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Was the war in Afghanistan worth it?

Today the coalition military operation in Afghanistan begins a new-phase. Afghan security forces are now in charge of providing stability across Afghanistan, supported by 13,500 foreign troops still arrayed throughout the country. Under the new NATO moniker "Operation Resolute Support", US, Australian, and other allied militaries will train, advise, and assist local forces. Though some US-led counter-terrorism efforts will persist, Pentagon leaders declared last Sunday that these will not be combat operations. By a pen stroke, on a press release rather than a peace agreement, this war is over.

The pressing question is what does this mean for Australians? And the answer I immediately reach for is this: precious little. Australians have been checked out of the war in Afghanistan since December 16, 2013 - the day our last troops left Uruzgan province and our base at Tarin Kowt was dismantled. That day Prime Minister Tony Abbott concluded that our troops departed "not with victory, not with defeat, but with the hope that Afghanistan is a better place". When asked what the military campaign had achieved the Prime Minister rightly pointed to the replacement of the Taliban, the disestablishment of Al Qaeda's operational sanctuary in Afghanistan, and the relative stability of modern Afghanistan. Pressed on whether the 13 year morass of money, machines, and mangled men and women had been worthwhile for Australians the Prime Minister concluded that it had, but presented his conclusion with little amplifying evidence or justification. 

Speaking at this week's transition ceremony in Kabul, NATO's Afghanistan commander General John Campbell concluded "we have lifted the Afghan people out of the darkness of despair and given them hope". That little four letter word again, hope. When I was in the military, and in Afghanistan, my colleagues and I would joke that "hope" could never be a mission task verb. That is, we could not order our subordinates to hope for the right mission outcome. Ironically hope has become the outcome of a lengthy war in which billions have been spent and thousands of lives have been lost. The reality is that no one can truly say if the war in Afghanistan was worth it because no one yet knows how the fledgling experiment of newly democratic Afghanistan will turn out. Hope has been created. How effective it will be remains to be seen.

In Australia's case $9.3 billion has been spent on the campaign in Afghanistan along with 41 lives lost and more than 260 personnel wounded. More than 30 000 members of the Australian Defence Force cycled through the Afghanistan area of operations - all of whom have been changed in one way or another as the result of their experiences there. The cost to the Afghans has been far greater with thousands killed and maimed. Of course, death and destruction is common in war and doesn't necessarily indicate the futility of a military campaign. In an alternate reality, in which NATO forces never entered Afghanistan, the horror might have been much worse. But the question of whether this military campaign was worth it for Australia must certainly be answered - if only to help shape the military decisions facing us now, and that will certainly face us again in the future.

Yet to my knowledge, no comprehensive strategic review by the government is underway to ascertain how effective our campaign in Afghanistan has been. In more than a decade, parliament has conducted just one inquiry into the relatively narrow topic of the effectiveness of Australia's development assistance in Afghanistan. The Australian Army is examining lessons from Afghanistan pertinent to its institutional experience fighting there. But of the english speaking nations fighting in Afghanistan, Australia stands alone as the only one who has not yet publicly reviewed its performance there - or even its reasons for being part of the NATO military campaign. 

Indeed, in the very year in which millions will be spent on military history, government has not even begun the process of writing the official history of the Australian Defence Force's involvement in the Afghanistan war. A study into the feasibility of an official Afghanistan War History was completed by the Australian War Memorial nearly three years ago. A proposal for the conduct of the Afghanistan official history was submitted to the federal cabinet almost 12 months ago. Yet in all its deliberations on national security matters in the past year the government has not yet, to the public's knowledge, found the time to commission an official historian for Afghanistan and begin the long process of formally detailing Australia's contribution to that war. The costs for the official Afghanistan history might run to $10 million, a puny investment given the ADF is spending as much for every week of current military operations in Iraq. And $10 million is a tiny downpayment to learn lessons from war that might save Australian lives in future military campaigns.

The Prime Minister to his credit has announced that Australians will formally mark the end of the Afghanistan war with a national series of homecoming parades on March 21 this year - a way of showing gratitude for the price paid on our behalf by veterans and their families. This is a noble sentiment and a welcome gesture. But absent of a dedicated effort to answer the big questions left about our involvement in Afghanistan, these parades will seem hollow. Australia's diplomats, aid workers, and soldiers had the courage to carry more than a decade of combat operations in Afghanistan. Now, we need the courage to confront the question of whether it was worth it. 

James Brown (Twitter: @captainbrown) directs the Alliance 21 program at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney. He served in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009.

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