With dozens of Australia's civilian Afghan employees reportedly already dead and hundreds more left for dead by a dysfunctional Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade bureaucracy, Defence Minister Peter Dutton must step in to prevent long-term or irreparable damage to Australia's national security interests and international standing.
Australia was among the first to commit to a military intervention in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US two decades ago. Our troops contributed to the core objectives of denying Afghanistan as a haven for al-Qa'ida and other radical Islamist groups, in a country governed by the brutal Taliban regime, then rebuilding the country and its institutions after the Taliban was removed from power.
Throughout Australia's longest war, locally engaged Afghans including interpreters, aid workers and other staff, were crucial to every aspect of what we set out to achieve. From the moment our elite Special Air Service forces entered the Tora Bora mountains in the hunt for Osama bin Laden in October 2001, through our decade-long counter-insurgency campaign in the south, to our physical reconstruction projects, training the fledgling Afghan Army and our diplomatic efforts throughout, none of this could have been achieved without our civilian Afghan partners.
Despite cultural differences, Australia has ties to Afghanistan dating back 170 years. The first Afghans arrived in Australia in the 1830s; then, from the Burke and Wills expedition of 1860-61 to the 1930s, thousands of Afghan cameleers participated in initial British development of the outback.
This pioneering spirit helped forge a natural bond between our soldiers and their Afghan partners in their own country for the past two decades. There was a natural respect between us. We admired the Afghans' courage, determination and humility while they appreciated our openness, humour and sense of the fair go.
As the September troop withdrawal deadline has loomed, much of the concern for our Afghan partners has focused on our interpreters. Hundreds of these men risked their lives with our troops on patrol in the face of a determined enemy. Some made the ultimate sacrifice while many others were seriously wounded.
Yet even in the ostensibly benign setting of working at coalition base as security guards, translators or drivers, many more faced continual risk of reprisals simply through their associations with "the infidel", highly visible to Taliban insurgents as they travelled between their secure military workplaces each day and their insecure homes each night.
A tactic of insurgencies is to terrorise the population by making an example of those who sympathise with foreign occupiers. Written Taliban death threats known as "night letters" typically referred to our Afghan employees as "Western slaves".
Since most Australian troops departed southern Afghanistan in 2013, as many as 1200 Afghan employees and family members have been resettled in Australia under the locally engaged employee visa scheme. While these efforts by the federal government are welcome, the harsh reality is that a similar number remain in hiding or on the run from the Taliban or its criminal associates, stuck in a nightmarish bureaucratic process unfit for purpose. As the final coalition withdrawal deadline looms and the Taliban has regained control of as many as 150 of Afghanistan's 400 districts in the past six weeks, these people are being left for dead.
The fatal flaw in this scheme is that applicants are treated as humanitarian refugees rather than allies who performed crucial roles in our wartime campaign against enemies we were sent to defeat.
While public servants with no experience in Afghanistan vetted these people as potential security risks, Taliban intelligence agents tracked many of them to their homes by targeting the visa administrative processes – including local police checks and medical appointments – imposed on them from afar without common sense.
One interpreter who worked with an Australian Army officer partnered to the head of military intelligence in southern Afghanistan received a night letter one month ago from a known Taliban commander that stated, "We have reports that you and other interpreters are in contact with infidel friends, to get you out of Afghanistan and get you a visa."
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