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The Morrison government’s decision to close its embassy in Afghanistan with little warning has sparked concern from America, not least because of the threat the Taliban poses to local staff. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: US warned Australia on Kabul closure

The United States and Afghan governments have expressed strong concern at Australia’s decision to abruptly close its embassy in Afghanistan, fearing it will spark panic among other allied countries and further undermine security.

Federal cabinet’s decision, which shunned other options including co-locating Australia’s diplomats in the US embassy compound, was taken without heeding the views of either country.

The Saturday Paper has confirmed that both the US and Afghanistan told Australia they were very concerned at the sudden decision to close the embassy on May 28, with just three days’ notice. The Saturday Paper sought comment from the US embassy, but it was unable to obtain a response from the US State Department before time of press.

Afghan sources have told The Saturday Paper they were blindsided by the decision.

“It will have a very negative impact,” one Afghan government source said. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Foreign Minister Marise Payne visited Afghanistan 15 days before the embassy announcement. While she met President Ashraf Ghani and other senior figures and discussed Australia’s security concerns, she did not tell them of the impending closure.

Rather, she reaffirmed Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan and promised “a new chapter” in the relationship.

Payne told a senate estimates hearing on Thursday that cabinet made its decision three days later, on May 13, while she was in Washington, DC. She joined remotely.

The Afghan government was notified four days before the May 25 announcement. Afghanistan’s ambassador to Australia, Wahidullah Waissi, met Payne in Canberra this week.

In a statement after the announcement, the Afghan government said it respected Australia’s decision and welcomed reassurances of ongoing commitment.

“We hope, as mentioned in the Australian government statement, that this measure will be temporary,” it said.

But some speculate it could be years before the embassy reopens.

 

On April 14, the US announced that its military forces and those of its allies would be out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, after two decades of war. Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed Australia’s military withdrawal the next day.

But Australia is the first allied nation to withdraw its diplomats.

On Tuesday, Payne told a senate estimates hearing the closure was “a cabinet decision” because of a deteriorating security situation and an adverse assessment from Defence and other agencies.

“A number of options were considered,” Payne said. “Ultimately, the advice that [DFAT] received was that, with the departure of international troops from Afghanistan, the risks to our embassy would significantly increase.”

She said “mitigations would not be able to be applied” that would reduce the risk to an acceptable level “given the time available” before soldiers depart.

However, Australian war crimes investigators have confirmed the embassy closure further impedes their ability to gather evidence in the wake of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Afghanistan Inquiry Report, commonly known as the Brereton report, which found 25 Australian special forces soldiers were allegedly responsible for the murders of 39 Afghans. The Office of the Special Prosecutor was only established late last year and, at this stage, is only funded until mid-2022.

As one of Australia’s most expensive posts, the embassy’s closure also saves money.

But it further jeopardises the safety of Afghan staff who worked for Australia, both for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) at the embassy, and for the ADF in Kabul and at now-closed military bases in the country’s south.

Thousands of Afghans have worked as interpreters, security guards and in intelligence and other roles throughout 20 years of war. While some have been resettled in Australia, many more have not.

 

A growing number of serving and former Australian military officers, diplomats and bureaucrats – including some who were very senior – fear unless more is done, those Afghans who worked alongside Australians and kept them safe will be in extreme danger. They argue Australia has both a moral responsibility and a strategic imperative to offer safe haven.

Former chief of army Peter Leahy is among those who say these Afghans should be evacuated.

“The only sensible, practical way of doing this is an evacuation,” Leahy tells The Saturday Paper. “And given the situation of Australians stranded across the globe because of Covid, this is going to be extremely difficult to do. But the government should try.”

Leahy says Australia “must not abandon them to their fate with the Taliban”.

“They have already shown their loyalty and earned our trust by fighting and working alongside us for many years. It won’t be easy but we’ve done it before in Iraq and it’s time to do it now, in Afghanistan.”

He emphasises that “there isn’t much time, given our prescriptive closure of our embassy in Kabul”.

Retired major Stuart McCarthy, who is advocating for former interpreters and other local staff, says some former Afghan interpreters have already been murdered and implores the government to move fast.

“If we don’t do this now, a lot more lives are going to be lost and our government is going to have blood on its hands,” he says.

In mid-2013, McCarthy was deputy head of the force extraction unit as the ADF prepared to withdraw from southern Afghanistan. He says ADF personnel were specifically told not to help their interpreters apply for visas.

“We were told verbally, and to pass this order down to our troops: ‘You are not to assist your interpreters in filling out the paperwork’,” McCarthy says. “We were not even allowed to vouch for the people who had worked with us on the ground. Often, the information that they had was inaccurate or very inadequate.”

Retired captain Jason Scanes, founder of Forsaken Fighters, which advocates for interpreters and other former staff, says the embassy closure is adding to veterans’ trauma. (Editor’s note: Scanes also works as an electorate officer for Labor senator Anthony Chisholm.)

“The impact on our veterans has been significant, I think, because this is a moral injury that is exacerbating veterans’ existing trauma,” he says. “For our veterans, they’re leaving their mates behind.”

Scanes has been fighting for eight years to have his former interpreter, Hassan, granted a visa. This has included battling through the Federal Court to successfully challenge adverse character findings Scanes says were based on ill-informed and overly bureaucratic assessments.

He also says Australia should evacuate those left in Afghanistan.

“There will be a great deal of shame and damage to our reputation if we abandon [them],” Scanes says. “A lot of veterans realise that our work there is not finished.”

But these Afghans are now seemingly being left to their own fate.

 

Fahim, another former interpreter, tells The Saturday Paper from Afghanistan that he has been approved for a visa but still has to complete medical checks and lodge final paperwork. This is more difficult, he says, without the embassy, because documents must now be sent to Jordan.

He and his family have received threatening letters from the Taliban.

“We are very concerned about our future – what will happen next – as the situation is very, very bad,” Fahim says. “The targeted killing has now started.”

In contrast, the British government has a special unit in Kabul to manage visa applications from Afghan staff.

This week, it announced it would bring 3000 locally engaged staff out of Afghanistan. The US announced it would do the same for 18,000 staff.

Jason Scanes estimates Australia’s eligible former defence staff and families would number about 1000.

Australia established a special program in 2013 to enable former locally engaged staff
to apply for humanitarian visas. But it has made no extra provision to facilitate or expedite those applications since military withdrawal was foreshadowed and the embassy closed. Lack of access to computers and other practical impediments including prolonged power outages already hamper people’s ability to fill out the 35-page application form.

The form is the first stage of what can be a years-long process. This involves the employing agency – Defence or DFAT – verifying that a person worked for them and
is at risk of physical harm.

Once certified, applications are then forwarded to the Department of Home Affairs, where Canberra-based officials assess them under the Migration Act.

“It’s gone well past the stage where asking people to submit visa applications is adequate in any way,” McCarthy says. “Their lives are in danger on a daily basis because of the work they did for us.”

 

The Saturday Paper understands that both Defence and DFAT are pressing for their former staff to be resettled. The bottleneck appears to be with Home Affairs processes.

Government sources say undertaking security checks is difficult and some who passed vetting previously have changed allegiances.

But there is also a question of political will.

On Tuesday, Defence official Hugh Jeffrey told the estimates hearing his department believed it had “a moral obligation … to current and former Afghan engaged employees that are locally employed”.

On Thursday, Payne said the same.

“We absolutely have a moral obligation to these people,” she said. “And that [facilitating visas] is what we are doing.”

Defence later told the The Saturday Paper that the visa applications were being given “the highest priority”.

“We are committed to the safety of all personnel working for the Australian Government in Afghanistan,” it said, directing questions to Home Affairs.

A Home Affairs spokesperson said the applications were being given “the highest priority” and the department was “urgently processing” those already received.

As of last weekend, the department had received certified applications covering 2483 former staff and family members, whose eligibility had been confirmed by either Defence or DFAT, since 2013.

It said it had granted 1300 visas. It would not confirm how many of these were primary applicants.

Stuart McCarthy says the closure of the embassy – and apparent acceleration of the September military withdrawal timetable – highlight that the existing visa arrangements are not enough.

“We’ve had this eight-year period where a lot of these people have literally been in hiding and on the run,” McCarthy says. “For some of these people, just being physically able to make an application to an embassy – it’s practically impossible.”

This week, McCarthy wrote to Defence Minister Peter Dutton pleading for an evacuation and offering a detailed outline of how it could work.

But The Saturday Paper understands the government has no intention of running an evacuation operation.

Some critics of that proposal argue it could fuel panic. Others respond that closing the embassy has already done that.

Some in the government believe helping local staff out of Afghanistan would invite a domestic political backlash.

With more than 10,000 Australians still stranded offshore due to Covid-19 travel and quarantine restrictions, the government is extremely reluctant to be seen to be prioritising Afghan nationals – even those who wore the Australian uniform and protected Australian personnel.

But military analysts argue the obligation is strategic as well as moral.

“How do you recruit people in the next country you go into, if you’ve betrayed them in the last one?” asks Neil James, executive director of the Australia Defence Association.

He and others say it will undermine Australia’s capacity in future military conflicts if it does not help these people now.

He draws a parallel with Australia’s betrayal of local staff during the Vietnam War. “If we betray people in South Vietnam in 1975 and we betray people in Afghanistan in 2021, what’s going to happen the next time we need people to help us? It’s not just a moral responsibility, it’s also in your best interests
to do it.”

James said abandoning local staff is “just giving the future enemy propaganda to use against [Australia] in a future war”.

Australia’s decision to turn its back on local staff as the Vietnam War ended became a stain on the government of the day.

In April 1975, the Whitlam government decided not to help local staff for fear of upsetting the soon-to-be victorious regime
in Hanoi.

In a cable sent to the Australian embassy in Saigon shortly before the city fell to the North Vietnamese, released by the National Archives in 2006, the government’s instructions were unmistakeable.

“Locally engaged embassy staff are not to be regarded as endangered by their Australian embassy associations and therefore should not, repeat not, be granted entry to Australia,” the cable said.

There are two, more recent precedents in favour of staff evacuation: Iraq and East Timor.

New South Wales Liberal senator and retired major-general Jim Molan oversaw the Timorese evacuation, after Australian diplomatic staff left.

Molan says the failure to properly plan Australia’s Afghanistan exit – with its implications for local staff – reflects a failure to properly plan and resource operations from the start.

He says Australia is obliged to try to win the wars it fights.

“We now have a consistent 40-year record of failure,” Molan tells The Saturday Paper. “Suppose we have to do this somewhere else in the future – whoever is going to trust us? Part of the moral obligation of the government, if they’re going to go to war, is to have a reasonable chance of success. Given that we don’t have that now in Afghanistan, the least we can do is to fulfil an obligation to those that trusted us personally.”

Peter Leahy agrees.

“We need to do better at the fights we pick,” he says. “And we need to pick fights we can win.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 5, 2021 as "Exclusive: US warned Australia on Kabul closure".

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