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Professor Farrell is available for media interviews to discuss his book, Britain’s experience of the Afghanistan War and the lessons for Australia’s military and political leaders.

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“Australia, learn from Britain’s failure”: world-leading war scholar says

New UOW Executive Dean’s ground-breaking Afghanistan war history offers lessons for Australia’s political leaders

Have a coherent political strategy; learn from history; commit military forces cautiously; know when to leave; and don’t sacrifice national interest for the sake of looking like a good ally to the United States of America.
These are just some of the key lessons for Australia from Britain’s costly war in Afghanistan according to internationally renowned war scholar and newly appointed senior University of Wollongong (UOW) academic, Professor Theo Farrell.

Professor Farrell’s arrival in Australia to take up his new post as Executive Dean of UOW’s Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts has coincided with the release of his book Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan, 2001–2014.

Described as a one volume ‘Chilcot Report’ for Afghanistan—referring to the extensive public inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq War—this authoritative account draws from Professor Farrell’s first-hand experience on the ground, along with extensive access to classified documents, hundreds of interviews with senior coalition and Taliban leaders, Afghani people and coalition political leaders, backed by a comprehensive historical analysis dating back to Britain’s first Afghan war in 1864.

“I spent a lot of time doing work for commanders on the ground in Afghanistan as an independent academic analysing the war and that experience has informed this book.

“While there are many accounts published about the frontline military experience in this war, it became clear to me that there was a missing piece and that piece was politics.

“The commanders quite correctly focused on the conduct of the war militarily but no one was focused on the overall political strategy,” Professor Farrell said.

Professor Farrell concludes that efforts by the West to reform the Afghanistan government failed because the international community never developed a coherent political strategy. Coalition nations were then able to be played off one another and the war became ‘unwinnable’ by the West.

“The basic problem with this war and the big lesson from these kinds of wars is that you can get quite large global coalitions working together with a surprising level of unity of command, but there was no coherent political strategy on the part of the international community and that was the critical part of the whole campaign,” Professor Farrell said.

While he acknowledges the benefit of hindsight enjoyed by historians, Professor Farrell criticises Britain’s failure to apply the lessons of history, to be appropriately cautious when committing its forces and in prioritising appearing as a good ally to the USA over national interests.

“When the British went into Helmand Province, there was no real sense of trying to learn lessons from history.

“The British Ministry of Defence was insufficiently cautious, committing a very small task force into one of the most hostile environments in the world and the taskforce came unstuck.

“By 2009 senior British officials and ministers agreed Britain should get out and cut its losses, but Britain didn’t withdraw combat forces until December 2014 - five years later.

“The reason is because the primary purpose of Britain’s deployment by this stage was wanting to be seen as a good partner to the Americans so they wouldn’t leave until the Americans did so - and that’s a key lesson for Australia,” Professor Farrell says.

Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan, 2001–2014 is published by The Bodley Head, London and is available in Australian bookstores from this week.


About Professor Farrell

Professor Farrell joins UOW from City, University of London, where he was Dean of Arts and Social Sciences and Professor of International Security.

Previously, he was Head of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where he was also for a decade the Professor of War in the Modern World.

Professor Farrell has held 10 UK research council awards, including a prestigious three-year Global Uncertainties Research Fellowship.

In his leadership roles and own research, Professor Farrell has championed academic engagement with the worlds of policy and practice. As Britain’s leading expert on the war in Afghanistan, Professor Farrell served on high-level strategic reviews for three commanders of international forces, and for many years advised government at the highest level. He has also held direct talks with senior Taliban figures to explore a negotiated end to the conflict.

Professor Farrell has published 11 books, and over 45 journal articles and book chapters on military affairs and security studies.