Prime minister Scott Morrison has described the crisis in Afghanistan as ‘rapidly evolving’ and said Australia was deeply concerned about the ‘potential for further loss of life and suffering’, noting his particular concern for the fate of women and girls in the toppled nation.
Morrison outlined the nature of Australia’s rescue mission to extract more than 130 Australians working in Afghanistan in a joint statement with defence minister Peter Dutton and foreign affairs minister Marise Payne on Monday afternoon.
The mostly aid workers employed by the UN and NGOs, and their families, will be assisted in returning home to Australia, the statement said.
“We are also assisting those who have been granted humanitarian visas, and others who are in the process of applying for protection.”
“As a partner committed for many years to helping Afghanistan build its future, we are deeply concerned at the potential for further loss of life and suffering,” the statement read.
The political situation in Afghanistan quickly deteriorated after US troops withdrew and civilian contractors, charged with maintaining the military equipment of the national military force, also left. What some intelligence officials considered would be possible to achieve in 90 days, the Taliban accomplished in one.
A planned US withdrawal was announced by president Joe Biden in April, with an announcement that all troops would be out of the country by September 11, 2021. But by this weekend, the plan to leave behind 650 American troops to secure the US embassy in Kabul was scratched. According to the State Department, all US embassy personnel had been evacuated to the airport by late Sunday.
My mother, who has family in Afghanistan, told me this last night. Kabulis had heard the Americans were taking some refugees no questions asked. I wasn't sure. Now I read this: https://t.co/UpQ2KkAocw via @DefenseOne
— Rashida Yosufzai (@Rashidajourno) August 16, 2021
On Monday morning, throngs of desperate people had descended upon the Kabul airport, with satellite imagery showing crowds had breached the tarmac and were preventing the safe take off of some aircraft. Video footage on Twitter shows what appears to be civilians clinging to and then falling from aircraft as C-17 jets took off. Official US reports claim seven people died in the mayhem.
“This did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated,” Biden said in a televised speech on Monday, affirming his decision to end what he has previously referred to as the ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan that cost USD$2.26 trillion.
“I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”
According to reports by Aljazeera, Taliban fighters were patrolling the streets of Kabul on Monday and had established a cordon to prevent people from getting into the terminal of Kabul airport.
In his joint statement with the foreign and defence ministers, Morrison said the Taliban was responsible and accountable for the conduct of its forces. He called for an end to all violence against civilians, and that the new regime respect international humanitarian law and the human rights of all Afghans.
“Those preparing to leave the country must be able to do so without threat or hinderance. We will continue to work with key partners in the days ahead to enable this safe passage,” the pm said.
“The Taliban will be held fully accountable for any killing or other mistreatment of Afghan military and other security forces who have surrendered or been captured.
“Afghan Government officials and elected political leaders are fully entitled to be treated with safety, respect and dignity.”
Australia announced that it would temporarily shut its embassy in Kabul from 28 May, 2021, at the time declaring that the government remained ‘committed to supporting a just, durable and resilient arrangement that is led and owned’ by locals and that would bring ‘stability and prosperity to the Afghan people’.
Australia’s formal troop withdrawal from the country, after an almost 20-year involvement in the country occurred on July 1, but military sources told the ABC that remaining ADF members had left Kabul in mid-June. Almost AUD$10 billion has been spent on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan and 41 ADF personnel have died on operations in the country.
The Australian national security committee has now given its approval to a military evacuation plan, which will involve sending 250 troops, a RAAF C-17 aircraft and other Defence assets to the Middle East. Given the fast changing situation, it is unclear when the Australian rescue aircraft will be able to land but government sources have told the ABC it will do so when ‘the situation allows’.