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14 July 2021

Australia has now officially left Afghanistan after 20 years our longest war.
But it has left some people behind.
On September 11, this year, it will be 20 years since the 9/11 terrorist attacks tore down the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, crashed into the Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Many of us remember that day as though it were yesterday.
It was a tragedy that changed the world and set up Australia's longest-running war in Afghanistan.
For 20 years Australian troops have been deployed in Afghanistan first under Operation Slipper and then Operation Highroad.
Every step of our mission was supported and aided by the Afghan interpreters who worked as one with our troops on the ground.
Interpreters lived on the base with our forces, like battlefield comrades.
They provided that essential element for our counter-insurgency operations communication.
While our mission in Afghanistan lasted, their service was key.
We must ensure now Australia and other allies have withdrawn (and the US continues to withdraw) from that battlefront that we do not forget and abandon those who risked their lives to help us in our mission.
Perhaps the Morrison Government's delayed response to the situation of the Afghan interpreters comes down to an attitude of ‘it's their country, it's their problem’. But once we became involved in the military mission, once we asked these people to risk their lives helping us, such a position became morally indefensible.
The position of danger these Afghan interpreters now occupy is very similar to that of the Iraqi interpreters who aided us in that conflict.
But the reaction of the Australian Government now has been far less edifying and it's not just me saying it.
Capt. Jason Scanes, who served 10 months in Afghanistan says the difference between then and now is stark.
‘The Government had a plan back then Labor led the way,’ Capt. Scanes says.
‘They made sure the people who needed support to complete the complex paperwork had help.
‘We seem to be doing a lot less for the Afghan interpreters now. They are being left to apply in a country where they have intermittent access to technology and their lives are at risk.’ Capt. Scanes is no newcomer to this issue.
Strangely, neither is the Coalition Government.
It has known about it for a while.
I know because I warned them about it years ago.
I raised Capt. Scanes' efforts to look after his battlefield comrades in Parliament in 2018 when I asked the then-home affairs minister Peter Dutton the following question.
‘For five years Capt. Scanes has tried to secure a visa for his Afghan interpreter who has served with the Australian Army. These interpreters wore Australian uniforms and helped keep our Diggers safe, at great risk to themselves.
‘Some have been murdered since. When au pairs can get visas in a matter of hours, why can't Capt. Scanes even get a meeting with the minister for home affairs?’ If the Morrison Government won't listen to me on this issue, then maybe they should listen to former Liberal prime minister John Howard who has weighed into this debate, saying there should be a legal trigger that's pulled to allow them to come here.
This Government is using the same legislation and visa system for the Afghan interpreters as was used for the Iraqis.
But there has not been the same urgency in getting around the real world problems of these Afghans availing themselves of that program.
In 2008, when the Iraqi interpreters were being given visas to Australia, visas were being processed in under 90 days. There was a bipartisan effort to send a team of government officials overseas to work hand in glove with our defence force personnel to assist Iraqi interpreters to complete their applications.
Today, many interpreters have been waiting more than six years for their visas and lack the help of Australians to navigate the complex visa application process.
Today, the Afghan interpreters appear to have been an afterthought.
We abruptly closed our embassy in Kabul and left.
We need to do better for the Afghan interpreters.
We must do better.
Mateship is a proud Australian quality.
It should apply not just in Australia but also in how we conduct ourselves with others on the international stage.
This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday, 14 July 2021.