By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
Scott Morrison infamously believed that the vaccine rollout was not a race. It was an attitude for which Australians are paying a heavy price. Now it’s the Afghan interpreters and support staff who served alongside Australian troops in Afghanistan that have been placed in mortal danger by Morrison’s go-slow approach to government.
One might expect that anything to do with Australia’s military would rev up the catatonic Morrison government. Morrison professes a great love for the Australian Defence Force. His weepy devotion to those who serve and have served in Australia’s military is well documented – he makes sure of it.
But when it comes to the urgent evacuation of Australia’s Afghan interpreters and other staff – who remain in blighted Afghanistan in fear of bloody retribution by the resurgent Taliban – the Morrison government has been unmoved by the pleas for action by serving ADF personnel and veterans.
It says everything about the Morrison government that as late as this week the ABC was reporting that the government was “considering” sending repatriation flights to Afghanistan to evacuate Afghan nationals who worked with Australian forces during the fruitless 20-year war in Afghanistan in which 41 Australian soldiers died.
As calls mount for the government to fast-track protection visas for Afghan nationals and family members compromised by their service to Australia, Morrison blathers that his government is assessing applications with "great urgency" and "making steady progress".
"I look forward to having more to say on that in the weeks ahead but we are making steady progress," Morrison says in the ABC report.
“Weeks ahead”? Rome is burning but Emperor Scotticus is still weighing up the pros and cons of calling the fire brigade.
While Australia dithers, the UK, France and Italy have already evacuated their Afghan staff and the United States is set to begin evacuations of Afghan interpreters this month as the Taliban makes rapid advances across the country.
"These are courageous individuals. We want to make sure we recognise and value the role they've played over the last several years," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a briefing.
A special immigrant visa program will provide refuge to Afghans who worked with the US government or US military forces during the Afghanistan war. But the US, unlike Australia, will not leave these Afghan nationals behind while their fates are determined.
According to Reuters news agency, the initial evacuation will involve 2500 people who are likely to be housed in military facilities, either in the US or a third country, such as nearby Uzbekistan, Tajikistan or UAE, while their visa applications are processed.
The Morrison government is displaying no such urgency, forethought or organisation.
In a sign that the “she’ll be right” attitude is alive and well, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Alex Hawke told SBS News the government has no plans to evacuate former staff because commercial flights are still available in Kabul.
Mad as hell
It’s a view shared by Defence Minister Peter Dutton who remarked that “if people can come commercially and that's available well that might be the option for them”.
This may read like a Mad As Hell skit but it’s just the Morrison government in yet another it’s-not-a-race moment; and it’s making people mad as hell.
Former high-ranking Australian diplomat John McCarthy, who has urged the Morrison government to request the US government to include Afghan nationals employed by Australia on the American evacuation flights, deplores Australia’s lack of urgency.
"The actions of the Biden administration show very clearly that there's an ethical and moral responsibility which we in Australia are not fulfilling," McCarthy told SBS.
“[F]or some reason we take this unique position that we should allow ourselves more latitude than our colleagues and our [coalition] allies in Afghanistan."
Instead, the Morrison government’s position is that visa applications, including security and background checks, must be conducted according to normal processes.
Dutton defends taking a “rigorous approach” to granting protection visas.
"[W]e aren't taking a blanket 'yes' [approach] because there are some people that have been proposed that would pose a security risk to our country," he declares.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne also rejects calls to fast-track applications for Afghans who worked with Australian forces in Afghanistan.
Noting that 230 Afghans had been granted protection in Australia in the past month, Payne told the ABC Australians expect a “rigorous” vetting process:
"Those applications from certified, locally-engaged staff are given the highest priority within our humanitarian program. But we do still have to ensure, as Australians expect, that those applicants meet our rigorous health, character and national security requirements."
Nobody doubts the need for rigour but surely the priority should be on getting these people out of danger and vetting them once they are safely out of harm’s way.
Earlier this month 145 staff of Australia’s former embassy in Kabul, mostly security guards, protested to urge the Australian government to fast-track their visas.
A spokesman for the protesters, Ishmael Hussainy, said the slow processing of visas risked that embassy staff would be “slaughtered, butchered in front of our families”.
“A post-September deadline for our evacuation is too late,” Hussainy told the crowd, referring to the September 11 date for the withdrawal of coalition troops set by US President Joe Biden.
“All the borders will be closed, most of the foreign embassies will be closed, and the city of Kabul will fall to the Taliban. There will be no possibility to escape to safety by air or road. We are already in hiding.”
These workers already have death warrants signed against them by the Taliban, which considers them traitors; protesting in public was both a mark of their courage and desperation.
Dutton notes that 1480 visas have been issued to Afghan interpreters and other personnel and their families since 2013, and he is entitled to assert that “every Australian should be proud of that”.
‘Why is the government taking so long?’
The problem is those hundreds – possibly thousands when including family members – who remain in Afghanistan and are terrified of Taliban reprisals as the Australian government dithers on visa checks and security clearances.
The resurgence of the Taliban once Western forces left the country was never in doubt but the Morrison government acts as if it’s been caught by surprise by the need for an urgent, co-ordinated response to an entirely predictable situation.
As Ishmael Hussainy asks: “Why is the Australian government taking so long checking our security clearances, doing character and health checks, when all these things were done regularly when we worked at the embassy?”
The government’s shameful delays in securing safe passage out of Afghanistan for Afghan nationals who placed themselves in harm’s way on behalf of Australia has been widely condemned as a moral failure by veterans, veteran advocates, former diplomats and even by John Howard, who as prime minister sent Australian troops to Afghanistan in 2001.
“Where it is clearly the case that they [Afghan interpreters and other staff] could be in danger of retribution, we have an obligation to help them if necessary, by giving them visas to come to live in Australia,” Howard told SBS News.
“That is a moral obligation we have. And it was a moral obligation that was shamefully discarded many years ago when we pulled out of Vietnam. I do not want to see a repetition of that failure in relation to Afghanistan."
The Morrison government’s response to the aftermath of war in Afghanistan has been typically haphazard. This is a government that repeatedly boasts that it has a plan when no such plans exist, and so it is in the case of Australia’s responsibility to those Afghans who sided with their Australian “liberators”.
Howard’s decision to commit Australian troops to Afghanistan remains controversial, but his sense of propriety on this issue is irrefutable.
“If a group of people gave help to Australians, such that their lives and that of those immediately around them are in danger, we have a moral obligation to help them,” Howard said.
Australia closed its embassy in Kabul in May and final troop withdrawals were completed the following month. It is unconscionable that former Afghan civilian interpreters, security personnel, aid workers and other workers loyal to Australia, and their families, remain in a perilous limbo in Afghanistan.
Even as its responsibilities in Afghanistan go unmet, the Morrison government, tin-eared as ever, is planning a national day of commemoration for Australian troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“A national day of Commemoration will now be established to ensure that we, as a nation, formally recognise the service and sacrifice of Defence personnel and their families who helped to save Australian lives from terrorist attacks on our own soil,” Peter Dutton solemnly announced.
“A national day of Commemoration will be a focal point for recognition of all those who served in, supported, or lost their lives during these campaigns.”
But that recognition is not being extended to hundreds of Afghans who are left to ponder the cost of their loyalty to Australia. This will not be lost on those Australian soldiers who fought in Afghanistan, many of whom have written character references, to no avail, for the Afghans that served bravely and faithfully at their sides.
A government so easily enthralled by all things khaki apparently finds red tape even more irresistible.
Afghans who worked for Australia during the war deserve better than to be told to join a queue behind the immigration counter. If there’s any queue to be joined it should be to board a plane out of Afghanistan. And that needs to be now.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.