Marise Payne (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Australia is facing scathing criticism over the resettling of Afghan interpreters and other locals who put their lives on the line to help the defence force (ADF) during our longest war. Veterans, politicians and Afghan refugees argue Australia is shirking its moral duty by not fast-tracking visas for Afghan locally engaged employees (LEES) as other allied countries accelerate their programs.

The government says it’s trying, pointing to a program established in 2013 that has since resettled 1400 LEEs and their families. This week Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said 186 people had been given visas since April, but there are thought to be up to 1000 still waiting in Afghanistan. Many who worked for Australia have already been killed by an emboldened Taliban.

The harsh reality is that Australia will never be able to adequately resettle all those who helped it. Afghanistan is in a messy and chaotic state and is on the brink of disaster, which makes evacuation attempts challenging, especially with the Australian embassy closed. And while Australia’s approach has been slow and cumbersome, Canberra-based bureaucrats far from the horrors of war will always struggle for a satisfactory solution.

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No contingency plan

Fighting a war of counter-insurgency is hard. You need to have locals on the ground helping you. And you need to have a contingency plan for them if things go wrong. But Neil James, executive director of independent public-interest watchdog Australian Defence Association, says we never really had one.

“There should’ve been some contingency planning in the background going back years,” he said.

But even planning for an evacuation can harm your war effort. If it gets out, it sends a message that you think you’re losing. It can sap morale among troops and convince locals you’re not in it for the long hall.

But failure to protect those who helped us can also harm Australia’s future defence capabilities. If Australia was involved in a similar future conflict, our failure to protect people who helped the ADF in Afghanistan would make for highly effective propaganda. It’s why — even going beyond emotional arguments about meeting our moral duty — so many veterans are concerned about the implications.

However, the process of vetting and resettling Afghans is a logistical nightmare. Some of that is our own doing. Three Canberra-based departments — Home Affairs, Defence, and Foreign Affairs and Trade — are all involved in the process. That leads to a disconnect between the decision-makers and the reality on the ground.

“In a country like Afghanistan that’s been at war for decades, where you have a local rural insurgency, it’s almost impossible to get through a vetting process by a Canberra-based bureaucracy,” retired army officer Stuart McCarthy tells Crikey.

Illiteracy rates in Afghanistan are high, unlike say South Vietnam, from where Australia evacuated locals who had assisted our war effort. A lack of written records, and visa forms that are long, complicated and in English, make it hard for people to prove they genuinely need protection. Because swathes of the country are or have been under Taliban control, people who helped Australia may have had to appease the enemy to survive. These nuances create the complexities that would drive a decision-maker to reject an application.

“It’s a wicked problem,” James said. “[But] it may be partly because we left it too late.”

Some of that wickedness is a result of our own failures. Soldiers on the ground were told not to help Afghans with their visa applications. Some who made it to Australia have no idea why they waited seven years to get approved. There’s little transparency about the program.

“We’ve had a generation of veterans, with first-hand on the ground counter-insurgency experience,” McCarthy said. “We understand this stuff far better than any of these decision-makers in Canberra.”

How we stack up

Evacuating Afghan fixers, translators and guards is a moral and practical challenge for all countries involved in Afghanistan. In the United States, the Biden administration is under fire from its failure to evacuate interpreters.

The UK, meanwhile, has promised to evacuate 3000 people. Germany’s defence minister says her country has a “deep obligation” to do so. Italy is running evacuation flights and calling it Operation Aquila. All this is in stark contrast to Australia which seems to favour quiet, behind-the-scenes work over public fanfare.

Payne talks only about the issue when pressed in the Senate. And when she does, she avoids the language of moral obligation used by her overseas counterparts, focusing instead on the challenges. And those challenges are real — Uruzgan, where Australia’s operations were focused, is difficult to get to and on the Taliban front-line, making evacuation flights all but impossible.

Getting Afghan interpreters to safety was always going to be hard. Mistakes were always going to be made. But there’s little clarity about the scale of the challenge, and why we’re struggling.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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