An exit with no plan

Few gestures could better symbolise Australia’s capricious, feckless and ultimately pointless war in Afghanistan than the decision to close our embassy there with three days’ notice.

If there were one, it would be the callousness of abandoning the many hundreds of Afghans who have worked with Australia in the country – and who now face the likely and murderous repercussions of the Taliban we failed to defeat.

What does it say after 20 years of conflict that the country is so dangerous that a single building in Kabul cannot be defended? What does it say about the expendability of Afghan lives that there was no plan to protect the people who put themselves at risk by working with Australian troops?

Britain and the United States have a plan to give asylum to thousands of local staff who worked alongside their forces. Australia has none. We know from Karen Middleton’s reporting that troops on the ground have been warned in the past not to help local staff seek asylum. This time they will be gone before that is even possible. Civilians will be left trying to fill in a 35-page application, if they can find the internet to do so, and then waiting.

It is extraordinary to read Jim Molan reflect on Australia’s legacy at war. Speaking to Middleton, the man hailed by some for winning the Battle of Fallujah said: “We now have a consistent 40-year record of failure. 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.”

Just as alarming is this, from Peter Leahy, the former chief of army: “We didn’t have a strategy for almost all of our time in Afghanistan and we are proving it now with no strategy or even a plan to support those Afghans who’ve risked their lives to support us.”

This is a sad end to a terrible saga. It will make the prosecution of alleged war crimes more difficult, the ramifications of which should be seriously interrogated. It will make the lives of returned soldiers more painful, as they fight their own government to help their former colleagues. And it will make future conflicts more vexed, as local interpreters and other staff realise they cannot trust Australia.

How could they trust a country that spent 20 years working with local staff, contributing to a war that destabilised their home, that killed innumerable civilians, that likely achieved nothing, while committing alleged war crimes, and which then fled with half a week’s notice and with no support for the people who risked their lives to help them?

An urgent evacuation is needed. Asylum claims must be processed proactively. Support must be given not just to staff but to their families. Anything less will be confirmation that having failed strategically, Australia has now failed morally. This will be our legacy.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 5, 2021 as "An exit with no plan".

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