The inimitable John Birmingham gave free permission to share this:
The graveyard of empires is not all razor-backed mountains and howling wasteland. There are hidden gardens and lush valleys between the arid Afghan heights, paddy fields and fertile tillage overlooked by ancient castles. Australian soldiers who fought in Khas Uruzgan recall the eerie dissonance of moving through tropical landscapes that needed just a scattering of peasants in black pyjamas and conical straw hats to complete a weird and contrary connection to another war lost and another time passed.
The Australians were there in September 2008, in the valley of Ana Kalay, and on the second day of that month, the first day of Ramadan, they fought a long battle with a much larger larger force of Taliban fighters. They’d been looking for the fight. Both sides were always looking for the fight.
The day started early, at 4AM, when five Humvees carrying US and Australian special operators and half a dozen Afghan soldiers drove out of an isolated, forward operating base called Anaconda. They headed east into the Ana Kalay, a narrow, green strip of arable soil in the lowland between the gnarlier, desolate heights of the surrounding hill country. A dozen or so Australians dismounted inside the valley, quietly filtering up into the southern foothills to lay their ambush.
Another two SAS patrol groups had ghosted their way into the northern hills hours before. They waited on the vehicle convoy and on the insurgents who would be drawn to it. The Americans and their local allies moved around quite openly, offering themselves as bait, and soon enough somebody took it. The SAS patrols to the north engaged a number of Taliban fighters, killing them. The southern patrols spotted more on the move, but the patrol commander Sergeant Troy Simmonds declined to open fire. There were too many children nearby. When it became obvious there was no more fighting to be done, they withdrew. The two SAS patrols to the north left on foot through the mountains, a long haul back to Anaconda. Their comrades to the south rejoined the American convoy.
That’s when everything turned to shit.
There is a whole book to be written about the Battle of Khas Uruzgan, but in essence the details were simple. A small allied force, deep in hostile territory fought for three and a half hours to move three and half kilometres through a narrow, contested battlespace. The enemy, somewhere between a hundred and two hundred Pashtun tribesmen loyal to the Taliban, controlled the high ground and moved with ease along the streams and river channels. Heavily armed with mortars, RPGs and automatic weapons they prosecuted a rolling ambush which killed one American and wounded nine Australians and one Afghan soldier.
They all fought bravely. All of them. The tribesmen had the advantage of numbers and terrain, but to press that advantage meant standing into a firestorm, including aerial support from US F-18s.
One of the Australians, Trooper Mark Donaldson, was awarded a Victoria Cross for his individual bravery when he raced into the open under murderous fire, to rescue an Afghan interpreter who had been blown out the back of a Humvee by a rocket-propelled grenade. The Afghan was lying face down in a spreading pool of blood and was in danger of being left behind.
Donaldson sprinted eighty metres to grab him and drag him back to the relative safety of the slow-rolling convoy.
He later told the Australian War Memorial.
“I’m getting chased by bullets, and I got to him, and there were bullets kicking around us … I started to drag him at first – and I’m not a massive guy – so it wasn’t really working out. I got him to his feet, with my arms sort of underneath him, half carrying, half dragging, and I just thought: what now? Do I leave him here? Do I use him as a shield? Do I just save my own skin? Or do I get him to that car that’s driving away from us? And that’s the only thing I could really focus on – that vehicle.
“His face was really bloodied and messed up and he was trying to talk to me. He was trying to tell me his eyes were hurting – ‘I know your eyes are hurting, mate, you’ve been wounded, it’s all right, let me get you to the vehicle’ – but I finally got him there, managed to wrap a bandage around him, and mucked around trying to get him into the car.
“I was really, really dry, and my lungs were burning, massively. And I distinctly remember this because it took me about five or six goes of just swapping from side to side to side of the vehicle. I was that tired – and I don’t tell anyone this – but I was that tired, I was leaning against the vehicle as it was moving, and just moving my legs, and my 2IC came around and said, ‘Man, just keep running.’ He was worried I was going to fall over and get caught up underneath the car.”
They finally broke out of the valley and returned to Anaconda. Three choppers full of wounded lifted off hours later. Donaldson helped the interpreter onto one of the helicopters. He never saw the man again but he told the War Memorial interviewer, “We don’t leave anyone behind. It doesn’t matter that we only knew him for five days…He was an Afghan guy that was one of us. He was with us, and he was out there fighting with us, and I respect that.”
I listened to this speech live in the wee smas earlier. Yes, he will be criticised, but it is the right decision – inevitable after the former guy’s Doha deal with the Taliban.
I want to speak today to the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, the developments that have taken place in the last week and the steps we’re taking to address the rapidly evolving events.
My national security team and I have been closely monitoring the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and moving quickly to execute the plans we had put in place to respond to every contingency, including the rapid collapse we’re seeing now.
I’ll speak more in a moment about the specific steps we’re taking. But I want to remind everyone how we got here and what America’s interests are in Afghanistan.
We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001, and make sure Al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again. We did that. We severely degraded Al Qaeda and Afghanistan. We never gave up the hunt for Osama bin Laden and we got him.
That was a decade ago. Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation-building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy. Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland.
I’ve argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency or nation-building. That’s why I opposed the surge when it was proposed in 2009 when I was vice president. And that’s why as president I’m adamant we focus on the threats we face today, in 2021, not yesterday’s threats.
Today a terrorist threat has metastasized well beyond Afghanistan. Al Shabab in Somalia, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Nusra in Syria, ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq and establishing affiliates in multiple countries in Africa and Asia. These threats warrant our attention and our resources. We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have permanent military presence. If necessary, we’ll do the same in Afghanistan. We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on the direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively if needed.
When I came into office, I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban. Under his agreement, U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, just a little over three months after I took office. U.S. forces had already drawn down during the Trump administration from roughly 15,500 American forces to 2,500 troops in country. And the Taliban was at its strongest militarily since 2001.
The choice I had to make as your president was either to follow through on that agreement or be prepared to go back to fighting the Taliban in the middle of the spring fighting season. There would have been no cease-fire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1. There was only a cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, and lurching into the third decade of conflict.
I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces. That’s why we’re still there. We were cleareyed about the risks. We planned for every contingency. But I always promised the American people that I will be straight with you.
The truth is, this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight. If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.
American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong. Incredibly well equipped. A force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force, something the Taliban doesn’t have. Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support. We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.
There are some very brave and capable Afghan special forces units and soldiers. But if Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that one year — one more year, five more years or 20 more years — that U.S. military boots on the ground would have made any difference.
Here’s what I believe to my core: It is wrong to order American troops to step up when Afghanistan’s own armed forces would not. The political leaders of Afghanistan were unable to come together for the good of their people, unable to negotiate for the future of their country when the chips were down. They would never have done so while U.S. troops remained in Afghanistan bearing the brunt of the fighting for them. And our true strategic competitors, China and Russia, would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilizing Afghanistan indefinitely.
When I hosted President Ghani and Chairman Abdullah at the White House in June, and again when I spoke by phone to Ghani in July, we had very frank conversations. We talked about how Afghanistan should prepare to fight their civil wars after the U.S. military departed. To clean up the corruption in government so the government could function for the Afghan people. We talked extensively about the need for Afghan leaders to unite politically. They failed to do any of that. I also urged them to engage in diplomacy, to seek a political settlement with the Taliban. This advice was flatly refused. Mr. Ghani insisted the Afghan forces would fight, but obviously he was wrong.
So I’m left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay: How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war when Afghan troops will not? How many more lives, American lives, is it worth, how many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery? I’m clear on my answer: I will not repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past. The mistake of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country, of attempting to remake a country through the endless military deployments of U.S. forces. Those are the mistakes we cannot continue to repeat because we have significant vital interest in the world that we cannot afford to ignore.
I also want to acknowledge how painful this is to so many of us. The scenes that we’re seeing in Afghanistan, they’re gut-wrenching, particularly for our veterans, our diplomats, humanitarian workers — for anyone who has spent time on the ground working to support the Afghan people. For those who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan, and for Americans who have fought and served our country in Afghanistan, this is deeply, deeply personal. It is for me as well.
I’ve worked on these issues as long as anyone. I’ve been throughout Afghanistan during this war, while the war was going on, from Kabul to Kandahar, to the Kunar Valley. I’ve traveled there on four different occasions. I’ve met with the people. I’ve spoken with the leaders. I spent time with our troops, and I came to understand firsthand what was and was not possible in Afghanistan. So now we’re focused on what is possible.
We will continue to support the Afghan people. We will lead with our diplomacy, our international influence and our humanitarian aid. We’ll continue to push for regional diplomacy and engagement to prevent violence and instability. We’ll continue to speak out for the basic rights of the Afghan people, of women and girls, just as we speak out all over the world.
I’ve been clear, the human rights must be the center of our foreign policy, not the periphery. But the way to do it is not through endless military deployments. It’s with our diplomacy, our economic tools and rallying the world to join us.
Let me lay out the current mission in Afghanistan: I was asked to authorize, and I did, 6,000 U.S. troops to deploy to Afghanistan for the purpose of assisting in the departure of U.S. and allied civilian personnel from Afghanistan, and to evacuate our Afghan allies and vulnerable Afghans to safety outside of Afghanistan. Our troops are working to secure the airfield and ensure continued operation on both the civilian and military flights. We’re taking over air traffic control. We have safely shut down our embassy and transferred our diplomats. Our diplomatic presence is now consolidated at the airport as well.
Over the coming days we intend to transport out thousands of American citizens who have been living and working in Afghanistan. We’ll also continue to support the safe departure of civilian personnel — the civilian personnel of our allies who are still serving in Afghanistan. Operation Allies Refuge, which I announced back in July, has already moved 2,000 Afghans who are eligible for special immigration visas and their families to the United States. In the coming days, the U.S. military will provide assistance to move more S.I.V.-eligible Afghans and their families out of Afghanistan.
We’re also expanding refugee access to cover other vulnerable Afghans who work for our embassy. U.S. nongovernmental organizations and Afghans who otherwise are a great risk in U.S. news agencies — I know there are concerns about why we did not begin evacuating Afghan civilians sooner. Part of the answer is some of the Afghans did not want to leave earlier, still hopeful for their country. And part of it because the Afghan government and its supporters discouraged us from organizing a mass exodus to avoid triggering, as they said, a crisis of confidence.
American troops are performing this mission as professionally and as effectively as they always do. But it is not without risks. As we carry out this departure, we have made it clear to the Taliban: If they attack our personnel or disrupt our operation, the U.S. presence will be swift, and the response will be swift and forceful. We will defend our people with devastating force if necessary. Our current military mission is short on time, limited in scope and focused in its objectives: Get our people and our allies as safely and quickly as possible. And once we have completed this mission, we will conclude our military withdrawal. We will end America’s longest war after 20 long years of bloodshed.
The events we’re seeing now are sadly proof that no amount of military force would ever deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan, as known in history as the graveyard of empires. What’s happening now could just as easily happen five years ago or 15 years in the future. We have to be honest, our mission in Afghanistan made many missteps over the past two decades.
I’m now the fourth American president to preside over war in Afghanistan. Two Democrats and two Republicans. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president. I will not mislead the American people by claiming that just a little more time in Afghanistan will make all the difference. Nor will I shrink from my share of responsibility for where we are today and how we must move forward from here. I am president of the United States of America, and the buck stops with me.
I’m deeply saddened by the facts we now face. But I do not regret my decision to end America’s war-fighting in Afghanistan and maintain a laser focus on our counterterrorism mission, there and other parts of the world. Our mission to degrade the terrorist threat of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and kill Osama bin Laden was a success. Our decades-long effort to overcome centuries of history and permanently change and remake Afghanistan was not, and I wrote and believed it never could be.
I cannot and will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war, taking casualties, suffering life-shattering injuries, leaving families broken by grief and loss. This is not in our national security interest. It is not what the American people want. It is not what our troops who have sacrificed so much over the past two decades deserve. I made a commitment to the American people when I ran for president that I would bring America’s military involvement in Afghanistan to an end. While it’s been hard and messy and, yes, far from perfect, I’ve honored that commitment.
More importantly, I made a commitment to the brave men and women who serve this nation that I wasn’t going to ask them to continue to risk their lives in a military action that should’ve ended long ago. Our leader did that in Vietnam when I got here as a young man. I will not do it in Afghanistan.
I know my decision will be criticized. But I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to another president of the United States, yet another one, a fifth one. Because it’s the right one, it’s the right decision for our people. The right one for our brave service members who risked their lives serving our nation. And it’s the right one for America.
Thank you. May God protect our troops, our diplomats and all brave Americans serving in harm’s way.
To all Pubsters, their family and friends, and to all people in Australia in lockdown, or dealing with any effects of the Covid19 Pandemic, we send our best wishes for the best in these times.
Please stick to the rules of your Lockdown, follow medical advice. Wear your masks, do your social distancing, your handwashing and sanitising.
Stay home as directed. It is better to be bored than sick. Use your common sense: if in doubt stay home.
I have some suggestions to help spark ideas to pass the time at home. Do you have other ideas to share?
With the internet you can learn a new hobby, or a language, or listen to podcasts, music, jokes, explore art or sport or anything. You can go online to Berkeley College, USA, for example. Every lecture in every course is available to watch, for free. Play online (non gambling) games. Talk to others in your household.
Live cams from all over the world let you see other places from home. My favourite is Africacam at the waterholes to see wild animals gather to drink.
Get the kids to make their own board-games or invent new or rediscover old playroom games.
You could start to gather your family history from your elders, by phone.
Use the phone instead of a visit.
Lockdown gives you time to do such home-based projects that you wanted to do, but could not fit into your schedules. Protecting mental health is very important. Phone friends!
Think back to WW2, when restrictions were drastic in many countries. If they could do it, you can.
Maybe keep a diary, and/or a family scrapbook, so future generations can read about your experiences of these times.
If you have been ill, or know someone affected by Covid19, we wish for a rapid recovery.
For all who have suffered grief from Covid19, we give you our sincere sympathy.
We hope we can keep ourselves and each other safe.
Remember, consult your doctor, follow medical advice on vaccinations (not internet rumours or human gossip) and other health issues, follow Lockdown restrictions (including mask-wearing and staying home), and err on the side of caution.
Our leaders are limited in dealing with this pandemic by their abilities and beliefs. Some do well, others less so, as is clear from the data.
We can only try to influence our leaders, but we have control over ourselves.
So what are our areas of direct control?
Our understanding and patience with ourselves and others.
It is up to each one of us to act for the good of all, because what is good for us all is good for each of us.
Thank you to all you front line workers, volunteers, health staff, welfare staff and others keeping vital services running, often at risk to yourselves.
For example, my friend received free delivered meals from a group of volunteers from the Indian community. Thank you to that group.
Thank you to everyone doing the right thing to keep us safe.