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As sources describe the ‘chaos’ of Australia’s evacuation from Afghanistan, months of military intelligence failed to forecast the timing or nature of Kabul’s collapse. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: Intelligence misjudged fall of Kabul by months

Just days before Afghanistan’s government collapsed, Australia’s military intelligence was predicting that Kabul would likely fall to the Taliban but not before the end of the year.

The Saturday Paper has confirmed that an assessment from the Defence Intelligence Organisation, provided to Defence Minister Peter Dutton just ahead of the Taliban’s march on the Afghan capital on Sunday, August 15, said its fall was almost certain. But it gave a time frame of months rather than days.

The document was among a series of assessments going back at least two months, examining possible outcomes in Afghanistan.

The probability analyses presented a range of “what if” scenarios, at least one of which was the fall of Kabul and the collapse of the Afghan government. None forecast the timing and nature of Kabul’s fall accurately.

Analysts argued – correctly – that for the capital to be captured the Taliban would first need to secure regions to the north and east, especially the strategically crucial area of Jalalabad, between Kabul and the Pakistani border, south of the Hindu Kush.

But those events occurred much sooner than the Australian government – or its key ally, the United States – expected.

Jalalabad was overrun on August 15, along with the Bagram Airfield to Kabul’s north, which the US had abandoned on July 1 in what now appears to have been a catastrophic strategic blunder.

The Taliban swept into the capital after the Afghan security forces judged that trying to oppose them any longer was futile and gave way. They had suffered the loss of 70,000 troops during the war and been left with aircraft and other American equipment they were unable to maintain.

The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and senior ministers fled to the United Arab Emirates as the Taliban entered Kabul.

In the two weeks since, a monumental humanitarian crisis has unfolded across Afghanistan and especially in Kabul, which has seen the largest mass airlift in history.

The evacuation of what by late this week was almost 100,000 people, to countries across the globe, reached a frenzy as thousands of desperate Afghans converged on Hamid Karzai International Airport trying to flee.

Initial comparisons with the pullout of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War fell away as the numbers in this evacuation far outstripped those events.

Beginning on August 18, Australia’s evacuation operation involved an enormous effort by hundreds of soldiers and officials on the ground in Kabul and Dubai, and in Canberra. Lawyers and other advocates also worked through days and nights, forwarding names to the government.

It wound up on Thursday afternoon moving more than 4000 people on 31 military flights, initially to Australia’s Middle East base in the United Arab Emirates and then on to capital cities around Australia.

Foreign nationals, Afghans with foreign visas and others whose work or family connections made them vulnerable to the new regime are all trying to escape as the reformist claims of a brutal Taliban are contradicted by growing evidence of violence.

On Wednesday night, a video emerged on social media of a man outside Kabul airport who is ethnically Hazara – a persecuted minority – and an Australian citizen.

The man was bleeding profusely, shouting that he had been beaten by the Taliban. The video cut out as shots were fired. He is now believed to be in hiding in Kabul; his wife is in Australia.

Within hours of the airlift operation ending one of the airport’s main entrances was struck by multiple bomb blasts in a devastating attack that killed more than 90 people, including 13 American soldiers, in the deadliest day for US forces in a decade.

A Taliban spokesman issued a statement condemning the attack, which has been claimed by an affiliate of ISIS, and an official told Reuters 28 members of the Taliban were among the dead. 

Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison put a motion to parliament on the Afghanistan crisis, noting the “urgent and dangerous” situation unfolding there and the uncertainty ahead.

Most of the motion’s 15 clauses focused on acknowledging the role of military and civilian personnel, who served in Afghanistan throughout the 20-year war and particularly the sacrifice of those who died and were wounded.

The seventh point said the parliament recognised “the sacrifice of the people of Afghanistan, particularly those who have died in war or in conflict”.

The Saturday Paper has confirmed that this point was not included in the original draft of the motion, which did not mention the Afghan people’s suffering during the war at all.

It is understood the motion was drafted in Morrison’s office but it is unclear who decided to add the extra point acknowledging the people of Afghanistan just before it went forward for debate.

The motion declared that the parliament “recognises the sacrifice of our Coalition partners and our allies, who have seen their service men and women give their lives for the work they undertook in Afghanistan”.

It called on any future Afghan government to uphold the human rights of its citizens, particularly women and girls, and for the international community to hold it to account.

It also noted both the government’s work in evacuating thousands of people from Afghanistan and the number of people it has resettled – and is vowing to resettle – as refugees.

Speaking to the same motion in the parliament, Foreign Minister Marise Payne fought back tears as she described the circumstances of the evacuation and the situation facing those who remained in their country.

“The Afghan people have suffered through 40 years of conflict,” Payne said. “It is devastating to see and hear of the situation there now. I fear for Afghan women and girls and for their rights to education, work and freedom of movement. I fear for the many women I have met over the years of my visits to their country. As for all Afghan people, women and girls deserve to live in safety, security and dignity. Any form of discrimination and abuse should be prevented. Their voices must continue to be heard.”

Lawyers and others advocating for the fleeing Afghans say some of those granted visas to settle in Australia, including many former interpreters and security guards who worked either at Australia’s embassy in Kabul or with the Australian Defence Force, did not make it onto evacuation flights.

The evacuation was based on a template plan, which the ADF maintains and regularly updates, for non-combatant evacuation operations.

A former contractor at the Australian embassy in Kabul, Patrick Ryan, who has been advocating for his Afghan former colleagues, questions the execution of this version of the plan, devastated that some have been left behind.

“It overwhelmed the capacity I think of the evacuation team to effect a smooth operation and it rapidly descended into chaos,” Ryan says. “When you’ve got our former embassy staff up to their knees in a ditch full of sewage trying to scramble up a three-metre-high wall out of this sewage-filled moat to be pulled up by our soldiers to [access] the airfield, things are not going to plan.”

Glenn Kolomeitz, a lawyer and former ADF serviceman, whose law firm Gap Legal has been representing former interpreters, security guards and many others seeking protection, says the plans are kept “on shelves in Canberra” ready for use.

“You pull them out and you modify them to suit the strategic circumstances – the situation on the ground,” Kolomeitz says.

The scale and speed of this operation meant it had to be considerably adapted on the move, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) taking the lead. As a result, unlike other military operations, it did not have an operational name.

The evacuation has involved the ADF and civilian Defence officials, the Australian Border Force and officers from the departments of Home Affairs and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

But it has also been marked by some unclear communications, as the government agencies applied a strict triaging system to those they were offering to evacuate, prioritising Australian citizens ahead of those already holding a visa and then those who had applied. The cases of others seeking protection were considered separately, based on vulnerability and benefit to Australia. A group of Afghan athletes, including Paralympians, were early evacuees.

All evacuees were required to make their own way to the airport, through violent Taliban checkpoints and crushing crowds.

Kolomeitz labels aspects of the operation “a debacle”, insisting the systems were chaotic and have failed some people who deserved protection.

“Massive breakdowns in command and communication, massive breakdowns in administration and logistics,” Kolomeitz says. “If they’ve taken a shelved plan and modified it, or even if they’ve started from scratch, it has broken down.”

Some government sources also confirmed tensions, especially between DFAT and Defence over their intersecting roles, and problems with communications both between the two departments and with Home Affairs.

But the government points to what has been achieved, in unprecedented circumstances. “It is a highly dangerous situation,” Morrison said on Thursday. “We have been very honest about the nature of these challenges and the likelihood of being able to achieve everything we would hope to achieve.”

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke and his officials have issued hundreds of emergency visas over the past week.

Some would-be evacuees spent days outside the airport, many wading across the open trench along the perimeter fence and pleading for help. But due to security concerns, Australian officials and soldiers remained inside the fence.

Many people who had been granted electronic visas found those on the gates refused to accept them and turned them away. Some could not make it inside the perimeter and now face having to find alternative means to reach Australia.

Glenn Kolomeitz criticises the government’s failure to follow through on its issuing of visas with a plan to get people to the airport, as some other countries had done.

“What’s the good of having a visa if you can’t use it?” Kolomeitz asks. “What’s the good of having a visa if you can’t get in the gate?”

Kolomeitz’s firm has advocated for hundreds more Afghan visa applicants in the fortnight since Kabul fell. Many remain in Afghanistan.

“I’m not going to blame the soldiers on the gates,” Kolomeitz says. “They are doing what they are being ordered to do.”

Most of the Afghan evacuees to Australia have been granted special visas under an emergency category 449. They are valid for an initial three months.

Government sources told The Saturday Paper they are being used because they can be issued fast and that each case would then be assessed for other types of visas, once in Australia.

The visas were also used to bring 4000 refugees from the Kosovo conflict to Australia in 1999. The Kosovars were eventually returned home, but the government does not expect to be able to return these new evacuees to Afghanistan.

Kolomeitz is concerned about the next step. “Once they get to Australia, what happens to them?”

Some evacuees have told their Australian advocates that Australian personnel in Kabul warned they could be put into detention or sent to a third country after evacuation. A government official insists this is not the case.

As the Australian element of the operation drew towards its close this week, desperate relatives, friends and advocates were contacting anybody close to the operation – including journalists – urging them to pass on the details of people needing help.

The numbers were overwhelming, more than the government could process. All involved were aware they were possibly making life and death decisions.

On the ground, among the horrendous hardship and rough treatment, there were also stories of warmth and kindness towards bewildered evacuees.

A young Afghan–Australian woman from Sydney and her new husband spent 21 hours outside one of the gates on their third attempt to get into the airport, having had both Taliban militia and then a panicking American soldier point guns at them.

They had just been married and were due to hold their wedding reception on the afternoon of August 15 – cancelled in the chaos of the Taliban’s arrival.

When they finally made it through the gates and reached the Australian evacuation area, Australian officials gave them water and potato chips. And then they presented them with chocolates, as a wedding gift.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 28, 2021 as "Exclusive: Intelligence misjudged fall of Kabul by months".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.