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18 August 2021

We will never forget the images of desperate Afghans clinging to the outside of US Air Force planes at Kabul airport.

They say history repeats.

Certainly there were echoes in those images of the iconic 1975 photojournalism that captured people scrambling into a helicopter on a rooftop in Saigon at the end of last century's 20-year war: Vietnam.

Australians have lived with our engagement in Afghanistan for a long time. We have had six prime ministers in that time.

Some 39,000 Australian men and women have served in Afghanistan and 41 of them have sadly lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not to mention the many more carrying physical and mental wounds.

Soldiers know better than anyone that lofty ideals of nation-building and democracy-spreading crash into messy reality on the battlefield.

Soldiers know better than anyone that wars are lost as well as won.

And sometimes soldiers are deployed to wars where victory is illusive or never a possibility.

At the end of this century's 20-year quagmire war, those who served and particularly our fallen diggers deserve nothing less than a clear-eyed and candid analysis of this conflict.

Anything less would be an insult.

The West's original mission did relate to September 11 and the Taliban's refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden and dismantle al Qaida.

But despite what is being said in some quarters now, mission creep saw that morph into a "democracy-exporting" nation-building exercise.

That latter mission was not accomplished.

A decade after the body of bin Laden had been dropped into the north Arabian Sea, we were still stuck in a foreign conflict we were not winning.

I made my second visit to Afghanistan in 2018. When I was in Kabul, the only way I could move around was in Chinook helicopters, which were armed. I had bodyguards.

It was deemed not safe enough to go into the three Australian bases in Kabul by road.

I had to go in by helicopter, in the capital city.

It was clear that we weren't making much progress, and that we could not remain there forever.

Historians will argue for a long time what good came out of the Afghanistan war: 20 years of improved opportunities for women and girls, progress in civil engineering projects, and years of intelligence-gathering on Islamic terror groups in the region.

After decades in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public's enthusiasm for playing the world's policeman had cooled.

They chose the more isolationist candidate out of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

President Biden has inherited Trump's pledge of withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But it appears the officials have severely underestimated the speed of both the collapse of the Afghan Government and of the Taliban advance.

And so the logic of finally ending what would otherwise be a "forever war" the logic of not spilling more Australian blood and treasure into the void is undeniable.

But that does not mean the disastrous scenes we are currently witnessing could not have been handled better, and could not have been seen coming.

And it does not mean we have no further responsibilities to meet.

We have responsibilities for our Afghan mates, including translators, who aided our soldiers in those foreign fields.

We have responsibility to our veterans who are heartsick at seeing these mates abandoned.

And we have a responsibility to the Afghan people and what is bound to be a tide of refugees who want to escape the imminent tyranny of the Taliban.

As Labor leader Anthony Albanese has said about our Afghan allies: "We should be opening our hearts and our country to them." There is a strong bipartisan Australian tradition of standing by the underdog seeking freedom from oppression.

When Saigon fell, Malcolm Fraser welcomed the Vietnamese.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Bob Hawke granted permanent visas to 42,000 Chinese people in Australia.

This century Tony Abbott announced 12,000 additional places for Syrians and Iraqis.

It was in recognition of our responsibilities as a foreign force in the Middle East, and I immediately gave bipartisan support as Opposition Leader.

What we are seeing in Afghanistan only underscores the importance of ensuring our friends are brought to safety.

The Afghan civilians who worked alongside Australian soldiers and diplomats, who wore Australian uniforms and who kept our people safe, now face increasing threats to their lives and the lives of their families because of the assistance they provided our nation.

We have a moral obligation to help the people who have helped Australia.

We have a national security obligation to make clear to the world if you help Australia, we will help you.

Labor welcomes the rescue mission currently under way.

But the current Government has been too slow to the issue of repaying our Afghan brothers and sisters in arms.

I questioned the fate of the interpreters in Parliament in 2018. They have had time to work on a better solution.

For better or worse, the Afghanistan war is over.

Now is an opportunity for Prime Minister Morrison to continue our bipartisan Australian tradition of helping our mates in foreign fields who helped us.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 18 August 2021.