Memories of Afghanistan: A serviceman’s perspective
Words by Private Thomas Smith
The founder of the UofA Student Veterans’ Association reflects on what the historic withdrawal means for him
I would like to begin this article as all good opinion pieces do, by offering a disclaimer. I haven’t studied politics, history, journalism, or even as your high school friend on Facebook would say, am an “expert” on the subject.
However, prior to becoming students at the University of Adelaide, myself and my brother-in-law, Taylor, spent significant time living and working in Afghanistan, first being deployed together with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, and then a few years later working together in private security at the Australian Embassy in Kabul.
During our time in Afghanistan, we developed friendships with the local Afghans and members of the Afghan National Army (ANA). We got to observe the complexities of life in Afghanistan. Therefore, for the purposes of this article, my opinion will be limited to these observations.
While in Afghanistan with colleagues, the conversation would often turn to what the country would look like once Western forces had left. While we enjoyed the company of our ANA counterparts, we had no misconceptions that the Afghan Government would stay in power, the consensus being that the Taliban would wait us out.
So, as you can imagine, the events of the last few weeks were unfortunately of no surprise.
What was surprising is the speed with which the Taliban retook control. This led to a discussion between Taylor and I in which we attempted vainly to answer one question: how could an army completely fall apart within 11 days? I think it is hard for Australians to conceive how this could possibly occur, when we generally lead comfortable lives and are privileged to have a well-respected, well-armed Defence Force.
This is not the case with the ANA. As an Australian infantry soldier, I was always comfortable in the knowledge that the soldier next to me was a member of an Army which I believe produces the best pound-for-pound soldiers in the world. This is not a luxury afforded to Afghanis, which brings me to my first observation regarding the complexity of the ANA.
As most will know, this part of the world was once ruled by the British, who divided it up on arbitrary lines. Many years later, Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviets, who were eventually thrown out by the Mujahadeen, causing long running tension between Afghans who had fought on either side.
Much of the news coverage, analysis, and opinion writing in the last fortnight has mentioned Afghanistan’s fractured history, focussing on the “tribal” nature of the Afghan people and their history of warfare. To me, this media coverage fails to truly comprehend how this fractured history has weakened the ANA’s resolve.
For instance, while in Afghanistan, a senior ANA officer explained how he had previously fought for the Soviets and that he did not get along with his immediate superior who had fought for the Mujahadeen. This appeared to be the case all the way through the chain of command (even up to the Minister of Defence, a former Mujahideen fighter).
I think for many Australians who have served or spent time in Afghanistan, we gained an insight into this complexity many years ago. As Australians, though we bicker and banter amongst states, in practice there’s no difference between a South Australian and a Victorian when both of you are wearing the same uniform. Such was not the case in the ANA.
While we are disappointed that at this point our time in Afghanistan appears to be all for nought, the mission following 9/11 to prevent Afghanistan being a safe haven for Al-Qaeda was achieved. This brings me to my second point: perspective.
Nothing has taught me more about perspective than my time in Afghanistan. I vividly remember arriving home and thinking how fresh the air was (despite sitting in traffic on South Road). The second thing I noticed, as a 21-year old guy after over 8 months living with my infantry company, was how many women were around.
The situation for Afghani women really highlights the need for some perspective at this time. Over the last week people have regularly asked me as a former soldier, how I feel about the Taliban retaking power. While I am disappointed that the ANA were unable after 20 years of training and support by Western Forces to defend their country for longer than two weeks, it truly makes me sad to imagine what this means for the young girls and the women of Afghanistan.
In the last month, we have watched Australian women break records and barriers at the Olympics. But Australian society pushes women to succeed and realise their full potential. Comparatively, we have seen in the last month a country that was moving forward in respect to women’s rights take an enormous leap backwards.
While we cannot be sure what the Taliban will do now that they are back in power, the fact that their first order of business was to begin reintroducing oppressive practices and vandalising public images of women does not leave me with much optimism.
While working at the embassy in Kabul, I saw many Afghani women visit the embassy as representatives of the Afghan Government. Afghanistan had come so far over the 20 years we were there in respect to women’s rights, from a time when they were prohibited from receiving an education, to having Rangina Hamidi serve as the first female Minister for Education in the country’s history.
These views and experiences are my own, and much of this has come up in discussion between a couple of ex-diggers who don’t know the specifics of our withdrawal from the war. We are, however, sad to see that the improvements brought on by our time there were only temporary.
However, I do still believe all who have tried to make Afghanistan a better place can be proud of their contribution and purpose for being there. We brought about an improved society for the Afghani people, and I believe they recognised this.
I can only hope that in the future they can bring about long-term change themselves. As the last 20 years have shown, it cannot come from outside of Afghanistan.
Since starting our studies at the University of Adelaide, Taylor and I founded the Adelaide University Student Veteran Association, with the aim of providing a supportive community for veterans at this University. If anyone reading this would like to reach out to discuss their time in Afghanistan or the ADF, we would love to have a chat.