Afghanistan: Final Phase Failure
Feature|Jan 8, 2022

Afghanistan: Final Phase Failure

Heston Russell Shares His Thoughts On Our Chaotic Withdrawal From The Region.
Heston Russell

As someone who has served and fought in combat for my country, let me say this: there is only one thing worse than being in a crisis situation. That is, watching an avoidable crisis unfold and being powerless to assist. It has been hard speaking to my colleagues in the military over recent weeks for that reason. 


One of the biggest disappointments about the withdrawal of Coalition troops from Afghanistan has been the manner in which it was done. There is a genuine discussion to be had about whether our military should have continued in Afghanistan beyond 2014, let alone after the 20 years we were there by 2021. However I’m certain that not many would argue that the manner in which this withdrawal was carried out has been an absolute failure.  

All the military weapons and equipment armoury left behind; that’s no way to withdraw, especially after such a long campaign. 

And as a military professional, that’s the part that hurts me the most. When I was in Afghanistan in 2011, 2012 and 2015 I saw the very best of our service men and women, in action and in supporting the Afghan people.

Now, back home, so many of us are left to wonder, what now?

We have literally left Afghanistan – and that whole region – better armed than when we arrived. And we’re talking about advanced weaponry including armoured vehicles, night fighting equipment, body armour and even drones. This has armed the Taliban with an extraordinary new war chest that will also undoubtedly end up in the hands of others as such items are prized and purchased at a high price by those seeking to bring harm. 

There’s a very real threat posed now that we must acknowledge and address. 

As the world opens back up after the COVID pandemic, there are now real world implications from this botched withdrawal from Afghanistan. As the already porous borders of the Middle East lie alongside Europe and many other locations, they will once again be travelled by tourists.

I’m not sure many people truly understand what this could mean for the world. 

Our campaign in Afghanistan has ended, shrouded in extreme disappointment. 

From the glaring exposure of our failure to understand and implement strategic planning, following through to what’s been happening on the ground to ensuring safe passage out of the area for those we left behind; ultimately we had a responsibility to those people who’ve been our allies – and we failed them.


Don’t underestimate the power of ISIS ideologues. In 2014-2017 we deployed an Australian Special Operations Task Force into Iraq specifically to take on and destroy the extremist know as ISIS / ISIL or Daesh on the ground. Despite it not being seen in the media, Australian Special Forces once again played a key role in defeating this enemy and winning the war in Iraq. But the extremist threat still remained within the region and other countries close by.

Afghanistan now faces the time-honoured tradition of power struggles and strategic competition in the power vacuum that accompanies these events.

Al-Qaeda is the group that was founded by Osama Bin Laden and carried out the 9/11 attacks in 2001 in New York. This group follows Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunni Islam that insists on a literal interpretation of the Koran and seeks to attack those who oppose this ideology through terrorism and violence. 

The Taliban differs in its origin and focus. Looking to establish itself as the legitimate political authority of Afghanistan, facilitated by its armies of fighters, the Taliban seeks to govern by enforcing strict laws by which citizens must live without compromise. ISIS-K (Khorasan – traditionally capturing areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran) is a less-known group, which came to be in 2014, enabled by the large withdrawal of Coalition Forces, including our Australian Special Operations Task Group, from Afghanistan at the end of 2013.

The internal politics between all of these groups is intense and incredibly complicated. 

I know what we’re up against from the Taliban because I’ve lived it. I’ve seen it first hand, and also alongside those serving in our Coalition forces including the US, UK and many other Nations. These people we now see giving media conferences are people we were sent to target and kill, if they weren’t hiding in neighbouring countries to avoid our reach. 


These are people who will heartlessly target women and young children. These are people who don’t care about how they achieve their aims including taking radical action for maximum exposure. 

Please, don’t be fooled into thinking they care about how they behave away from the cameras and global scrutiny; they will resort to the most devastating methods to achieve their goal. 

The Taliban are now the most exposed they have been, politically, in many years. As they push hard to establish themselves as a legitimate government, they’re looking to strike deals with other power broking countries and groups, saying they’re become disenchanted. The Ideologies will be tested in the face of greater economic and power promises of those in charge, and those who want to be involved.


The sudden collapse of Afghanistan and the few weeks after, our TV screens and phones were filled with the images and highlights of human despair. But now that the story is made, sadly we see the media attention move on. Back to the pandemic and even for some, back to their award winning agenda based on glimpses and segments of the war that was fought by our Special Forces, regardless of context or legal process. 

Sadly, when I see those in our media running an ongoing campaign against the military, I wonder why young Australians would even want to join up these days. When I see the way those who fought, including my own men, are treated; knowing the sacrifices they made within their own lives, only to be discredited, doubted and thoroughly unsupported, I often despair. 

When I was there on the ground in Afghanistan, we did what we were sent to do, and we did it well. We did so as proud Australians, representing the uniform we wore, the flag on our sleeve, and those we fought alongside.

And it was always for those back at home so that not only would they never have to face the threats and terrors we saw, but also so that they may never even actually have to think and worry about their existence. Protecting the hearts and minds of the Australian people is just as important as the physical task. That is why we select, train and deploy our special forces, to do what needs to be done, in the full context of why we want our people to live as one and free.

Time and time again, we haven’t gone far enough to support our military personnel, especially those like our Special Forces that may be overly hard to understand. 

Yes, I chose to put on the uniform – it was my decision to put myself out there. If actions were taken, and decisions made against the law, then they must be addressed, and punished. But the only authorities in our nation that have the ability, and right, to make such decisions are those in our democratic courts, not those in their daily segments or printed columns. Some sections of our media even appear to have an issue with people who have served, simply because they chose to do so. 

Please, don't be fooled into thinking they care about how they behave away from the cameras and global scrutiny

If there’s one thing that’s come out of the Brereton Report, it’s that our government has failed our military, and there must be legislation put in place to ensure it does not happen again. It cannot happen again. 

We have a national obligation to support our military men and women. 

While the media is able to freely accuse and attack anyone who has worn a military uniform, our veterans are unable to speak out in their own defence while serving within the Forces, and must chose to do so with full appreciation of the real world risks it may cause us and our families if we chose to do so after leaving. Those commanding our Defence Force and Departments have too often chosen to sit back and provide simple holding statements at arm’s length, or no provide comment at all, as opposed to showing the support we would have received when in contact or under attack with the Taliban.  

This lack of support is affecting our veterans at home. It’s also affecting our loved ones who are being dragged through these allegations as well. I know this because I have many calling me, calling my organisation and asking for support. I have visited them and seen their despair at being unable to afford the high cost now required to achieve justice, let alone the presumption of innocence in our democratic nation.

Politicians will proudly stand to give all Australians a ‘fair go’ and yet we let this happen? Why would our young men and women want to join up when they see the way they’re treated back at home? 

When our own media gives a platform to a Taliban spokesman saying our troops died in vain, where’s the public outcry and protest? Let alone the acknowledgment of the indignity this may cause to Australian veteran families watching in lockdown ?

The very same media could actually be on the ground helping to shape and save the lives of the people in Afghanistan now at the will of the Taliban and terrorist organisations that roam free – free from accountability unless it’s captured and sent to TV screens around the world. But as we all know, this would never happen for the journalists’ fear of the very real threats that our veterans gladly faced, and would do again to rescue anyone in need. This includes those we might otherwise consider to have shown treason in such actions before.

Those of us who were there on the ground know that no Australian died in vain. Each died doing what we chose to do, when we signed up to serve. They died as counted within the number of those they loved, comrades in arms, our brothers and sisters in uniform – forged with bonds that surpassed any labels or discriminations we now bicker about back at home.

I know so many young Australians who, through such combat and chaos, have reconnected to our ANZAC spirit. I know our troops didn’t die in vain. I know it was worth it. 

Even our national broadcaster, the ABC, has continuously run segments looking to reinforce a narrative that has brought awards and decorations for many of their reporters. Even as members of our SAS were literally deployed to support the evacuation operation in Afghanistan, the ABC chose to try and tarnish the reputation of this unit in an expose that was nothing more than a stitch-up and slander.

This from our national broadcaster? Come on – enough is enough. 

Families of veterans shouldn’t have to come out and defend their loved ones. These media hit jobs, as if all this is being done for political gain, it’s a disgrace. 

The indisputable truth is: the real threat is the Taliban. 

While our troops were once again deployed to make amends for the botched withdrawal,  I was talking to a family who was in hiding. 

Rather than the media – especially the taxpayer funded ABC – running hit jobs on our ADF, they should have been putting their energy into telling these stories and bringing light to those in need. 

Rather than discrediting our troops, they should have been there pushing for accountability from the Taliban, our actual enemy, or compelling our government to commit and achieve our ‘best efforts’. 



We often hear people talk about mental health with regard to our veteran community. Don’t underestimate the impact that this relentless trial by media takes on veterans’ mental health. Over the last year alone I’ve watched a series of events snowball and witnessed the impact it’s having. 

The impact of the Breton Report, the agenda of some media against our military, and now this botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, all have had a lasting impact on the mental health of our veterans. 

This is real world stuff.


I want to drill home to the public that veterans and their families struggle to have a voice, let alone be heard.

Throughout my entire career in Special Forces we weren’t allowed to have social media. We were banned from speaking with the media and took every precaution to protect our identities and those of our families. This is what I mean about many of our military having no voice. 

It’s been a little over a year since I felt that I had to take myself out of this world to make it a better place. That experience has fuelled my focus to be a voice that cannot be ignored. 

I don’t care about the money, or profit. My move into politics is driven simply because we need motivation through inspiration. We have had enough of fear. 

I want to stand up for the values that I went to fight for; and the values that five generations of my family served and  fought for.

The best part of my life was serving within our armed forces. The best part of my service was taking the fight to those who sought to harm, oppress and bully others. I simply won’t stand by and watch this happen here at home any longer.

I didn’t want to join another political party, believe me I’ve been approached by most of them over the last few months. 

I think there’s power in diversity and uniting in purpose. I will fight alongside those authentic to the mission at hand, and hope to bring about change regardless of holding a position in office, or supporting from within the staff. I don’t want to die wondering what could have happened if I’d pushed through this door. 

I look at the major parties, and find myself searching for real leadership. 

We continue to be divided and in crisis because it’s the complete culture that’s rotten. 

The Australian people are looking actions, not words, made with common sense and seeking to motivate through inspiration, not fear. Planning and putting that into practice is my speciality. I might not have all the skills right now, but I also have a key strength in bringing people together to create teams strong in purpose and commitment. 

Selecting and training the right team for any mission, not just the task at hand, is what we need to forward and get our way of life back to being enjoyed by all Australian citizens, respected by our allies, and feared by those who chose us as enemies.

I know I can do this, because this is what I’ve been trained my whole life to do; I’ve started making those approaches to find the right people who believe in achieving an outcome for the benefit of others. That’s what’s lacking in politics. 

Currently, there is no emotional intelligence. There is no acknowledgement that being a leader requires leadership, not the reliance on authority or control. We need people in politics who will focus on a purpose that is higher than any party or policy, that can change the day after an election is decided. 

We must bring back some purpose to politics if we are to build a stronger, unified Australia together. 

Where do we start? We start by choosing the right people. We need to call upon people who will make the right decisions when the cameras aren’t on. We need some common sense. We need accountability. 

Right now, I don’t know any Australian children looking up to politicians and being inspired. That has to change – and there’s no time like now. 


I want to step up and play my part to make sure we evolve and innovate our nation to achieve its true and excellent potential. Like the Kangaroo and the Emu on our National emblem, it’s time to stop stepping backwards and move forward with a focus beyond simply the next election cycle. If you’d like to join me, you can visit my website and be part of the change.