Stuart McCarthy is a former Australian Army officer whose 28-year military career included two tours of Afghanistan. Derek Bodner is the president of Invictus Bellator Media Corp. and a veterans’ advocate.
Over the July 4 weekend, a group of retired U.S. military officers wrote to President Joe Biden and Congress with an urgent message: Act now to save Afghan interpreters. The group, which included David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, urged the government to take emergency action and protect the almost 18,000 interpreters and their immediate family members before the coalition troop withdrawal is complete.
As the Sept. 11 withdrawal deadline approaches and the Taliban continue their advances, which have seen almost half of Afghanistan’s districts come under the insurgents’ control over the past six weeks, veterans’ advocacy groups in coalition member countries are making similar pleas.
At stake is the fate of thousands of Afghan civilians who worked as interpreters, security guards, drivers, aid workers or in myriad other roles essential to sustaining a large-scale military force engaged in complex and dangerous counterinsurgency warfare in a foreign land with unfamiliar cultures and languages.
Although the U.S. government has drawn much criticism for its apparent lack of urgency in assisting these people amid a disorderly rush to the exits, other countries haven’t done much better. These include Canada and Australia, which contributed similar numbers of troops to the mission over a similar period in neighbouring provinces of southern Afghanistan. While the policy responses of these two countries vary slightly, the practical outcomes are largely the same: Hundreds of civilians whom these countries are obliged to protect under international humanitarian laws are literally being left for dead.
Since the bulk of Canadian and Australian troops withdrew from southern Afghanistan eight years ago, scores of their civilian employees have been targeted by vengeful Taliban tactical commanders for brutal reprisals, including death threats, kidnappings, murders, or, in some cases, ritual executions. Locals who assisted foreign forces or their governments are considered by the Taliban to be not only traitors to Afghanistan but “slaves” to the infidel. As the security situation has rapidly deteriorated in recent weeks, there is every indication that these reprisals will gather pace. Hundreds of these civilians are now literally in hiding or on the run, pleading for assistance that may never come.
Since 2001, Australia contributed almost 40,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan, with 41 killed and more than 250 wounded in action. As the majority of troops were withdrawn from Uruzgan Province in 2013, the Australian government established an employee visa program for those who were directly employed by the departments of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade or other agencies, as well as their immediate family members.
Over the past eight years this program saw as many as 1,200 former employees and family members resettled to Australia. However, it is believed that a similar number remain in Afghanistan, fighting a bureaucratic visa system described as “nightmarish” and “dysfunctional.” Political pressure via the media over the past month has seen an additional 160 reported resettlements to Australia, mainly among applicants who had initially requested visas as long as six years ago. Those who remain have been told by officials that the visa application and vetting process will take as much as 12 months, while some have been informed that their applications were rejected on the basis that they were subcontracted rather than directly employed by the Australian government. Their lives are being put at risk over a question of semantics.
Canada’s troop contribution to the war amounted to more than 40,000, mostly stationed in the neighbouring southern province of Kandahar. One hundred and fifty-eight were killed in action and more than 1,000 were wounded before the entire contingent was withdrawn in 2014. Canada ultimately resettled approximately 850 of its former contractors. The number of “left-behind” contractors isn’t entirely clear, and the Canadian government has put little to no effort into helping them escape death at the hands of the Taliban. In fact, a recent Human Rights Watch report noted that Canada had no relocation plans for its former contractors.
For the Australian and Canadian governments, there is much more at stake here than humanitarian concern for the loss of Afghan civilian lives. This unfolding fiasco could cause lasting and irreparable damage to both countries’ national security and foreign policy interests unless emergency action is taken along the lines being proposed by retired U.S. Generals Petraeus and McChrystal. Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau and Scott Morrison of Australia would be well advised to initiate urgent military evacuations for the hundreds of Afghan civilians they are morally and legally obliged to protect. The world is watching.