Despite Australian forces spending most of two decades in Afghanistan, at Tuesday’s Coalition parties meeting only one government backbencher questioned the closure of our embassy in Kabul.
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When the Liberals’ Dave Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, expressed concerns about the reported move – which had been flagged in The Australian that morning – Scott Morrison was firm. Cabinet’s national security committee had made the decision and a media release was going out, he said. That was that.
Subsequently, the announcement the resident embassy will be replaced after this week by fly-in-fly-out diplomacy has attracted very limited interest, and even less debate.
The opposition said the decision would harm Australia’s “ability to deliver and monitor our ongoing development partnership with Afghanistan” and called for interpreters and local staff to be provided quickly with visas. But Labor didn’t seek to elevate the issue of the closure.
A country that prime ministers from both sides of politics assured Australians was so important to us – donning body armour as they repeatedly visited Australian troops there – is now not significant enough to keep a handful of diplomats based in its capital.
The decision comes as the last Australian troops prepare to leave, following the United States giving notice it would pull out its forces.
Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne in their announcement said the departure of international and Australian forces would mean “an increasingly uncertain security environment”.
“The government has been advised that security arrangements could not be provided to support our ongoing diplomatic presence,” they said.
The presence of coalition forces had been the back-up protection for the embassy, on top of the extensive – and very expensive – security arrangements for it.
But these security considerations should be put in perspective. The government doesn’t provide official figures but it’s understood we’ve had about 15-20 Australians in the embassy (plus support staff). They worked and lived in a compound.
Yes, it’s a dangerous posting, but so are postings in a number of other countries. Some risk goes with these jobs.
After the Australian announcement the Taliban told the AFP news agency it would not pose any threats to foreign diplomats and staff of humanitarian organisations. “In the future, they don’t have to worry about running their business as usual,” a spokesman said.
While one is sceptical of anything the Taliban says, some sources believe the statement has a degree of credibility given the Taliban wants to run the country and knows it would need international funds including for humanitarian purposes.
The Afghanistan conflict was Australia’s longest war and there were 41 Australian soldiers killed. Very many more lives have been ruined, as we often hear from veterans.
Morrison accords those who serve, or have served, in the military a special place, acknowledging them, as he does indigenous Australians, when he makes speeches. What does this decision say to the many thousands who were deployed in Afghanistan?
Morrison and Payne said it was expected the embassy closure would be “temporary and that we will resume a permanent presence in Kabul once circumstances permit”.
Sharma says that “having worked as a diplomat in dangerous overseas environments myself, I appreciate that the security of our people must be a first-order consideration.
“Nonetheless, I deeply hope that the removal of our embassy is a temporary measure only, and we will shortly find a way to restore a permanent diplomatic presence in Kabul.”
Realistically, however, the chances of this happening are minimal. The general security situation in Afghanistan will only get worse, and it is hard to think the government will have any appetite to set up the embassy again. The “temporary” line in the statement looked like an attempt to put a softer edge on the decision.
Fly-in-fly-out arrangements are better than nothing but they’re of limited value, in terms of making and maintaining contacts, gathering information, and monitoring aid efforts delivered through international bodies.
Shaharzad Akbar is chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and lives and works in Kabul. She tells The Conversation: “Closure of the embassy and the public messaging about it furthers the sense of uncertainty and anxiety about the next few weeks and months among Afghans. The public perceives this as certain foretelling of increased violence and chaos across the country and in Kabul.
“It reinforces the message that the world is leaving the Afghans behind with a war that was initiated and supported by the international military and Afghans, specially those who can’t leave, are left to bear the consequences that might be bloody and devastating,” she says.
The embassy closure is also likely to make more difficult the current Australian investigation of war crimes allegedly committed by Australian special forces. This is the follow up to the Brereton report and is directed to gathering material for possible prosecutions.
From the Afghan end, Akbar says: “For us in the AIHRC, we are concerned about what this means for our ability to pursue accountability and reparations for victims of alleged war crimes of Australian forces in Uruzgan.”
Wafiullah Kakar, an official in Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, is scathing.
“Both as an Afghan and public servant, I believe that the decision is selfish in its entirety.”
He says it undermines the achievements made in the last two decades and also passes a very negative message to Afghans and to the country’s international partners.
“I find this decision lacking a holistic approach in evaluating its impact on the peace-process, Afghans in general and women rights in particular.
“If this decision was based on a wider consultation with Australia’s partners in the commonwealth, the NATO member states, particularly the US, we can only wonder what we shall expect next – other countries to follow? And what message does this convey to the Taliban who are determined to take over Afghanistan militarily?
“Why did Australia choose to opt for the last resort at a stage where only basic precautions are required?” Kakar asks.
If the government had wanted more security for its diplomats, it could have sought to move in with the Americans, where our diplomats were located for a time some years ago.
The central driver of Australia’s entry to the war in Afghanistan was the American alliance. Post the war, our alliance considerations are turned elsewhere.
However much Australia declares it still cares about Afghanistan, its action in closing the embassy tells another story, which is not to the credit of this country.