By Dr Tony Murney*, Board Member, Civil Liberties Australia
The last Australian troops in Afghanistan were pulled out at the end of June 2021, well ahead of the US deadline of 11 September 2021, without fanfare.
There was no grand reception for returning soldiers, with dignitaries pressing in for photo opportunities, back in Australia. US President John F Kennedy foresaw this type of ending in 1961 when said that “victory has a hundred fathers but defeat is an orphan”.
Now that Australia has an orphan on its hands the basic question is, who is responsible for this unwanted progeny and what is the extent of those responsibilities? Other questions include the broader issues of obligations to physically and mentally injured soldiers, what support, if any, will Australia continue to give Afghanistan into the future and what will Australia do about displaced persons resulting from a conflict in which it was actively engaged?
There is, however, a more pressing and immediate issue which is flying below the national radar at a time when none of our leaders want to acknowledge or even contemplate the Afghanistan fallout. How do we as a nation respond to all of those people who were employed through Australian-funded aid projects that Australians were not prepared or allowed to take on because of unacceptable risks?
This involves a manageable number people who worked in humanitarian and security related entities funded by Australia. These people challenged the doctrine and norms of the insurgency and will be well known to adversaries amongst the Taliban – and therefore subject to retribution.
Such third-party entities include multilateral organisations: the United Nations and the World Bank and other non-government organisations (NGOs), including civil society groups, consultancies and other service providers unable to be offered national sanctuary.
The people involved all have one thing in common; they stepped forward because they believed in the mission promulgated by the international community and took great personal risks to improve the situation in Afghanistan. It would be unwise to list the entities in detail as this would expose people who served their nation, the international community and Australia to an even greater risk of retribution.
The great danger for these people is that Australia has closed its embassy in Kabul and now withdrawn its troops. Who is left to assist them and what is to prevent the Australian government from prematurely closing the book on this chapter of our history? To its credit, the government has acknowledged its obligations to some staff who served with the military, specifically interpreters. However, our national obligation extends beyond this and Australia is honour-bound to clearly respond in an ethical manner to the plight of these other people.
Australia has dishonorable form
Unfortunately, Australia has form in the business of behaving dishonorably at the end of conflicts.
No less than Banjo Patterson (see Roland Perry, 2009), one of our greatest nationalists criticised the Australian government’s appalling conduct in decommissioning the famous and greatly celebrated Whalers that carried the Australian Light Horse to victory in the Middle East during World War 1. This abandonment was so bad that many diggers walked their fast and loyal war time companions into the desert and shot them rather than leave them to a cruel fate. This experience, after years of shared hardship, scarred these men for life.
This time, the stakes are much higher because the people involved are at risk of losing their freedom, or worse their lives, because they worked in roles funded by Australia.
Australia’s haphazard and disorderly withdrawal from Vietnam offers a more recent example of what goes wrong when a widespread and unstructured abandoning of former allies takes place. This time, Australia will not be in the direct flood lines of a mass exodus but we do have an opportunity to take our share of responsibility for Kennedy’s orphan by identifying and assisting those to whom we have a national obligation.
Australia can do better this time by learning from its previous mistakes. There is a clear group here which has not been recognised in the haste of Australia’s departure from Afghanistan which is deserving of immediate assistance.
It would be a tragedy if this matter fell into the hands of the spin doctors, 11th-hour denialists and lawyers who, in seeking to squeeze between the metaphorical raindrops of accountability without getting wet, diminish us all as individual Australians and collectively as a nation.
* Dr Tony Murney has served several tours in Afghanistan as a senior police adviser with the UN and the European Union. He has also served with the UN as policing advisor in Somalia. Before working with the UN, he was a senior manager in the International Deployment Group of the Australian Federal Police. Dr Murney is a Director of Civil Liberties Australia.