Australian war veterans are burning their service medals in protest of the government’s failure to rescue Afghan civilian staff from Taliban headhunters.
Several months since the Australian defence force announced its complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and weeks since the last Australian diplomats, military and intelligence officers were brought home, hundreds of Afghans who worked alongside them – including interpreters, drivers and security personnel – remain stranded in the war-torn country.
Many are waiting and hoping to be issued with humanitarian visas that would grant them asylum in Australia. But as Taliban militants sweep across Afghanistan, making significant territorial gains and launching revenge attacks on anyone thought to have assisted Western forces, Australia’s Afghan civilian staff are running out of time. And Australian soldiers are condemning their own government’s alleged failure to act.
“The response [to requests for civilian staff to be extracted from Afghanistan] has been a bit mixed across the board, but the Australian government is one of the worst,” retired Australian Army officer Stuart McCarthy, a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict, told VICE World News. “I would say the worst, because there are people who have been pushing our government to do this for eight years, and the situation these people are in now is extremely dire. We’ve made a huge mess of the whole thing.”
While the United States government has announced plans to evacuate as many as 20,000 Afghans who helped them, and the United Kingdom government expedites its ongoing program of evacuating several thousand more, Australia is being criticised for dragging its knuckles. Following the war veterans’ protests, the ABC reported this week that Prime Minister Scott Morrison is finally considering sending repatriation flights to Afghanistan to evacuate those Afghan nationals who worked closely with Australian forces. But details of the evacuation and its timeline remain scarce.
“We are making steady progress,” said Morrison. “If we have to have facilitated commercial flights to bring them [Afghan civilian staff] to Australia, I know that Australians would support that.”
But William Maley, emeritus professor at Australia’s National University and an expert on Afghan politics, said the expectation that vulnerable Afghans will be able to leave a war zone on commercial flights is “completely absurd.”
“You only need a few shells to fall near a runway and the insurers for the airlines are going to pull the plug on flights,” he told VICE World News. “Commercial airlines are at the mercy of their insurers, and any insurance policy contains a provision about flying into war zones. So even if flights are still going now they could cease flying tomorrow. There’s a total absence of any sense of urgency in the way the government is talking about this.”
This “absence of urgency” follows reports that Australia is considering re-establishing a presence in Afghanistan to monitor the resurgence of the Taliban. There are fears that if the organisation’s advances continue unchecked, they could take the Afghan capital of Kabul by year's end. It is unclear whether the government’s consideration to return to Afghanistan is at all related to its alleged hesitation to assist Australia’s Afghan civilian staff. VICE World News has reached out to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for comment.
If the Australian government were truly serious about a safe extraction, a more viable strategy, Maley suggested, would be one that McCarthy put to them nearly four weeks ago.
On the 27th of May, McCarthy wrote to the federal government proposing an outline plan for a non-combatant evacuation operation that would extract the Australian military’s remaining civilian staff out of Afghanistan via a third country – just as the U.S. is doing – where they could safely go through security vetting and the visa application process. He received no response.
On Monday, he became one of a growing number of Australian veterans who have expressed their outrage by setting fire to their service medals – launching an anti-government protest movement that he dubbed “Australia's Badge of Shame in Flames.”
“I’d already heard that a number of veterans had been burning their medals quietly in their own backyards, just because they felt so ashamed at the way our government had been abandoning the people who risked their lives for us for the last two decades,” McCarthy explained. “And I thought: well, if my own government won’t meet me, I might just take this next step of burning my campaign medal and putting it in an envelope and taking it to my federal [member of Parliament].”
Earlier this week, McCarthy went to the barbecue area of a local park, burned his Afghanistan campaign medal on the hot plate, put the remains in an envelope and took it to his local MP’s office, where he asked that it be sent to the Prime Minister “to convey how disgusted I am with the appalling way that this government has been treating these loyal Afghans.” He has no idea whether Morrison ever received the package – but as an act of protest, it worked. Multiple media outlets have since reported on the veterans’ medal-burning campaign, drawing attention to the cause that McCarthy is advocating for: evacuating Australia’s remaining Afghan allies from bureaucratic limbo and rescuing them from the Taliban.
“We’re in daily contact with a lot of the people remaining in Afghanistan: we know where they are, and we’ve offered to even physically head over to the region and assist with that evacuation,” McCarthy said. “But we’ve just been stonewalled.”
There are two major factors contributing to the backlog of civilian staff waiting to be extracted from Afghanistan, according to McCarthy. One is overly stringent government regulations that prevent them from qualifying for visas – especially if they haven’t worked alongside Australian forces within the last six months. According to Australian migration regulations seen by VICE World News, “non-citizens employed with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) [or] the Australian Defence Force (ADF) ... who have been assessed as being at significant individual risk of harm as a result of their support to Australia’s whole of Government mission in Afghanistan” can apply for a visa only if they have sought to be certified within six months of their employment coming to an end.
“That in itself is ridiculous because the Taliban makes no distinction,” McCarthy stressed. “They don’t care whether you worked for Australia 20 years ago or five minutes ago. These people are literally being hunted down, they’re in hiding and on the run, and I know of many cases where they’ve already been murdered. By default, the Taliban is doing our vetting for us, and they’re doing it with AK-47s and meat cleavers.”
The second factor is the number of bureaucratic hoops applicants have to jump through and the amount of time it takes for their eligibility to be assessed. McCarthy said he’s seen cases where people have tried to apply two or three times just to get their service recognised, and applications that have sat on someone’s desk for years only to be knocked back as recently as last week.
“[These people’s] lives have been under threat even during those delays,” he said. “Then at this late stage to turn around, now that the Taliban is in control of something like 75 percent of the country and we’re seeing this wave now of executions, torture and so on – to not even allow them a chance to apply for a visa is just unconscionable.”
Maley added that another barrier to repatriation is the employment status of certain individuals. According to the wording of the government’s legislation, vulnerable people must be an “employee” of named Australian agencies to qualify for a visa – a distinction that fails to acknowledge the large number of Afghan civilians who were employed by subcontractors on behalf of the Australian government. Maley described the “employee” prerequisite as a “killer term” – particularly when it only makes a difference to one side of the conflict.
“The Taliban don’t distinguish between somebody who would legally be an employee in Australia and somebody who would be considered a subcontractor,” he said. “So large numbers of people who are very vulnerable by virtue of their association with Australia are falling outside the net.”
To illustrate the seriousness of the Taliban threat, McCarthy told VICE World News about one Australian Government-funded aid project based in Uruzgan, a province in central Afghanistan, which, prior to the Australian military’s withdrawal from the area in 2013, had a total staff of about 40 people.
“As many as 15 of them have already been murdered – some of them quite brutally,” McCarthy said. The site manager for that project told him that one of his former staff was dragged out of his home in front of his neighbours and ritually executed using a butcher’s knife.
“I don’t know exactly how,” McCarthy said, “but something like he had his throat cut and literally bled to death out in the street.”
Such attacks and assassinations against civilian staff are not a recent phenomenon. For many years it has been standard practice for the Taliban to actively target anyone who is perceived to have given support to Western governments. But as Western forces withdraw from Afghanistan and the Taliban become emboldened by an increasingly successful resurgence – the Islamist organisation recently claimed to have retaken nearly 200 of the country’s 421 districts – violence is escalating. And among the highest priority targets for executions and assassinations, according to McCarthy, are people who worked for Australia.
“There are dozens of people who worked for Australia who are already dead – and as the Taliban becomes increasingly more assertive right across the country, their chances of survival diminish even further,” he said. “What we’re talking about here is an assassination campaign that’s been going on for many years … and I would say that, over time, these people have a very slim chance of surviving very brutal reprisals – whether they be murders, executions or even dismemberings. It’d be very unlikely that many of them would survive at all over the next couple of years.”
Maley echoed the point.
“This is what the Americans miss all the time, and it’s what the Australians miss,” he said. “It’s not inevitable but the likelihood is pretty high at the moment that something like a cascade could happen, where suddenly you get a whole stack of towns and cities in Afghanistan falling simultaneously to the Taliban.”
“Australia has a moral responsibility to these people,” he added, “because it's their association with Australia in the past that puts them at risk in the present. Australia was at one with a lot of Western actors in the past in saying ‘we will not abandon Afghanistan; we will not leave you.’ Well, that’s precisely what the Western actors have been doing.”
In a statement to VICE World News, the Australian Department of Defence said that “the safety of Locally Engaged Employees who have supported Australia’s mission in Afghanistan continues to be a priority for the Australian Government. [Those] who worked for us, and who have a legitimate case for a visa, are being provided with an opportunity to come to Australia. The Australian Government is working to ensure each case is considered swiftly and those at risk of harm who meet visa requirements are resettled to Australia as soon as possible.”
McCarthy, upon hearing that statement, denounced the government’s claims.
“The biggest weasel word that stands out in that statement is ‘provided with an opportunity.’ That’s the problem: the biggest flaw in this plan has been to sit back and say ‘we won’t do anything until you come to us,’” he said. “It is not possible for someone who is in an area under Taliban control to go around in any kind of safe way and gather all the documents, have doctor’s appointments and checks to even meet the very basic requirements of that process. So saying ‘you have an opportunity to apply for a visa, and somehow miraculously make your way from a remote part of Afghanistan which is now under Taliban control to a civilian airline flight’ is just ridiculous.
“That statement itself shows how perverse and morally bankrupt the government’s approach to this is, even at this very late stage.”
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