Afghanistan: the US is accepting civilian refugees – what will Australia do?

Australian Defence Force (ADF) troops pictured in Afghanistan. Photo: Stu Dood/Australian Department of Defence.

By JAN FORRESTER

Listening recently to Australian counter-insurgency expert, David Kilcullen’s forensic breakdown of military events in Central Asia it is clear that Afghanistan is not only collapsing militarily, but that the dogs of war are already tearing at the carcass. 

I am worried that a good friend, a Hazara, has been incommunicado for more than a week. She planned to return to Afghanistan from Iran, where her immediate family has been taking refuge from the fighting. She planned to return through Herat on the western Afghan border. Right at that moment battles erupted around Herat – and indeed across the country. My many messages to her have gone into silence. The Taliban regard Hazaras, who are Shi’a Muslims, as beyond the pale. 

However, the Twittersphere has erupted as Afghans try to keep track of events. As do people in surrounding countries, some of whom still host Afghan refugees. 

Some Twitter comments from Afghanistan’s neighbours are worrying: they see Afghanistan as the problem child in the neighbourhood. Politics in Central Asia can be as brutal as the spirit of human hospitality is warm.

In the last 72 hours many friends and colleagues have scaled up efforts to get out of the country. Most are aiming for the United States. 

In the USA, an American friend with whom I worked in Kabul has been drafting letters around the clock for our former colleagues. 

Crucially, the United States, in principle, is accepting not only military families but civilians. 

However, at time of writing, its ally, Australia, is not.

The Australian military has left Afghanistan. Our embassy staff have withdrawn from Kabul. At least, after a fumbling delay, Afghan interpreters working for our military and embassy have been granted entry to Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces the withdrawal of Australian troops from Afghanistan. Video: ABC News/YouTube.

But what about Afghan civilians who worked in Afghanistan with and for Western NGOs – and for the United Nations of which Australia is a founding member?

I worked in Afghanistan for a US non-government organisation, Internews, from 2009 to 2013. In 2009 the United Nations oversaw the first Afghan Parliamentary and local elections in years. During my time in Afghanistan, one Australian woman followed another as senior manager of Internews Afghanistan. 

As one of a team of trainers, I travelled to regional areas with Afghan colleagues to work with a generation of young people who were new to journalism. 

As in Australia, local politics looms large in regional media. As part of Internews’ program, Afghan colleagues also worked with local government officials, brainstorming policies to serve current needs and promoting the involvement of local people. That is where we were confronted by the mountain of challenges at all levels of government in Afghanistan: communities where dams and reservoirs as well as water canals were broken. 

There might be massive snowmelt in spring to swell the rivers but no working infrastructure to capture the water. 

The security of highways to major markets, such as Kabul, was regularly compromised by impassable roads in winter – and the odd armed holdup. 

Right now, many former Afghan colleagues are making, or have made, the hard decision to leave Afghanistan. If they can.

President Biden has announced his government’s decision to resettle Afghan journalists working for US media as refugees. However, the devil is always in the detail: will such people be airlifted directly from Afghanistan? Or will they have to make their way to a third country and fend for themselves financially while they await uncertain outcomes?

Many Afghans cannot leave. They simply don’t have the financial resources to do so. Afghans have proved they are immensely resilient, after invasions, civil war and changes in government. During the current uncertainty some Hazaras are taking refuge in Iran. As they have done in the past. For the majority, there is nowhere else to go. 

Australia has yet to decide, having withdrawn our military from Afghanistan, whether it wishes continued diplomatic engagement with Afghanistan should the current government change radically.

We do not know how many Afghan civilians have made the decision to stay, or have no avenues to leave. They need reassurance by the Taliban they will not be harassed – or worse. 

Those who have memories of the last reign of the Taliban are not holding their breath.

Editor’s note, 1pm Sunday, 15 August: A short time ago, reports emerged that Australia would evacuate hundreds of people from Kabul via RAAF planes as early as this week. According to the ABC, Australians working for Afghan and international charities and NGOs will be offered evacuation, as well as journalists and some dual citizens. Among those to be evacuated will be Afghan interpreters and contractors who served alongside ADF troops. How many will be evacuated and under what criteria remains to be seen.

Jan Forrester is a Blue Mountains-based journalist and writer, who has previously lived and worked in Afghanistan. She can be followed on Twitter at @janforrester.