On April 15 this year, a reportedly emotional Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that Australia's remaining troops in Afghanistan would be withdrawn from the country by September 11, in line with the withdrawal plans of the United States and our other allies.
Flanked by some of their family members, Mr Morrison read out the names of the 41 young Australians killed in action during Australia's longest war, highlighting not only their sacrifices but those of the more than 250 wounded in action and the thousands who will carry the "mental and physical scars of their service for many, many years". Mr Morrison also stated of the Afghans who supported us during our longest war that "once again, we stand with them".
Echoing Mr Morrison's commitment during her visit to Kabul seven weeks ago, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne "affirmed Australia's support for the Afghanistan government and people during this time of change for the country".
Two weeks later, the government announced the closure of our embassy in Kabul, on advice from Foreign Affairs officials and Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell. As the first country to suspend its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, this decision not only precipitated an undignified rush to the exits among Western countries, but paved the way for the continued slaughter of Afghan civilians who we are obliged to protect under international humanitarian law, at the hands of the Taliban or other militant groups.
During a Senate hearing early this month, Campbell downplayed the significance of the Taliban's military resurgence and subscribed to their implausible political assurances that Afghanistan's fate is "very much going to be a negotiated settlement".
Campbell's assessment would be laughable if the consequences for the Afghan civilians who played a crucial role in our war effort weren't so tragic. In April, the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) assessed that "prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year. The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support."
The DIA further assessed that the Taliban's military strategy "very likely focuses on preparation for large-scale offensives against provincial centers".
"As of February 2021," the assessment stated, "the Taliban had surrounded the provincial capitals of Baghlan, Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz, and Uruzgan provinces, and conducted attacks against military and intelligence targets."
This assessment accurately forecast the Taliban's offensive operations across Afghanistan over the last several months. At least 30 districts are now under full Taliban control, including five of the six districts of Uruzgan province, where the majority of Australian troops operated prior to 2013. The Taliban are now in a position to launch an offensive against the provincial capital, Tarin Kowt, within days.
Taliban tactical commanders will also continue to target civilians associated with Western troops or governments for reprisals, including through kidnappings, assassinations, murders or ritual executions. Taliban death threats and official propaganda refer to these people as "slaves to the infidel".
Although the dedicated humanitarian visa program for local interpreters and other staff engaged by the Australian government in Afghanistan has seen as many as 1200 of these civilians and family members resettled to Australia since 2013, similar numbers remain in Afghanistan today, at extreme risk of bloody reprisals.
Subjected to a dysfunctional, bureaucratic visa application process, many are literally on the run, while dozens have already been executed or simply disappeared. As recently as Tuesday, desperate applicants were being informed that their requests could take up to 12 months to process. Those already with visas are stuck in a months-long queue for medical checks by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), then face the near-impossible task of securing affordable civilian airline seats from the country, amidst a COVID-19 lockdown in Kabul.
The consequences of our failure to protect these civilians extend far beyond any humanitarian considerations. Our interpreters and other staff worked at high levels with our partners in the Afghan government, military, intelligence and non-government agencies. Even within the foreign affairs portfolio - now posing the biggest bureaucratic hurdle between life and death for those concerned - many worked for aid agencies on AusAID-funded development projects crucial to our overall campaign.
In 2015, five Save the Children employees of AusAID's $36 million flagship Children of Uruzgan program were kidnapped and held hostage for a month before being executed. At least one of the surviving local employees is now in hiding, still in Uruzgan. Similarly, the local Central Asia Development Group manager of the $6.7 million AusAID-funded Municipal Infrastructure Program, also in hiding elsewhere in Afghanistan, has reported that at least nine of his former employees have been murdered by the Taliban since 2014. This manager's visa application was rejected by the Minister for Foreign Affairs last Monday.
Even if these staff could somehow miraculously obtain a visa in such circumstances, their chances of escaping Taliban-controlled areas and boarding civilian flights to Australia are effectively zero.
The farcical, in-country visa paper-shuffling exercise inflicted upon these people by our diplomats and Defence chiefs must end today. The only viable course of action for their survival is for the federal government to immediately conduct a military evacuation operation, reaching to the provinces beyond Kabul where these evacuees are now hiding. The Defence Force and the Foreign Affairs department are well placed to conduct such an operation - indeed, plans for these contingencies have been in place for many years. The Australian Defence Force is probably the world's most capable military organisation for conducting this type of operation. The required units remain at high readiness for exactly this contingency, and would be deploying into areas many of them know well from previous deployments.
For this operation to succeed, the only thing required is for the federal government to give the green light. And a green light it must give - today - because the consequences of failing to do so would destroy Australia's international standing for decades.
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