Inside Story

Lost in translation

Will the chaotic withdrawal from another war zone finally change how the United States and Australia deal with conflict?

Emma Shortis 18 August 2021 1087 words

Former Afghan interpreters protesting in Kabul in April. Mariam Zuhaib/AP Photo

A decade ago the war in Afghanistan became the United States’ longest-ever foreign war. Tied as Australia is to American military adventurism, that made it our longest-ever foreign war, too. The Vietnam war, which had previously held that record, nevertheless remains the benchmark by which both nations measure and understand their other catastrophic wars. The comparison feels apt for good reason — even beyond the grim similarity of those images of American helicopters landing on rooftops.

After president Joe Biden announced the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in April, the Morrison government quickly followed suit. But the stories they are telling about why the withdrawal is happening differ in important ways.

In the United States, Biden’s reasoning was straightforward: the war had already dragged on for too long, and there was no justification for its continuation. It had spanned four presidential administrations; he refused to allow it to continue into a fifth. When we’re so accustomed to hearing the United States described as a defender of freedom and democracy in the world, Biden’s reasoning seemed uncharacteristically resigned.

Biden speaks not of freedom or high-minded ideals but of his responsibility to bring American troops home. Even months ago, faced with the accusation that he was abandoning America’s commitment to the people of Afghanistan, he was unapologetic. Asked if the United States, and he personally, would bear responsibility should the Taliban regain control of the country, he was unequivocal. He felt, he said, “zero responsibility.” This would be a full, unconditional withdrawal.

In the end, that withdrawal happened very quickly. Fittingly, Biden’s deadline was 11 September this year, but American troops are mostly already gone. They left quickly and quietly, no doubt hoping to avoid the kind of iconic images of desperate evacuations that now characterise American withdrawal from its second-longest foreign war. As we now know, that effort has failed spectacularly.

The obvious comparisons to the war in Vietnam were not lost on Biden — he has already insisted, repeatedly, that this is “not Saigon.” He is at least partly right; while the comparison is apt, it relies on the vantage point of American power and a repeat of American mistakes. The “fall” of Saigon and Kabul were equally predictable, but the future is not — while the Communist Party of Vietnam is many things, it is not, and was not, the Taliban.

And in Biden’s case, the historical comparison lies not with the president who oversaw the end of America’s war in Vietnam but with the one who didn’t: fellow Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson’s catastrophic failures in Vietnam destroyed his presidency and dramatically constrained his domestic agenda. Biden seems intent on not making the same mistake, making the calculation that American fatigue with the “forever war” is stronger than any latent desire to be seen as the guardian of freedom and democracy in the world. He’s probably right.

The Australian government seems less cognisant of that history, and perhaps even more inclined to repeat it. When it came to the withdrawal, the Australian government was all too happy to outsource decision-making to the Americans, just as it was during the Vietnam war. But unlike Biden, Australia’s prime minister has continued a long tradition of justifying American military interventionism, and Australian support of it, in grandiose terms.

Echoing Richard Nixon’s invocation of “peace with honour” in Vietnam, Scott Morrison insisted in April that “freedom is always worth it” and “the world is safer” as a result of the war. That freedom and safety, as usual, is ours rather than that of the people of Afghanistan. It barely extends even to those Afghans who helped both the American and Australian campaigns directly.

Both the United States and Australia have, rightly, faced significant criticism for failing to do everything possible to protect even the local translators who worked with US and Australian forces and who were, by all accounts, integral to those operations. Those “locally engaged employees,” in the jargon of Western military interventionism, are now targets, along with their families, and many of them are desperate to get out.

The Biden administration is looking to spend US$1 billion on evacuations, and thousands have already been moved to either the mainland United States or military bases elsewhere. The Australian government has been much slower, and has faced significant criticism for it.

Visa processing, always deliberately unhurried and arduous, was slowed even further when the Australian government shuttered the Australian embassy in Kabul. Faced with an atmosphere of distrust, former local employees are forced to prove they did indeed work for the very Western forces that should know full well whether they did or not.

The Australian government’s shirking of its obligations was foreseeable months, if not years, in advance. It was bad enough to prompt intervention from the architect of Australia’s involvement in the war. Former prime minister John Howard weighed in in July, telling SBS News that granting asylum to former local employees “is a moral obligation we have. And it was a moral obligation that was shamefully discarded many years ago when we pulled out of Vietnam. I do not want to see a repetition of that failure in relation to Afghanistan.”

Unsurprisingly, Howard didn’t mention other historical failures repeated during the war and in its aftermath. That would mean examining the comparison between the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam too closely, and asking too many questions about why those failures echo each other so clearly.

While the Australian and American approaches to withdrawal might vary by degree, they share much in common. The historical comparisons are ever-present, but any real “lessons” that history might offer are ignored. In neither country is there any real effort to understand and change the processes and structures that dragged us into both the longest and the second-longest foreign wars we’ve ever been involved in.

Even this year, the seventieth anniversary of the official security treaty between Australia and the United States, and the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, neither the US nor Australian government has shown any interest in understanding why it is that the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam mirror each other so closely.

In their refusal to engage with that history, both the Morrison government and the Biden administration shut down the possibility of any kind of learning that involves more than just mild regret. And so the risk that all of this will be repeated remains. •

An earlier version of this article appeared in Footyology.