News

An evacuation flight was delayed for 45 minutes by the prime minister, hours before the airport was bombed. By Karen Middleton.

Scott Morrison’s intervention in Afghanistan evacuation

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was part way through a meeting of cabinet’s national security committee when he issued a direction to abort the takeoff of the last Australian evacuation flight from Afghanistan on August 26.

Despite the Defence community’s doubts about reports of a personal, prime ministerial intervention, The Saturday Paper has established Morrison did, indeed, delay the final plane.

Morrison is understood to have received a message about a particular Afghan family, still at the airport gate. It is not clear who they are, who advocated for them, or why Morrison decided to prioritise them. It is also not clear if delaying the plane’s departure disrupted takeoff or landing times for any other aircraft.

The Saturday Paper understands Morrison held the Australian plane for 45 minutes past its scheduled departure time, until the family was found. Hours after the plane finally left, a suicide bomber killed more than 170 Afghans and 13 American soldiers outside the airport’s main gate.

The Australian aircraft was preparing to depart Kabul with all Australian personnel and a few final Afghan evacuees on board when the order came. Morrison’s direction complied with the Defence Act, under which only the chief of the Defence Force may issue orders directly to Australian Defence Force personnel. The CDF, General Angus Campbell, was at the NSC meeting and it was to him that Morrison issued the instruction.

The general sent a message down the chain of command to the officer leading the military side of the evacuation in Kabul.

A small group then disembarked and went searching for the family – believed to be a couple and a small child – and, with the help of the British soldiers staffing the gate, found them. The plane eventually departed with the family on board.

It was the last of 32 Australian flights over nine days. Amid pressure not to miss allocated takeoff slots, the first left with only 26 people on board. The government says about 4100 people were evacuated overall, including Australians and about 600 citizens of other countries.

This week, The Saturday Paper spoke to one early evacuee, completing two weeks of hotel quarantine. He goes by the name of Noor and is now in Melbourne with his wife and two young children.

Noor owned a tour company in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Working mostly with foreigners, he had also worked with international aid organisations. Unconfirmed reports from Mazar-i-Sharif this week have described bodies hanging from the city gates.

Noor wanted visitors to know another side to his country, beyond images of violent conflict. He also wanted to offer a better future to Afghan children working on the streets, having done the same himself as a child supporting his parents and family through the Soviet–Afghan War.

This year, Noor set up an education program for disadvantaged children, which was about to accept its first students when the Taliban took over. With the help of Australian woman Sharon East, who met him through the tour company, and Greens senator Janet Rice, whom East contacted, Noor and his family were granted emergency visas and reluctantly fled.

“I’ve never thought of leaving Afghanistan,” Noor says. “I thought, ‘We’re going to live here forever.’ And suddenly when Taliban took over, we were just running for our life.”

The family navigated the chaos of Kabul airport, taking more than 24 hours to get through the gate and waiting another day in a queue to have their documents checked before boarding an aircraft. Now Noor is reflecting on what lies behind him – “I’ve lost everything, actually” – but also ahead.

“It’s actually very heartbreaking,” he says. “It’s very sad and difficult, but as long as you’re safe, and you’re alive. When I see my son now playing in front of me here in the room, I’m so happy. He’s fine, you know.”

He says his children are now his focus. “I want them to grow in a peaceful location where no war will happen, hopefully. And they will go to school, they will nicely grow in a community that everything is nice out there.”

The Saturday Paper understands the government is planning to increase the number of visas available to fleeing Afghans, beyond the 3000 already pledged.

Advocates and community groups have mobilised to try to help more people escape, with law firm Refugee Legal among those assisting with visa applications.

Church organisations are also collaborating, both nationally and in Immigration Minister Alex Hawke’s own Sydney electorate of Mitchell, seeking to apply direct political pressure. Badging themselves Christians United for Afghanistan, they have endorsed the Afghan community’s call for an extra 20,000 humanitarian places.

In a highly unusual alliance, the group brings together major Christian churches focused on social justice with the conservative Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) and significant members of the Pentecostal movement, including the Australian Christian Churches alliance, with which Hillsong and Scott Morrison’s Horizon church are affiliated.

“It’s remarkable unity which I haven’t seen in my time,” says Reverend Tim Costello, who leads the Micah movement collecting signatures for a petition to government.

ACL managing director Martyn Iles says sometimes moments of “intense trouble” require special attention. “Australia has often stepped forward at such times to do what we can, for those who are persecuted, displaced and hurting,” Iles says. “Afghanistan is such a moment.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "Morrison held Kabul plane".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

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