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It’s textbook ‘how not to run a war’

After 20 years of war, Australia gave three days’ notice before closing its embassy in Kabul. But the decision leaves hundreds of local staff vulnerable to retaliation by the Taliban.

After 20 years of war, Australia gave three days’ notice before closing its embassy in Kabul. The dramatic end expresses how unsafe Afghanistan still is and how little the conflict achieved. But the decision also leaves hundreds of local staff vulnerable to retaliation by the Taliban. 

 

Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

OSMAN:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Osman Faruqi, this is 7am.

After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, Australia gave just three days’ notice before closing its embassy in Kabul, the nation’s capital. 

The dramatic end highlights how unsafe Afghanistan still is and how little the conflict achieved. I 

But the decision also leaves hundreds of locals, who worked closely with Australian forces, vulnerable to retaliation by the Taliban. 

Today, chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper and author of An Unwinnable War, Karen Middleton, on what it means to abandon the Afghans who served with us - and what it says about how Australia wages war.

[Theme Music Ends]

OSMAN:

Karen, in April, the Australian government announced that it would be withdrawing all of our troops from Afghanistan after 20 years of war and conflict there. Can you tell me about the lead up to that decision?

KAREN:

Yes, well, the forerunner to this was under the Trump administration. Donald Trump as president had announced arbitrarily, effectively, that there would be a deadline of May to get all the troops out. 

Archival tape -- Donald Trump:

“They're coming home, you know, as we speak. And -- 19 years is enough. They're acting as policemen, OK, they're not acting as troops…”

KAREN:

Once the Biden administration took over, they've pushed that deadline out and they announced a revised withdrawal timetable that all troops would be out by September 11 this year.

Archival tape -- Joe Biden:

“U.S. troops, as well as forces deployed by our NATO Allies and operational partners, will be out of Afghanistan before we mark the 20th anniversary of that heinous attack on September 11th.”

KAREN:

And the Australian government followed very rapidly after that.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

“In line with the United States and our other allies and partners, the last remaining Australian troops will depart Afghanistan in September 2021.”

KAREN:

So Australia is now drawing down the last of its forces in Afghanistan who really are all based up around Kabul now. They've been doing training and mentoring roles and getting them all out. And in fact, it's accelerated really the timetable even since the announcement in April. And it's all happening very quickly.

OSMAN:

Yeah, we're now nearly two months on from April. So how is that withdrawal going so far?

KAREN:

Well, it seems to have sped up and now the feeling seems to be that it will be done well before that September deadline. The foreign minister, Marise Payne, went to Afghanistan on one of those unscheduled or unannounced visits in May and spoke to the Afghan government, including the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, before she then went on to Washington.

Archival tape -- Conversation between Penny Wong & Marise Payne:

Wong: “I think you met with President Ghani, didn't you?”

 

Payne: “With President Ghani, with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and...“

 

Wong: “Minister Safi?”

 

Payne: “Yes.”

KAREN:

But what she didn't do when she was in Afghanistan was tell the Afghan government that actually Australia also planned to close its embassy in Kabul.

Archival tape -- Conversation between Penny Wong & Marise Payne:

Wong: “What did you discuss the possible embassy closure with any of them?”

Payne: “Not in the specific sense, Senator.“

KAREN:

She clearly would have known that this was on the cards when she was in Afghanistan, but she didn't tell the Afghan government. So there was no warning really whatsoever.

Archival tape -- Conversation between Penny Wong & Marise Payne:

Wong: “Why was the time frame between announcement and closure so compressed? Was that a deliberate decision to only have three days? 

Payne: “Not, not specifically, Senator, no.”

KAREN:


The Afghan government was given four days notice before the announcement, but that's not very much notice. And there's a general sense that it's a bit of a hasty exit on the part of Australia and not a great vote of confidence. And Australia has become the first of the allied countries to formally pull all of its diplomats out.

OSMAN:

Right. So first, we make the decision in line with the United States to withdraw our troops. And soon after that, Australia decides kind of unilaterally, it seems, to also close its embassy. What has the reaction to that news been, particularly from our allies in the region?

KAREN:

Well, what I did manage to find out was that the reaction was not very positive. Interestingly, there were options to colocate the Australian embassy with the US embassy. It has a big compound in Kabul. And in fact, it's recently expanded its footprint there so it could take in other embassies if necessary. But my understanding is that the US was very much not keen on Australia closing its embassy altogether. But that's in fact what has happened.

The United States government has made its views known to Australia - that it wasn't happy about this decision. It's concerned that it will set off a chain reaction among other countries because it's not exactly an expression of confidence in the security situation to completely close down your diplomatic mission. 

And also, the Afghan government is unhappy because, again, it doesn't say anything positive about the situation in Kabul and in Afghanistan generally, that Australia would feel that the security was so bad, and that's the argument the government has put, that it needs to completely close its embassy altogether and send its diplomats off to a third country to just fly in, fly out.

OSMAN:

Hmm. And I think most people are aware of, you know, some of the functions of embassies maintaining diplomatic relations with foreign governments, as well as providing consular assistance to Australians overseas. But in the context of our embassy in Afghanistan, what is the actual impact of that being shut down?

KAREN:

Well, obviously, not having people physically in the country makes it harder to engage with the local government there and influence the government. But in particular, with this situation, there is a war crimes investigation underway.

Archival tape -- Reporter 1:

“A shocking reckoning of Australia's longest war has begun with the release of a bombshell report detailing unlawful killings and war crimes…”

KAREN:

There's allegations being levelled against Australian Special Forces soldiers that there were murders of Afghans against the laws of war.

Archival tape -- Reporter 1:

“19 current and former soldiers from the special operations task group are facing criminal investigation over the unlawful killing of 39 people in Afghanistan…”

KAREN:

And not having an embassy there is going to make it much, much harder, as the prosecutors here in Australia say themselves, to investigate these things and bring those investigations to a conclusion

And secondly, there are locally engaged staff both for the embassy and also for the Australian Defence Forces through the 20 years of that conflict. Some of them have been given visas to come to Australia, but a lot of them haven't. And a number of them are still trying to get accepted for visas to Australia. Not having an embassy presence in the country will make that process much harder as well. And there are increasing concerns both within foreign affairs and within defence and service personnel who feel very strongly about this, that Australia is turning its back on those locally engaged staff and they raise the question if we are seen to be effectively abandoning people, how are we going to recruit people when we need them locally in the next conflict we face?

OSMAN:

And, Karen, what could happen to those people if they, as you say, if they don't get support from Australia, if we do turn our backs on them?

KAREN:

Well, clearly, the Taliban are in the ascendancy again in Afghanistan. 

There have already been reprisals against people who worked for the foreign forces during the course of the war.

And there's a great deal of fear and anxiety that there will be worse reprisals to come, that people will be murdered effectively, that they and their families, anyone who was associated with the foreign coalition forces, could face torture or death.
So there's a genuine fear that people's safety is greatly at risk.

OSMAN:

We’ll be right back.

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OSMAN:

Karen, we are talking about the very real danger to Afghans who helped Australia during our engagement in the region and who have now been left behind because of our embassy closure. They’re now at real risk of being targeted by the Taliban. Can you tell me more about who these people are? How many of them are there? And what sort of work were they doing?

KAREN:

Well, there are a couple of categories. I suppose there are those that worked and still work for the embassy in Kabul, locally engaged staff, some doing administrative work and some security contractors, drivers, some basic jobs that involve working for the Australian government, employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs. And then there are those who work for the defence side, for the military, engaged as either a security or as interpreters and there were interpreters who worked for foreign affairs as well. All of them would hold a fear, I think, of what their future might bring at the hands of the Taliban. 

There are at least a thousand, either direct applicants or family members as well that would be affected, according to some of the ex service personnel who've been advocating on their behalf. It's interesting when you compare those numbers with some of our allies in the UK, in Britain, for example, they've set up a special office in Kabul to assist people applying who worked for the British government in Afghanistan. 

Those people number about 3000, we understand, and the United States under the Biden administration has announced that they will also be actively helping locally-engaged staff to leave Afghanistan. And there are about 18,000 of them in the case of the US. 

So Australia's numbers do look relatively small in comparison.

OSMAN:

Right. But even though our numbers are smaller, you're saying that those other countries, our allies are actually opening up offices and putting in resources to support those people while we are pulling out of the region? Why does it seem like Australia is acting in such a different manner to the UK and the US?

KAREN:

Well, that's right. There's a much more active position being taken in the US and the UK, a policy of trying to do something to help these people in an active way. Whereas with our government we have a, there's been a policy to facilitate visas or enable people to lodge applications for visas. but they're really going into the mix in the end under the humanitarian program.

Interestingly, some people in the Australian end, particularly former Defence Force people, have told me that they were strongly discouraged from assisting their former colleagues, Afghan colleagues, former interpreters and the like, strongly discouraged from helping them put their applications in. So there's a sense that it's a passive process, not an active one, and that there really isn't the urgency around it that is necessary when you're looking at the potential for the Taliban influence to rise and for the danger to increase.

OSMAN:

And, Karen, what kind of moral responsibility do you think that Australia has to these people, this roughly 1000 strong cohort you're talking about?

KAREN:

Well, my personal view, and it's a personal view, is that we have an enormous moral responsibility. We ask these people to work for us. We put them in danger. Yes, we paid them; but they took a decision that they would assist the coalition forces because they believed in the objectives of those forces in trying to bring peace and stability to the country. And I think we owe it to those people to take care of them and to at least prevent, try and keep them from harm if we possibly can. 

I spoke to a number of ex Defence Force people who were quite senior and they have very strong views about this. For example, the former chief of army, Peter Leahy, feels very strongly that we have a moral obligation to these people…

Archival tape -- Peter Leahy:

“These people have already shown their loyalty to Australia. They share the battlefield with us and have had very difficult times in Kabul and other places. They have shown their loyalty. And I think we should respond to that.”

KAREN:

...And that we need to make sure that we don't abandon them to a terrible fate. And he warns that it is likely to be a terrible fate.

Archival tape -- Peter Leahy:

“We're talking now a matter of months before the Taliban are likely to be running rampant throughout the country. We need to act now and move along with our bureaucratic processes…”

KAREN:

These senior ex-military people and indeed some who are not a senior but are ex-ADF are now pushing very strongly for an evacuation of local staff, not just a process for applying for visas for something far more active and interventionist to actually get these people out before things turn really bad. 

When we are going into conflicts like this, we need to think about what it looks like at the other end. We need to plan for the exit as well as the entry.

Archival tape -- Peter Leahy:

“It was clear that we're going to pull out, but not in this preemptive nature of just days almost to get people out from the embassy.”

KAREN:

And he also echoes the view of Senator Jim Molan, who's a liberal senator from New South Wales and a former Major General in the army who served in Iraq and in East Timor - in fact, he oversaw the evacuation of of local staff from East Timor - Senator Molan makes the interesting point that we've got an increasing record of failure, that we've got three to four decades now looking back of wars that we haven't won and that that leaves a legacy of people in danger that we've worked with on the ground and that he says this means we we need to look clearly at our mistakes before we go into more conflicts. We need to think clearly about what our plan is, we need to be updating that plan to make sure that the likelihood of victory is great, and then we aren't going to leave local staff to a terrible fate as we run out the door in defeat.

OSMAN:

And Karen, just maybe zooming out for a second, because hearing an ex Major General use that kind of language and an ex head of army in Peter Leahy as well, what they're kind of speaking to goes beyond just our treatment of locals on the ground or decisions that we make about withdrawal and the timing of embassy closures. It seems to be a much bigger point about the sorts of conflicts that we engage in in the first place. Do you think that is something that we should also be thinking about when we are assessing, you know, the end of two decades of engagement in Afghanistan?

KAREN:

I do. And I think a lot of people who have held senior positions also think that. They think it's time now to take a very clear eyed view of what we did in Afghanistan and to look at the trajectory of that conflict. There's a very strong argument that we didn't plan well as a coalition of nations. 

That there wasn't a clear objective and that when we did set objectives, they kept on changing. It's textbook ‘how not to run a war’. You want to know very clearly what you're trying to achieve. And if you keep redefining that and shifting the goalposts, then you're in grave danger of not not only not achieving success, not even knowing what it is. 

So I think these ex very senior officers are now looking, as we finish our engagement in this country, at what the lessons are. And they’re very much urging that we make sure we heed them, that we don't be seen to just draw a line under that and set it aside, because that just increases the risk of repeating these mistakes.

OSMAN:

Karen, thank you so much for your time today.

KAREN:

Thanks Os. 

OSMAN:

Karen Middleton’s book, An Unwinnable War, charts the decisions that took Australia into Afghanistan and the first decade of the conflict. You can read her reporting on Australia’s hasty exit in The Saturday Paper.

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[Theme Music Starts]

OSMAN:

Also in the news today,

 

The Victorian government has announced that lockdown restrictions will be eased at the end of the week, after only one new case of Covid-19 was reported on Tuesday. 

 

From Friday hospitality and retail will reopen with density limits, although visitors will not be allowed into homes. Outdoor gatherings of up to 10 people will be allowed.

 

And the judge in Ben Roberts-Smith’s case against his ex-wife, who he accuses of accessing confidential information, has asked the former SAS soldiers legal team to disclose whether or not he is in a relationship with one of his solicitors. 

 

The case is separate to defamation proceedings against the Nine newspapers, brought on by Roberts-Smith which also began this week. 

 

I’m Osman Faruqi, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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