Travelling back down the Khyber Pass from the border with Afghanistan in 1996, I observed our parliamentary delegation's military escort. In front of us was an open army truck where 12 Pakistani soldiers sat with their AK-47 assault rifles.
In front of them stood a soldier with a sub-machine gun.
Leading our convoy were two police on motorbikes with sirens blaring when we passed through any populated area.
Even though this was five years before 9/11, Taliban terrorist groups were already very active in the region.
The road that we were on, runs through the Khyber Pass in the Hindu Kush mountains. It has been a major route from central to south Asia for trade, troops, drug smugglers and refugee migration, stretching back over two thousand years.
It is one of the most dangerous roads on earth.
Many foreign powers over millennia who have travelled this road have found the Afghan people hostile, going back to Alexander the Great in 330 BC.
More recently, the British were repelled when they sent an army of 16,000 men through the pass in 1842. Only one was spared - to return and tell the tale.
The Russians invaded the country in 1979 but were also sent packing by the local warlords after nine years of fighting.
Following 9/11, the US military arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 to retaliate against al-Qaeda and rout its hosts, the Taliban. The US was supported by other NATO forces and allies such as Australia.
Twenty years later, all the western powers are leaving.
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How has this small remote country been able to humiliate and repel so many mighty foreign powers?
This is explained in James A. Mitchener's Pulitzer prize-winning book, Caravans (1947).
He describes the fierce warrior culture of the Afghans. Mitchener says if they don't have an external enemy to fight, they fight each other.
Nothing much has changed.
With the withdrawal of foreign troops to be completed by August 31, such an internal conflict is now playing out as the Afghan army confronts the encroaching and emboldened local Taliban fighters.
Now the terrorists are rapidly taking over the countryside, and urban centres have started to capitulate. Last week there were 85 Taliban attacks in 24 provinces.
So why were the allies there for so long, and what did they achieve?
According to former prime minister John Howard, they fought the al-Qaeda terrorists who were responsible for 9/11 and captured their leader Osama bin Laden. He was arrested and killed in May 2011.
So, was it necessary for the US, its NATO allies and Australia to stay another 10 years?
Current US President Joe Biden was very vocal about the need for the US to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2008 when he became vice-president.
The cost of this war to the US economy over 20 years has been horrendous. They have spent a stunning total of $2.26 trillion, according to the Costs of War project. It also estimates that 241,000 people have died during the conflict.
Now that the military withdrawal is almost complete, John Howard says: "Australia urgently needs to help those Afghans who risked their lives supporting our military operation."
Hundreds of security guards, aid workers and interpreters, who worked for the Australian government during the war have been left in limbo, particularly if they were sub-contractors.
However, employees are being assisted, and so far, more than1400 visas have been issued under the Afghan Locally Engaged Employees program.
Howard continues to urge Australia not to abandon the sub-contractors, declaring: "their fate must not be decided by 'narrow legalisms', as they face a near-certain death from a resurgent Taliban".
Foreign Minister Marise Payne has vowed that Australia will not leave behind any Afghans who helped our troops. Cold comfort to those who have so far heard nothing.
At the very least, Australia should move them out of danger to Christmas Island for processing.
For the remaining Afghan population, the future is bleak if the Taliban win and reimpose medieval Islamist rule.
Before the war, they ruthlessly oppressed women and denied schooling for girls.
Over the past 20 years, when western forces had the upper hand in this conflict, a whole generation of young people had an education and some hope for their future.
We should pray for the sake of the nation and its people that the 180,000 strong Afghan army have the strength and resolve to defeat the current Taliban onslaught.
If they fail, Afghanistan will face a new dark age.
Newcastle East's Dr John Tierney AM is a former Hunter-based federal senator
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