A parliamentary report has laid bare the flaws in Australia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, detailing how communication failures and shortsighted planning contributed to Afghans in need being left behind.
The Senate committee investigating Australia’s two-decade mission in Afghanistan handed down its interim report on Friday afternoon, around five months since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
The report addressed the timeline leading up to and during the emergency evacuation from the Afghan capital last August, which triggered scenes of desperation and chaos.
Among its eight recommendations, the report stated the Australian government must continue to exert “all available effort” to finalising visa applications - in particular - for Afghans who served with Australian troops.
“There is no excuse for bureaucratic delays when lives are literally at stake,” the report said.
It also called on Australia to match its coalition partners in committing to a substantial intake of Afghan refugees - given the scale of the crisis in Afghanistan.
The inquiry has heard from department officials involved in the withdrawal operation, as well as groups advocating on behalf of Afghans seeking Australia’s protection.
The Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee responsible includes five Liberal and four Labor senators as well as two Greens members and independent Senator Jacqui Lambie.
Fresh questions over military withdrawal
The report raised fresh questions about whether more could have been done to help Afghans with ties to Australia, despite praising the efforts of those involved in rescue efforts.
The federal government has provided no precise estimate on the number of visa holders and applicants that remain in Afghanistan, but the report recognises this as a “significant number”.
Its concluding remarks said that the committee has chosen to release what it describes as a “substantive” report now so that it can help influence ongoing efforts and decisions being taken.
This includes efforts to bring Australian citizens, permanent residents and visa holders out of Afghanistan, as well as Australia’s decisions around furthering the humanitarian intake.
It outlined the extent of the challenge facing government officials citing that in excess of 100,000 people from Afghanistan have now applied for a humanitarian visa.
The committee also detailed fears from advocacy groups that many of those seeking protection continue to face severe risks from the Taliban.
Communication during evacuation mission ‘extremely strained’
The evacuation mission took place over a nine-day period between 18 August and 26 August, after the Taliban seized control of Kabul.
The mission witnessed the evacuation of some 4,168 Australians, Afghan visa holders and other foreign nationals being taken to safety by Australian troops.
But the report said the communication capacity between Australian authorities and those seeking evacuation had been “extremely strained” citing the need for “improved communications protocols.”
It recommended that the Australian government commission an independent review into the operation of the Afghanistan evacuation to ensure that departmental practices are improved in the future.
The report also called for the Australian government to develop and implement more accurate measures and methods for keeping track of citizens, permanent residents and visa holders during times of crisis.
Embassy closure made consular assistance ‘significantly more difficult’
The report also said the decision to close Australia’s embassy in Kabul in May 2021 may have had a lasting impact on the ability to evacuate Australians and visa holders from the country.
The Australian government closed the consular office based on advice around the “deteriorating security situation” linked to the resurgence of the Taliban’s military campaign across Afghanistan.
But the report noted that the embassy’s closure made consular assistance “significantly more difficult” and “may have played a role in the difficulties many people” faced trying to leave the country.
Evacuations should have started earlier
The committee also questioned whether evacuations could have started sooner.
It detailed how in July, the Biden administration announced that it would begin flights out of Afghanistan during the last week of July for US visa holders.
The committee concluded the decision against joining the US operation was “detrimental to Australia’s subsequent evacuation efforts.”
“Relying on commercial flights during a period when coalition partners were actively establishing evacuation programs was short-sighted due to the escalating risks,” the report said.
Handling of visa processing
The report also called for a thorough review of the operation of the Locally Engaged Employee program to address concerns raised in evidence over departmental resourcing and the processing of visas.
Naweed - who requested his last name be withheld - is among those who were unable to secure passage for his family on an Australian rescue flight.
The former interpreter says he worked with Australian troops but his repeated pleas to be granted a visa from Australian authorities continue to face uncertainty.
“We wore Australian uniform - we supported them shoulder by shoulder - in tough days - now we are in a critical situation,” he told SBS News.
“We need help and we need our visas to get issued.”
Humanitarian visas should be increased
The committee also addressed calls for the Australian government to drastically increase its initial commitment of 3,000 humanitarian places for Afghans seeking protection.
The federal government on Friday announced it would allocate 15,000 humanitarian and family visa places to Afghan nationals, following the release of the report.
It has described the allocation as a floor and not a ceiling - which it says will focus on family members of Australians, persecuted minorities and women and children.
The report had earlier said Australia should match its coalition partners on this front.
Canada has so far committed to taking 40,000 Afghan refugees, while the UK has announced an initial intake of 5,000 places moving up to 20,000 over the longer term.
The US is accepting 125,000 Afghan refugees places this financial year.
It’s estimated more than 150,000 people have applied for the visas - but none of the visas have been allocated yet, according to evidence to the committee late last year.
Sitarah Mohammadi of the Afghanistan-Australian Advocacy Network said people continue to live in “severe danger” and were “living in fear”.
“It’s absolutely crucial the Australian government steps up its efforts to grant some protection to those people who are in urgent need of it,” told SBS News.