SYDNEY -- As a deadly suicide attack at Kabul's airport upends the Afghanistan evacuation drive, Australian veterans hope Canberra will not leave hundreds of former Afghan aides high and dry.
"These are people, not a piece of equipment you discard when you're finished," Jason Scanes, former Australian army captain and head of the non-profit Forsaken Fighters, told Nikkei Asia before the attack. "My interpreter Hassan has been waiting for eight years. We lodged his original application back in July 2013 and he's still there, with his three boys under 6 and an 8-month-old daughter."
Like the U.S. and other allies, Australia has sought to protect Afghan citizens who assisted its personnel. Yet Scanes argued the complexity of Australia's visa process in particular, coupled with slowness on the government's part, have undermined the effort.
Time is quickly running out, if it has not already. After warnings from Western allies of an imminent threat from the Islamic State group, a suicide attack near the airport on Thursday killed dozens of civilians and at least 13 U.S. military personnel, Reuters reported. Australia subsequently confirmed it was stopping its evacuation flights, as have Canada and New Zealand.
"It's an impossible situation, because the intelligence was clear to us that if we allowed our soldiers to stay on with the near certainty of terrorist attacks, then we would lose ... Australian lives," Defense Minister Peter Dutton said, according to public broadcaster ABC. "We hope that the Taliban is true to their word and provides a reinstatement of a situation where [commercial] flights can come in and out."
The halt raises fears that many Afghans who helped Australian and other allied forces will now be at the mercy of the Islamist group.
While Taliban leaders stated at the Doha peace talks that interpreters who worked alongside allied forces would not face reprisals, there have been widespread claims of persecution since the group seized control of the capital on Aug. 16.
Australia's assistant defense minister, Andrew Hastie, told reporters last week that "every interpreter who went out on the ground, got shot at, or exposed to roadside bombs, has had their case resolved by this government." Phil Spence, an Australian former police adviser to NATO command in Afghanistan, says this is not the case.
"The government's claims that they have reached out and made contact with all former interpreters employed by Australia in Afghanistan are false," Spence said. "My colleagues and I remain in daily contact with many of the men who had our backs out on the wire and, while dozens applied for protection in June, they have all yet to hear back on their applications."
Australia employed over 7,000 local interpreters, drivers and aides over the course of the 20-year campaign, and has so far granted 1,800 visas through its Special Protection Visa (SPV) program for Locally Engaged Employees (LEEs), according to the Department of Home Affairs. Another 100 of these applications were under consideration.
The U.S., in contrast, has reportedly resettled over 70,000 Afghan employees and family members under its protection visa scheme since 2008, with recent evacuations adding to the total. Estimates vary widely but many more people are still believed to be eligible.
Australian officials have hinted at the reasons for their more reserved approach. Dutton has controversially pointed out that many applicants are "males of fighting age," while Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said "they may have worked for us four years ago or five years ago [...] and we don't know what they've been doing in that intervening period."
Both have said that stringent vetting measures are behind the low numbers.
According to a source from the Australian Embassy in Kabul, SPV requirements include making applicants fill out a 66-page form in English, as well as interviews and medical checks at a time when the embassy is closed. Since April, just 640 SPVs had been issued to Afghan nationals -- and on Sunday, when Australia airlifted another 300 of its citizens and visa-holders out of Kabul, only three were SPV holders.
It was unclear how many were on subsequent flights. On Thursday, hours before the terrorists struck, Morrison said: "Overnight, around 1,200 people were evacuated from Kabul on six Australian flights and one New Zealand flight. They included Australians, Afghans and other nationals. That means in total, around 4,000 people have been able to be evacuated as a result of this operation, on some 29 flights over the last eight days."
The Australian government is not the only one to face questions over the assistance it has offered to former aides. Of 273 Afghan staff to work alongside troops from the Netherlands, 252 applied for relocation, with 101 rejected out of hand, according to the Dutch Embassy in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch says that the process was slow and complex for applicants, who were required to fill out a 20-page form peppered with obscurely worded questions including: "How do you know you are in danger because of your work for Dutch soldiers?" and "Could you live safely in another part of Afghanistan?" As of earlier this week, the Netherlands had green-lit 68 of these applications, with a further 83 pending.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted last weekend that he had spoken with British counterpart Boris Johnson about "helping each other with the evacuation of our compatriots and Afghans whom we want to fly out of Kabul." He said this carried "the highest urgency for both of us." The Netherlands was also expected to make its last flight on Thursday, Reuters reported.
The U.K., which began expediting applications through its Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy in June, has since doubled the number of Afghan nationals resettled in Britain to 2,800. But aid groups have blasted the process, claiming it blurred the lines between employees and contractors, cutting out vulnerable groups like embassy guards. Canada's humanitarian relocation program, meanwhile, requires applicants to have both a passport and a PCR COVID-19 test -- both nearly impossible to track down in Kabul amid the chaos.
Yet unlike Australia, all three countries expedited their visa processes and agreed to assist in transferring some Afghan applicants to third-party nations like the United Arab Emirates in the interim. The U.K. and Canada, meanwhile, have each agreed to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees on general humanitarian visas, while Australia has committed to only 3,000.
Before the flights were suspended, Nick McKim, immigration spokesman for the opposition Australian Greens Party, said the government should immediately offer all interpreters and other Afghans who worked with Australian troops and diplomats a bridging visa to get out of the country, while their substantive visa claims are processed.
"We understand that the situation around the Kabul Airport is extremely dangerous and unpredictable, and people may not be able to access flights," he said. "But we also know that without a valid visa, people have no chance to get onto evacuation flights even if they can get into the airport."
Australian Immigration Minister Alex Hawke last week did announce that no Afghan visa holder currently in Australia would be sent back to the country "while the security situation there remains dire." Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews also confirmed that over 100 former embassy guards would be considered for humanitarian visas, after national broadcaster SBS revealed they were told they were "not eligible for certification" under the SPV program.
Now attention is turning to what happens after next Tuesday's withdrawal deadline.
After Group of Seven leaders met virtually earlier this week to discuss Afghanistan, Britain's Johnson told reporters in London the group would look to ensure Afghans still had a safe channel out of the country into September.
"The number one condition we're setting as G-7 is that they [the Taliban] have got to guarantee right the way through, through Aug. 31 and beyond, safe passage for those who want to come out," he said.
Yet Johnson also sidestepped a question about whether other G-7 leaders had expressed frustration at U.S. President Joe Biden's insistence on withdrawing the 6,000-strong U.S. contingent by the end of this month.
"Let's be clear, the immediate phase of the evacuation is actually ... a very considerable success by the military," he said. "We're confident we can get thousands more out. But the situation at the airport is not getting any better. It's harrowing scenes for those who are trying to get out."