Just over a week ago, Javid, an Afghan man working for an international development organisation in Kabul, had a chilling warning: “If Kabul falls, nowhere will be safe. There’s nowhere left to go.”
On Friday, Peter Galbraith, a former United Nations Deputy Envoy to Afghanistan, still held out hope the Afghan National Army could mount a defence of the country’s capital. “It’s a very big city full of people who don’t want the Taliban and have nowhere to go,” he said.
Overnight, Kabul fell with a whimper. As the Taliban reached the capital’s outskirts, after sweeping through a divided, demoralised country with horrifying speed, President Ashraf Ghani surrendered, and escaped to Tajikistan.
It came hours after the Morrison government revealed (by way of the media) it would finally send another evacuation flight to bring Afghans who worked with the Australian Defence Force to safety. By the time the planes arrive, it might be too late.
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Too little, too late
Glenn Kolomeitz is angry. The former ADF major, now a military lawyer, has been fighting to bring Afghans who helped Australian troops here. His pleas, which mirror those of many other Afghanistan veterans, fell on deaf ears.
“We could see it coming for months,” Kolomeitz says of the Afghan government’s capitulation. “We’ve been giving the government very viable options for months and months.”
Kolomeitz and his team had offered to help the government process applications. They’ve begged for evacuation flights, and sounded the alarm about the brittleness of Ghani’s government.
Instead, the Morrison government has spent the withdrawal from Afghanistan hiding away from the consequences of Australia’s longest war. In May, Foreign Minister Marise Payne abruptly closed the embassy in Kabul, leaving local Afghan employees, some who’d waited years for a visa, with nowhere to go.
The government also enforced an arbitrary rule which meant contractors who worked with Australian troops building critical infrastructure or ripping landmines out of the ground were denied a fast-track Locally Engaged Employee (LEE) visa.
As late as July, the Immigration Minister was refusing the opportunity for Australia to repatriate Afghans on an American evacuation flight. Days later, Morrison said Australia was “considering” sending flights.
Kolomeitz hopes the relatively peaceful surrender of Kabul, and the Taliban’s promise to allow evacuation flights to leave, could mean Australia’s last-ditch, face-saving mission could bring people to safety.
“Maybe we can take them [the Taliban] at their word. What else can we do?” he said.
But the harsh reality is that many people who supported Australian troops are likely to die.
Bigger than us
Even if Australia rescues some interpreters and guards now, the number of Afghans who in the eyes of the Taliban are tainted by their association with the West is far greater.
Over the 20-year occupation, thousands of Afghans worked with western militaries, NGOs, and development organisations to patch together a state strong enough to withstand the Taliban. That state’s collapse puts a target on their back.
While Western governments like Australia have prioritised people who worked directly under their troops, there are approximately 5000 people who worked with various UN bodies in the country. Galbraith points out that because the UN was in Afghanistan under a Security Council mandate, the organisation’s staff were as much a part of the Coalition mission as those working directly with the military. Those bodies are funded by Australia and, like our troops, were involved in the amorphous nation-building project that the Afghan occupation became.
Instead, such people have been left behind by the west. Most foreign UN staff left the country. Afghan employees were urged to go to Tajikistan (a border now controlled by the Taliban) at a town hall meeting. The UN sent diplomatic notes to neighbouring embassies urging them to grant its employees asylum. Many who arrived at embassies were turned away.
While he noted the UN has an devilishly difficult position, and needs to maintain a local presence in Afghanistan, Galbraith said some of its early statements to local staff were “tone deaf”.
Meanwhile, for people who worked with international organisations, and have been left out of calls for evacuation, the distinctions drawn by western governments feel deeply unjust.
“The Taliban are not distinguishing between who worked for the US or Australia and who worked with the UN,” Javid says.
“For them it’s foreigners. As if they find out they’re working with foreigners, they’ll kill us.”
But Australia has consistently framed its moral responsibility to Afghans in the narrowest possible terms. Contractors are denied visas. UN staff aren’t even in the conversation.
A new generation loses hope
The Western withdrawal leaves Afghanistan back where it was in 2001. But in the last 20 years, younger Afghans have come of age without knowing Taliban rule.
“There’s a whole generation that’s grown up knowing life under a different kind of reality,” said Margie Cook, a former UN Chief Electoral Advisor in Afghanistan.
“There’s an internet generation, well-educated people, women with degrees.”
That world, they fear, will be lost. Javid says his daughter cries over the thought of not being able to go to school.
Samira, an Afghan woman working at an international organisation who’s been unable to leave the country, is terrified at the prospect of the Taliban forcing women to marry.
“I have a masters, I want to work. They want to marry Afghan women by force,” she says.
To a generation who pinned their dreams for the future on a new Afghanistan, the Taliban’s victory has been devastating. There’s a sense of despair and anger at their abandonment by the West.
“Freedom is always worth fighting for,” Morrison said when asked about Afghanistan yesterday.
Thousands of Afghans worked with Australian troops and development bodies not to affirm a geopolitical alliance, but because they actually believed in that freedom. We have left many of them to their fate.