return of the barbaric, medieval Taliban regime.

Sad in so many senses, given the tragic history of modern Afghanistan to start with talk of conflict, but the fact is that the war in Afghanistan was Australia's longest war.

The ADF served and fought for over 20 years as part of a multinational coalition striving to root out terrorism and support people in Afghanistan to build a peaceful, stable democracy.

Australia's connection is enduring. 41 Australian troops and more associated Australian personnel made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.

There's an ongoing debate whether Australia's commitment was 'worth it', given how things are now.

That question will never be resolved, as there is no single truth about any war or major political change.

The stories of a conflict are written over years, decades and sometimes centuries afterwards. By historians, artists and the countless individuals who fought and were affected.

I'll state my view for what it's worth: Despite criticism and historical revisionism, I consider the war in Afghanistan was a necessary intervention at the time, and later a noble and worthwhile cause, though ultimately a strategic failure and defeat. Only time will tell of course if the impact of 20 years of freedom and globalisation planted in young people will in the long run undermine the Taliban regime.

The strategic conclusions of politicians, generals and historians, however, do little to ameliorate many of the impacts and human realities of war and conflict.

For those fighting, and for the civilians affected.

But making sense of history does matter, as I'll argue in a moment, and this book is an absolutely critical contribution to that process.

Everyone of course is entitled to their own view on the conflict and what led to the fall of the Republic.

As the authors elegantly and persuasively argue, there is a sharp and critical conceptual distinction between the decline of a polity, and its fall – and it is necessary to examine both.

Societies or political systems in decline can linger on for years, despite a myriad of structural flaws and the weight of accumulated decisions.

In the case of the Republic of Afghanistan, the authors note that disasters like this tend to have complex roots, and skilfully tease out factors contributing to the decline:

  • Structural weaknesses in the political system, and
  • Personal and policy failings on the part of Afghan leaders and their foreign backers – failures in leadership aplenty

Which led to a reduced support amongst people in Afghanistan for the government and a growing crisis in political legitimacy, the decline of which was "ragged and patchy rather than linear" over many years.

  • Also, the role and responsibility of Pakistan over decades in creating and fostering the Taliban and their odious ideology,
  • Flawed aid policies, and
  • The pernicious impact of persistent insurgency.

But the search for the reasons for a fall seeks a scapegoat.

To grossly oversimplify a nuanced and complex analysis, the authors sharply relate the ultimate fall of the Republic to individual agency and the choices of leaders, and argue that much of the responsibility must rest with then US President Trump and his unilateral negotiations with the Taliban behind the back of the Afghan Government.

I'll stick to quotes here and not editorialise!

"…Trump was one of the most impulsive, unstable and frankly bizarre occupants of the Oval Office … incapable of methodical policy formulation."

[No one could have] "the slightest confidence that Trump … could be trusted to finesse a complex and delicate 'peace process' in which he was ultimately the linchpin".

"Seeking to negotiate a meaningful 'peace deal' with the Taliban while the likes of Trump and his team occupied the White House, was truly playing with fire in a gasoline dump".

To paraphrase: Trump and his coterie had no realistic understanding of who they were negotiating with and were expertly played by the Taliban.

The Taliban is a totalitarian movement that emerged in the 1990s from a toxic combination of circumstances:

  • Fallout from the war in the 1980s with dislocated young men with 'no sense of the past or future, just the present'.
  • A rigid, inflexible curriculum taught in madrasas that perverted Islam and effectively brainwashed their students with simplistic violent myths.
  • Increasing sectarianism in Pakistan.

These people are utterly totalitarian. They are not pragmatic. They completely refuse to share power. They were and are open in the utter disregard for the welfare of ordinary people caring only for war, winning and a bastardised version of religion. They know how to fight, and have not a clue how to govern or operate in a civilised modern world.

It does beg the question: who did the US actually believe they were negotiating with?

Were those who believed the Taliban would moderate their behaviour in return for western aid and recognition simply: Naïve and foolish? Wilfully blind? Or, worse still, actually aware of what they were doing but did not care?

Ultimately, the authors argue the US – Taliban agreement had lethal consequences on the Republic, both:

  • Militarily, e.g. the withdrawal of US military contractor support led to rapid declines in the capability of the Afghan armed forces, and
  • Psychologically – as the authors observe "it does not pay to be on the losing side in Afghanistan".

    The narrative and popular sense of abandonment destroyed morale amongst the people and Afghan National forces as people – quite rationally – positioned themselves to try and survive in the future as best they could.

In the interests of time today and diplomacy I will leave it to you to read the authors' further critique of President Biden's subsequent actions and the fateful outcomes.

As an aside, it is strange how Western intelligence reportedly predicted the return of the Taliban, but believed Kabul would hold out for many more months than it ultimately did. When leaders ran away and soldiers gave up.

Goes to psychology – seems so obvious with the benefit of hindsight – if everyone believed their allies had betrayed and abandoned them and they were going to lose anyway, why fight on certain you'll be slaughtered, vs. have a crack at surviving?

Intangible but utterly critical role of leadership – e.g. President Zelensky in Ukraine. Vs. President Ashraf Ghani who simply ran away.

On the book: it's a terrific read. To be honest I did not think I would have time to read much of it at all as I only got it last week when Parliament was sitting.

But I was seduced as I delved into it over recent days.

It's beautifully written, argued and referenced.

But most importantly, this book is timely, relevant and really matters. 3 reasons why.

Firstly, because for so many millions of people across the world the trauma of the fall of the Republic is visceral and ongoing, and this book can help people impacted and those who support them in making sense of what happened. To do so is part of the healing process.

In my suburban Melbourne community, the fall of Kabul – 2 years ago and thousands of kms away – still reverberates and impacts daily life.

In the homes of people grieving loved ones, or living in daily fear for the safety of family and friends trying to survive under the Taliban, being oppressed, actively hunted or living in fear of being deported back from surrounding countries.

Mental health concerns - depression, anxiety and PTSD - are everywhere.

In the community facilities that are overwhelmed with those suffering ongoing traumas – schools, health services, community services, counselling services.

As well as places like my office, government agencies and even sporting clubs where friends and family do their best to understand and support each other. And maintain hope that families will one day be reunited.

Also of course the abiding impacts on Australia's veterans who served and endured.

I realised also as I was reading the book how much I was gaining at a human level to make more sense of this disaster that has overwhelmed my local political life for the last 2 years and that of my staff.

I would not pretend to know the pain of those I try to help, but bearing witness to their burdens, seeing the photos, reading the stories, does impact everyone, me and my staff included.

The Government has made enormous progress in the last 12 months cleaning up the visa mess we inherited – a record number of visas were issued last year to families from Afghanistan which will continue this year.

The truth though, is that most people will never be able to come to Australia or escape the Taliban, and that's incredibly sad.

But reading this analysis is helping me make more sense of things, so thank you.

Secondly, it's so important to analyse and record the lessons of events like these to inform the deliberations of leaders and policy makers in the future.

As Mark Twain famously said, "history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes".

The unfortunate reality is humanity will confront situations akin to this and leader will be confronted with difficult choices.

If only those who thought the Iraq War was a good idea had stopped to understand the culture, history and nature of the societies they intervened in and learn some lessons of history.

The book offers the first serious scholarly account of how things unravelled in Afghanistan, and thus offers insights for future leaders and policymakers.

Let's hope that this work may provide wisdom to those in the future charged with similarly difficult situations and grave responsibilities to avoid war and foster peace.

But thirdly, this book is so, so important to inform the decisions of contemporary leaders about how to deal with the Taliban as the world grapples with the horrific reality of Afghanistan today.

There are voices about who suggest the West should recognise the Taliban, given the humanitarian crisis that has engulfed Afghanistan. Who suggest that Afghanistan at least has a sort of a peace now.

Yet as the authors so eloquently state:
"what the Taliban offered was a 'peace' without welfare, a 'peace' without liberty, a 'peace' without a semblance of due process or justice."

And it's also an illusion – a lie. Mass and targeted killings of minorities including Hazaras continue. The regime continues to systematically hunt down those who worked for or with the previous Republican Government and their families. Women and girls are systematically oppressed.

And on the humanitarian crisis, the authors rightly observe, that the main driver of is political, not economic …  that "the Taliban are at the heart of the problem, not the solution".

How can the world even contemplate legitimising a regime like this?

The book is a serious work of history which offers an implicit warning to those who might contemplate seeking to engage with the Taliban: those who sup with the devil should use a long spoon.

The world must not abandon the people in Afghanistan, living right now under one of the world's most brutal, repressive and medieval regimes.

So that's enough for today.

Thank you to the authors for crafting such a beautiful, thoughtful book.

You don't have to agree with everything they have written to appreciate the art and the importance of their work, and thank them for it.

A masterful collaboration between an Australian academic with a long-standing interest in Afghanistan, and a former Afghan official with long-standing links to Australia.

Thank you also to those people from Afghanistan who have found a new home in Australia, contributing to every facet of community life as they weave their life story into the fabric of our nation while grieving for those left behind.

And thank you to those who served our country when called and strived for peace – those who came home, and those 41 Australian soldiers who did not.