A dangerous humanitarian crisis is deepening in Afghanistan. Australia has a moral obligation to do more to help.
The crisis follows the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the collapse of the Afghan government last year. Australia has evacuated some Afghan former Australian Defence Force (ADF) employees, trusted interpreters, and some of their families, but far too few.
Despite years of peace talks, the end of the war and the Taliban’s victory have brought neither greater security nor a reprieve from chaos and suffering for the Afghan people. A terrible drought has been exacerbated by targeted and necessary sanctions against the Taliban, reductions in foreign aid, and the collapse of the economy. There is now widespread hunger and humanitarian need among the Afghan populace, compounding their fear and uncertainty. With the Taliban in control, the international community has had to reconfigure foreign aid to be delivered directly to the people. The United Nations has said that US$4.4 billion is needed this year — and that’s likely a conservative figure.
This situation is even more difficult to accept given the circumstances of the end of Australia’s participation in Afghanistan. After two decades, the loss of 41 Australian lives in-country and many more at home, and countless wounded, this is the consequence of long and inconsistent efforts to stabilise that nation.
Apart from its military commitment, Australia has made significant financial contributions to Afghanistan, spending AU$1.5 billion on humanitarian and development programs from 2006 to 2021. A further $100 million will be spent this financial year. Two-thirds of that will be on humanitarian aid, working through international organisations operating on the ground and support for neighbouring countries dealing with displaced Afghans, provided through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The remaining $35 million will be spent to support the Population Fund, the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the World Food Programme to provide basic health services, food, and shelter to Afghan women and children.
The political context is making this humanitarian crisis even worse – the Taliban are widely reported to be engaging in reprisals and settling old scores as they consolidate control over the country, and social progress made over the past two decades is quickly eroding. Afghanistan, while never a perfect state, is plunging back into theocracy.
More obsessed with recreating the country to suit their own ideological proclivities than governing, the Taliban’s political posture does not assist the Afghan people. This political situation frustrating to many Australians with long connections to Afghanistan, who worked hard to build and help that country. To see the efforts of so many go backwards is a source of great dismay.
This understandably impacts many Canberrans, not just ADF members. David Savage, who was injured in an attack in Afghanistan while working for AusAid, recently tweeted: “How tragic to think it’s now Taliban sitting there, not protecting the people but oppressing and subjugating them.” Afghan National Army Sergeant Hekmatullah was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2012 murders of Australian soldiers, Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Private Robert Poate, and Sapper James Martin. During the peace talks Hekmatullah was released, and is today a free man. Robbie Poate hailed from Canberra, and his family have spent another Christmas and new year without their son as they continue to help Australian veterans.
The humanitarian crisis is devastating for the people of Afghanistan and for Afghan Australians fearful for their loved ones’ safety. I am concerned that the recent allocation of humanitarian and family visas will be too late, too late for those who supported Australia’s mission — and their families. This can’t be another case of ScottMorrison leaving Afghan Australians behind.
Australia has a moral obligation to the people of Afghanistan given their recent shared history. I have been deeply moved by the voices of local Afghan Australians. There is so much more Australia can do.
The Morrison government should also listen to those veterans whose trusted Afghan interpreters are still in grave danger – and they must do more to assist Afghan evacuees in Australia to help both themselves and their new country. In Western Australia, there are scores of Afghan evacuees who drove trucks for Australia and partner forces in Afghanistan. As COVID-19 disrupts supply chains and industry is crippled by a reduced workforce and skills shortages, these new arrivals should get financial assistance to complete the necessary TAFE courses to be able to drive on Australian highways. They could be driving resupply road trains across the expanses of Western and Northern Australia, a modern-day version of the Afghan cameleers who supported Australian explorers over a century ago. Those cameleers resupplied cattle stations, and they helped build the overland telegraph line and the railways. In doing so, they opened up the interior, sustaining and building Australia as a nation. Australia and Afghanistan are forever linked.
And as the situation in Afghanistan worsens, Australia must offer practical help. These past years have tested the ADF and the effectiveness of Australia’s international relations and national leadership. When it comes to Afghanistan and issues arising from Australia’s longest war, Australia must do what it realistically can, particularly when it is in the direct national interest to do so.
Luke Gosling is the federal Member for Solomon, representing Darwin and Palmerston in the Northern Territory. He served in the Australian Defence Force for 13 years and worked in Afghanistan securing elections in 2003 and 2014.
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