It’s been 10 years since Mark Wales last deployed to Afghanistan.
The retired Australian Special Forces soldier is proud of his service but doesn’t hesitate to declare that the US-led alliance, of which Australia was a part of, lost the “aimless war” to the Taliban.
“It’s surprising to me that no one is banging their fists on the table about this. We’re trying to just creep away saying, ‘oh we just lost that war. I hope no one notices,’” the 41-year-old tells SBS News from his home in Perth.
“It’s a pretty big deal. If we’re losing wars at a national level it has to be understood and measures [need to be] put in place so it doesn’t happen again.”
Wales completed four tours of Afghanistan between 2007 and 2010. He says Australia’s military strategy lacked clear objectives, was poorly resourced and ultimately left soldiers fighting a war they couldn’t win.
He is now calling for an inquiry to examine the operational decisions that led to defeat, and ultimately, disgrace.
“It’s hard to pin down and say ‘this person is responsible’. But someone is. You don’t go to war by accident,” he says. “We need to really dissect what happened, understand it … because when you look at the cost of it, it’s hard to sit there and say it was all worth it. I don’t think it was.”
Australia’s longest war
Australia joined the US-led war in Afghanistan in October 2001 in its mission to overthrow the Taliban, disrupt Al Qaeda and rid the country of international terrorist networks. It was the beginning of the longest war in Australian military history – one that is still being fought today.
Forty-one Australian troops were killed, along with tens of thousands of Afghan civilians.
“A lot of people forget that John Howard was about a mile from the Pentagon when it was hit on September 11,” says David Kilcullen, who is professor of international and political studies at UNSW Canberra and based in the US.
“We were very clear in the beginning that we were there to support the US to overthrow the Taliban.”
But when Washington launched a second war in Iraq in 2003, resources in Afghanistan became stretched and the ousted Taliban regime began an insurgency.
Professor Kilcullen served in Afghanistan as a civilian adviser with the US military between 2007 and 2015.
“After 2004, we were pinned down in Iraq and didn’t have the resources to respond as the Taliban recovered and were beginning to pose a significant threat in Afghanistan. The war there changed from a post-conflict, Bosnia-style reconstruction effort, to an active theatre of war.”
‘The Wild West’
In July 2005, Australia agreed to a request by the government in Kabul to re-deploy more troops, sending the first contingent of the Special Forces Task Group. Wales landed in Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province in 2007.
“It was like the Wild West. You land on a dirt airstrip and there’s guys driving past on quad bikes, people firing rifles up on the range, artillery fire. It was really cool to see the military machine in full swing; it was exciting.”
But the reality of fighting a resurgent Taliban in mountainous terrain soon set in.
“Just getting into those areas was really dangerous and we saw the Russians had trouble with this. [If you] try and drive in, they’re easy to mine, they’re easy to ambush,” he says.
Australian soldiers struggled to recognise enemies from civilians and account for a porous border with Pakistan.
“In our patrol bases, we talked to power brokers in villages. We never quite knew how these groups worked. If I was talking to you … I knew there was every chance you could be cooperating with the Taliban as well.”
In October 2007, and for the third time in 18 months, allied forces were tasked with clearing the Chora Valley.
“Chora Valley was important because it was a sanctuary for the Taliban, they could rest and re-arm there. The problem was if we cleared it, we couldn’t hold it and eventually, it would cede back to the enemy,” Wales says.
Wales’ patrol approached an area where they expected Taliban fighters were gathered. He recalls walking near a field of corn at sunrise, which he noticed should have been harvested. A man in black was standing on the far side.
The patrol had walked into an ambush. Gunshots rang out and Wales’ patrol leader Sergeant Matthew Locke was killed.
“I heard someone say ‘man down, someone’s been shot’. I pushed up that aqueduct and the team he was with were trying to fight back and doing first aid. There was a lot happening at once,” Wales says.
“I was upset, I was crying. But we only had a minute or two to think about it. Because already there was Taliban around that compound and we had to go out and fight.”
Recognising that the Taliban was resisting the allied forces, in 2009 Australia announced a troop surge in Afghanistan, making it the largest non-NATO contributing country. But the longer the war went on, the more experienced Taliban insurgents became and the fighting intensified.
“The army and the military were feeding all these feel-good stories out about Afghanistan, but from my perspective, and the special ops guys, it was nothing but fighting. And really severe fighting,” Wales says.
“So you had the army saying, ‘look at all these roads we’ve built, we’ve got healthcare, we’ve got schools’, but no one wanted that in that province, for the most part, and I don’t think that was ever communicated to the public.”
Australian Special Forces were sent on more frequent deployments as an ADF policy requiring soldiers to rest for 12 months between deployments was set aside against the advice of psychological research.
“We were constantly getting waivers to send people back into the fight,” Wales says. “I think we changed a lot during that period. I did, I saw this in myself. I was drinking heavily. I was not sleeping properly, my cognition had changed, I couldn’t handle the heavy loading of work.”
Wales says the behaviour among Australia soldiers inside the base at Tarin Kowt began to change.
“There was already a drinking culture in the military, but it became a little bit darker. I think I saw the mood darken a fair bit. People were disturbed. We were doing terrible work. You’re meant to take time to reflect and recover from that, yet there was no time. There was just a constant churn back to this war zone.”
It was during this period that the first allegations of war crimes committed by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan began to surface.
A report by Justice Paul Brereton found that some Australian Special Forces “began to display a disregard for human life”… and “an increasing willingness to use lethal force against civilians”.
Wales says he never witnessed any war crimes and he is not among the soldiers currently facing possible prosecution. But he says he, like many others, he gave up on winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
“I lost trust in the population. I was like, ‘you are all against us, until you prove otherwise’. I just assumed that anyone in the population could be out to kill us.”
Australian forces withdrew from Uruzgan province in 2013, bringing to an end Australia’s longest continuous military operation. But today, five out of six districts in the province (where Australian efforts were focused) are now back under Taliban control.
“The Taliban are significantly bigger today than they were in 2001,” Professor Kilcullen says.
“They control significantly more territory than they did before 9/11. They haven’t renounced their relationship with Al Qaeda and they’re winning the war on the ground in terms of casualty numbers of the Afghan army and civilians.”
“So there’s really no metric by which you can say the war has been won.”
Wales says an inquiry is needed to go beyond allegations of war crimes, and ask next time “what’s a smarter way of doing it?”
The Brereton Report also found a reliance on Special Forces by political and military decision-makers “contributed to a wavering moral compass, and to declining psychological health” among troops.
“While the Special Forces provide an attractive option for an initial deployment, it is a misuse of their capability to employ them on a longterm basis to conduct what are essentially conventional military operations,” the report read.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Defence says the government is focused on developing its implementation plan to action the recommendations of the war crimes inquiry.
While no timeline was given for the release of the plan, the spokesperson says the response will be “comprehensive”, covering the more than 140 recommendations made by Justice Brereton.
“The development of the implementation plan is being given a high priority by Defence and Government,” the spokesperson said. “Due time and consideration must be given to the range of complex issues covered in the IGADF Afghanistan Inquiry report”.
Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie, who served with the Australian Army, says she would support an inquiry into the war if it had broad terms of reference and the power to call former top politicians and defence officials.
“What was the point? What was the objective? What was the mission that was supposed to be accomplished? Nobody knows,” she says.
“Are they going to hold leaders and former commanders responsible? And are they going to put politicians in the mix; that means your former prime ministers coming in to answer questions”.
Wales says understanding the failures will prevent Australia from making similarly disastrous missions in future.
“There was very little understanding in the public about what was happening over there. It wasn’t debated enough in parliament, the guidelines on strategy weren’t quite clear enough,” he says.
“I think everyone is looking at the war crimes now and we’re trying to reverse engineer ‘how did we get to this point?’ I think an important question to ask is ‘how did we stay so long and get to a point where we cared a lot less about the people we were meant to protect?’”
A list of welfare support services for those affected by the Afghanistan Inquiry can be found here.
Readers seeking support with mental health can also contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyondblue.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
Like this story? Here’s where else you can find SBS News content and follow us:
SBS News website: Save our website sbs.com.au/news as a favourite.
SBS News newsletters: Get the latest delivered to your email inbox by subscribing here.
Apple News: Follow the SBS News channel here on an Apple device.
Twitter: Follow us at twitter.com/SBSNews
Instagram: Follow us at instagram.com/sbsnews_au
YouTube: Subscribe at youtube.com/c/sbsnews
TikTok: Follow us at tiktok.com/@sbsnews_au
Reddit: Join us at reddit.com/r/sbsnewsau
SBS also publishes news in 68 languages online and on radio. Find your language at sbs.com.au/language.