Despite the Australian military spending more than two decades in Afghanistan, the coalition parties on Tuesday questioned the closure of our embassy in Kabul by only one government backbencher.
Former Israeli ambassador to the Liberals, Dave Sharma, expressed concern over the report, which was flown in Australia that morning – Scott Morrison was adamant. He said that the decision has been taken by the National Security Committee of the Council of Ministers and a media release is underway. That was it.
Subsequently, the resident embassy’s announcement will be replaced later this week as fly-in-the-fly diplomacy attracts much limited interest, and less debate.
Opposition groups called the decision “damaging Australia’s ability to monitor our ongoing development partnership with Afghanistan” and called for early access to visas for interpreters and local staff. But Labor did not try to raise the issue of closure.
In politics, prime ministers on both sides have repeatedly assured Australians that they would be provided with weapons. At present, it is not enough to have a handful of diplomats in the capital.
The decision comes after the United States announced it was withdrawing its troops after Australian troops prepared to leave.
Morrison and Foreign Secretary Maris Payne said in their announcement that the withdrawal of international and Australian troops would mean “increasingly uncertain security environments”.
“The government has been advised that security arrangements could not be made to support our ongoing diplomatic presence,” he said.
The presence of coalition forces was a back-up and costly security room for the embassy.
But these security considerations must be kept in perspective. The government does not provide official facts but we understand that we have 1-20-20 Australians in the embassy (plus support staff). They worked and lived on a campus.
Yes, this is dangerous posting, but there are similar postings in other countries. Some risks go with these jobs.
Following the Australian announcement, the Taliban told AFP that it would not pose a threat to foreign diplomats and staff of humanitarian organizations. “In the future they don’t have to worry about running their business normally,” a spokesman said.
One person is aware of what the Taliban said, but some sources believe that the statement is somewhat credible, that the Taliban want to run the country, and I know that it also requires international funding for humanitarian purposes.
The conflict in Afghanistan was Australia’s longest war and killed one Australian soldier. Too many lives have been ruined, as we often hear from veterans.
Morrison reminds those who have served or have served in the military that he holds a special place in the military and accepts them and gives speeches like Australians. What does this decision mean to the thousands in Afghanistan?
Morrison and Pine said the closure of the embassy is expected to be “temporary and we will return to a permanent presence in Kabul once conditions allow”.
“Having worked as a diplomat in a dangerous foreign environment, I appreciate that the safety of our people should be a first-order consideration,” Sharma said.
“In any case, I sincerely hope that the removal of our embassy is only a temporary measure, and that we will soon find a way to restore a permanent diplomatic presence in Kabul.”
Realistically, though, this is unlikely to happen. The general security situation in Afghanistan is only deteriorating, and it is hard to imagine that the government would have any appetite to re-establish the embassy. The “temporary” line in the statement seemed to be an attempt to soften the decision.
Fly-in-the-fly arrangements are relatively good but they are of limited value in relation to contact and retention, information gathering, and monitoring of aid efforts distributed through international agencies.
Shahrzad Akbar is the chairman of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and lives and works in Kabul. “The closure of the embassy and the public message about it will only intensify the sense of uncertainty and anxiety among Afghans about the coming weeks and months. The people see it as a definite prediction of growing violence and chaos across the country,” she said.
“It reinforces the message that the world is leaving Afghanistan behind in a war that was started and supported by the international forces and Afghanistan, especially since they cannot leave, suffering bloodshed and devastating consequences,” she says.
The closure of the embassy is likely to further complicate Australia’s investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Australian special forces. This is a follow-up to Barrett’s report and is directed to gather material for possible charges.
From the Afghan end, Akbar says: “We at AIIRC are concerned about what this means for our ability to hold victims of the Australian Army’s alleged war crimes in Uruguay accountable and abusive.”
Wafuullah Kakar, an official at the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, is upset.
“Both an Afghan and a public servant, I think this decision is entirely selfish.”
He says it undermines the achievements of the past two decades and sends a negative message to Afghanistan and its international partners.
“I find this decision lacks a holistic approach to assessing the impact of the peace process, on Afghanistan and women’s rights in particular.
“If this decision was based on extensive consultations with Australia’s partners in the Commonwealth, we may be surprised at what NATO member states, especially the United States, can expect from another country, and what message it sends to the Taliban. Who is determined to capture the Afghan army?”
“Why did Australia choose the final resort at a stage where only basic precautions are needed?” Kakar asked.
If the government wanted more security for its diplomats, it could try to move with the Americans, where our diplomats were living a few years ago.
The central driver of Australia’s entry into the war in Afghanistan was the US Alliance. After the war, our alliance views changed elsewhere.
Although Australia declares that it still has an interest in Afghanistan, its action to close the embassy tells another story, which is not the country’s credit.
Author: Michelle Grattan – Professor Fellow, University of Canberra