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As Australia makes a quiet exit from Afghanistan after 20 years at war there, soldiers and civilians are demanding to know what will happen to the Afghans we have abandoned. By Kate Banville.

Leaving Afghanistan

Afghan Special Forces troops regroup after heavy clashes with the Taliban in Kandahār this week.
Credit: Reuters / Danish Siddiqui

Six words have echoed through the military for the past two decades, before tapering off into silence as Australia officially ended its involvement in Afghanistan on June 18: “We are an army at war.”

In a conflict that claimed 41 Australians on the battlefield, the historic moment was sombre. There was no formal announcement. Just six soldiers were all that remained of 39,000 troops who deployed during the military campaign dubbed “Australia’s longest war”.

On Sunday, July 11, Defence Minister Peter Dutton confirmed the secret retreat, weeks after it had already leaked to the media and been reported. During the same interview, the minister floated the idea of a national day of commemoration to honour veterans of the conflict. The sentiment jarred with some of those who have served, struggling to make sense of it all as Afghanistan again buckles under Taliban pressure.

Retired Australian Special Forces troop commander Mark Wales is acutely aware of the toll that a heavy firefight brings. He was leading a team in Taliban strongholds in 2007 when his patrol leader, Sergeant Matthew Locke, was killed. Between 2006 and 2010, Wales deployed every year to the “graveyard of empires”.

By 2014, when he left the army, Wales was a seasoned soldier, battle hardened and yet grappling with the moral dilemma of war. Now, Wales says, as Australia closes the curtain on Afghanistan, it is the abandonment of locally engaged staff that is unconscionable.

“If we were willing to run a war there for 20 years and to throw all the resources at that, then the least we can do is throw the resources and the time at making sure the people that helped us get out alive and unharmed for what they did,” he says.

“Raise an emergency cell [response team] that goes to the people, because we have a moral obligation to do it in a process and quickly.

“I don’t see why we can’t at least remove them from the country and have them processed and prioritised into Australia – I think we owe the country that.”

The Department of Home Affairs says 316 visas had been granted since April, for locally engaged staff and their families. Another 100 are under consideration.

Dutton this week said he “made no apologies” for the time it was taking to process visas and would not be giving “blanket approvals”. He told Sky News that the federal government did not want to “bring the wrong people here who would ultimately seek to do harms to Australia”.

Forsaken Fighters founder and former army captain Jason Scanes has been lobbying the government to rethink its visa processes and move to a military operation for evacuation. Scanes said Dutton was now “playing politics” with people’s lives.

“No one in their right mind would suggest that security vetting should not occur and that’s not what we’re asking,” he says.

“These interpreters assisted Australian troops on the front line and as it stands in Afghanistan now, the front line was everywhere.”

Scanes said his organisation was tracking a much larger number of cases than the government has released, with about 200 Afghan interpreters, 140 embassy guards, and many other locally engaged staff, including AusAID project contractors, in need of visa assistance.

He said he was in regular contact with most of those listed, many of whom are now in hiding and running out of places to shelter as violence continues to grip the country and regions fall under the control of the Taliban.

Some Afghans have been waiting months – others years – to have their visas processed. Even those approved to resettle in Australia have had to join a queue with tens of thousands of Australian citizens waiting for permission to enter, after Home Affairs confirmed the Afghans are subject to overall capped number allowed in hotel quarantine.

Scanes said there was “a real concern commercial airlines may no longer fly to Kabul”, which added to the urgency.

One Afghanistan veteran, who went on to work in private security at the Australian embassy in Kabul, told The Saturday Paper he was willing to sponsor his Afghan colleague for a migration visa because of a loophole in Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade policy that initially excluded contractors hired by a third party.

It comes as a former Immigration Department staffer who worked as part of a visa-processing team for Iraqis in 2008 asks why a similar expedited approach hasn’t been taken. The former immigration officer – who spoke on the condition of anonymity – said a directive was sent to Immigration staff at the time so that the program would be given a high priority, with all resourcing thrown at it.

It was a huge amount of work that required a collaborative effort from Immigration, DFAT and Defence. A dedicated team was created, with officers on the ground in Jordan and Basra in Iraq, to help with application processing. A defence medical team also flew with X-ray machines and other equipment to conduct medical examinations out of the US air base.

“We had to work quickly because people’s lives were at risk, and so we were implementing a government policy that was backed by Defence, by veterans,” the former officer said. “This is not a situation that we didn’t know about or that we couldn’t foresee. In the second half of the 2000s, questions were being asked about whether this program that had applied to the Iraqis would apply to the Afghans.”

Ultimately, it hasn’t. Nothing like a co-ordinated process for visa processing has been put in place as Australia exits Afghanistan and the Taliban looks poised to take over much of the country.

Retired admiral Chris Barrie was chief of the Australian Defence Force when then prime minister John Howard committed to the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Although Barrie remains supportive of Howard’s decision to send elite soldiers from Perth’s Special Air Service Regiment in October that year – on a “seek and destroy mission” – he takes issue with Australia’s subsequent operations in the region. As early as 2002 he argued privately that the deployment lacked clear direction and political structure, as the missions morphed into a never-ending war.

“I don’t like people who are rolling it all together and pretend it’s one operation; it’s not,” he says. “In 2002, when we finished the first operation and withdrew, the job was done. And that, of course, is not written up – in the history, particularly.

“But after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 – and then the Taliban seizing the opportunity to go back into Afghanistan out of Pakistan – is when we got it all wrong in my view.

“I got into a big argument in 2002 over the establishment of ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] with the Brits providing security from Kabul and I said, ‘I think it’s a really dumb idea because I don’t think it’s a very smart idea to stick military forces between two sides that want to kill each other. The history books tell us that.’ ”

As focus now shifts to the legacy of Australia’s longest war, fallen Diggers are remembered along with more than 500 others who have taken their own lives on home soil since 2001, and 260 members who were seriously injured in combat. Beyond the human toll, the war cost Australia about $10 billion.

For more than a decade, former army chief Lieutenant-General Peter Leahy has been trying to answer what seems like a simple question: How do we know when we’re at war?

“There may be a concept of low-intensity war, but there is no such thing as a low-intensity bullet,” Leahy first wrote in 2010. “Our politicians, who misuse the rhetoric of war to declare war on terror, drugs and banks, further confuse the issue of when we really are at war.”

Fast-forward 11 years and his view has become more precise. “I have concerns that we make decisions to go to war without the full engagement of the parliament and the Australian public,” he says. “What was the strategy? Because we just stayed [in Afghanistan]. The worth of Afghanistan is to ask questions – ‘How do we make the decision to go to war?’ ‘What is the end state?’ And, ‘How long do we stay?’

“What I think is important is that we learn the lessons of this war.”

Leahy admits that Afghanistan was a war where most of the Australian public – let alone the government or the top-level military commanders – couldn’t really define what the mission involved. Despite this, it was his job to ensure his soldiers were ready for war.

“By the time we went to Iraq and Afghanistan the army had reduced in size to around 25,000,” he says. “There was limited strategic guidance for the army and we were trying to make sense of what was happening in Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. I am proud of how the army made the transition from peace to war with multiple global deployments.

“So we started talking about an ‘army at war’ because we needed to make a transition from a peacetime army.

“The results were spectacular. I praised soldiers often for being ambassadors for Australia, in that they were just terrific young men and women in really difficult situations, wearing the uniform with pride and serving the nation wherever they were sent.”

Twenty years later, however, as we quietly leave Afghanistan, serious questions remain about what was really achieved and what happens to the locally engaged staff left behind.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 17, 2021 as "The longest goodbye".

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Kate Banville is a freelance journalist and former Australian Army soldier.