Australian defence force chief surprised by speed of Afghanistan’s ‘cascade collapse’ to the Taliban

General Angus Campbell believes fall was sped up by departure of Afghan president and ‘some interesting force deployment choices’

The chief of the Australian defence force says he was surprised by the speed of Afghanistan’s collapse to the Taliban – but it was accelerated by “some interesting force deployment choices”.

While conceding the “cascade collapse” occurred faster than anticipated, General Angus Campbell praised the ADF personnel who had helped airlift more than 4,000 people out of Kabul, saying the figure was “way beyond” initial expectations.

Campbell made the comments amid intense discussions in the UK and the US about intelligence failures over the speed of the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, which culminated in the Islamic fundamentalist militants taking the capital city on 15 August.

The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said last week: “In fairness, collectively across allies, the assessment that they would not be able to advance at that speed was not correct.”

The Australian government was worried enough about the security outlook to close its embassy in Kabul in May, ahead of the withdrawal of US and allied forces after 20 years of military engagement in Afghanistan. In early July the government confirmed the final 80 Australian troops had left the country.

Asked on Monday about his assessment at the time of the Taliban’s prospects, Campbell said he had been surprised at the speed of “the cascade collapse in Afghanistan”.

Campbell said collapse to the Taliban, Afghan government success or some sort of accommodation with the Taliban “were all possibilities”.

But the momentum of the Taliban effort made either accommodation or cascade collapse the more likely outcomes, he told the Australian National University’s Crawford Leadership Forum.

“But I don’t know of anyone who predicted, other than in the glory of 20/20 hindsight, how quickly it would occur, accelerated by, I think, some interesting force deployment choices, and also by the departure of their president,” Campbell said.

This latter point was a reference to the decision of Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, to flee the country in mid-August as Taliban forces closed in on Kabul.

Campbell did not elaborate on his observation about “some interesting force deployment choices”.

Guardian Australia asked a defence spokesperson whether that comment was a reference to the then Afghan government’s security forces or to the way in which the US handled its withdrawal.

A spokesperson said that the comments were related to the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces and were “not related to the deployment of Australian, US or other allied forces”.

“For security reasons, Defence does not comment on specific details related to the force posture of its own or foreign military forces,” the spokesperson said.

The US has faced criticism from other observers about how it carried out the withdrawal of forces in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks, including the sudden closure of the Bagram airbase in early July.

The US departure from Bagram – the base north of Kabul that was the symbolic and operational heart of the American military operation in Afghanistan – was marred by disorganisation. A gap between the American troops leaving and their Afghan replacements arriving allowed looters to ransack parts of the base.

Last week, the US president Joe Biden said the US had assumed Afghan national security forces would be a strong adversary to the Taliban, but they “did not hold on as long as anyone expected”.

The chief of the Australian defence force, General Angus Campbell
The chief of the Australian defence force, General Angus Campbell. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

During the ANU webinar, the ADF chief went on to say he “wasn’t anticipating … that that collapse would be so immediate”.

But he said there had been “enough uncertainty about the security situation for a range of advice [to be] offered to government that gave them consideration with regard to whether that embassy should close or not, or should temporarily close”.

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The fall of Kabul to the Taliban prompted a last-ditch evacuation mission by the Australian defence force and other allied forces, seeking to airlift out citizens and Afghan nationals who had provided assistance.

“With regard to the airlift from Kabul, I think it’s important to recognise that more than 4,000 people were lifted, way beyond the number that was initially anticipated that Australia would be lifting,” Campbell said.

“Not everybody who wanted to be withdrawn was able to get to the airport. And that lift could not continue beyond the 31st of August.”

After a week and a half of flights, the Australian government pulled its defence forces and other officials out of Kabul airport on 26 August, just before the suicide attacks that killed more than 60 Afghan civilians and 13 American military personnel.

Some interpreters who worked with the Australian and New Zealand militaries in Afghanistan said they felt abandoned by the governments they once served. One interpreter who worked for the ADF and held a temporary visa said he had spent five days outside the airport, sleeping in the dirt with his wife and young child.

As a Senate committee prepares to examine Australia’s 20-year-long engagement in Afghanistan and the adequacy of the withdrawal preparations, Campbell said the ADF personnel who conducted the August airlift were in a difficult environment.

“I think that the let’s say the entrails of exactly how we did it will all be pored over, but I think that Australia should be proud of what we were able to achieve in a very difficult situation,” Campbell said.

“Certainly, I am greatly thankful to the air and ground personnel who undertook it in a very uncertain environment.”

Contributor

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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