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Australia to close embassy in Afghanistan over security

KABUL: A security personnel guards an entrance near the Australian embassy at the Green Zone in Kabul yesterday, after Australia abruptly announced to shutter its embassy in Afghanistan this week over security fears as foreign troops withdraw. – AFP

KABUL: Australia yesterday abruptly announced it will shutter its embassy in Afghanistan this week, expressing fears over the “increasingly uncertain security environment” in Kabul as foreign troops withdraw. The Taleban, which has ramped up violence across the country in recent weeks, reacted by saying it would provide a “safe environment” to foreign diplomats and humanitarian organizations. The United States and allied forces are in the final stages of pulling out their remaining troops from Afghanistan, ending America’s longest-ever war, but heralding an uncertain future for a nation in the tightening grip of Taleban militants.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the embassy would close in just three days. Around 80 Australian troops are leaving as part of the wider military pull-out, and without that small contingent and the larger US force as back-up, Morrison said there was an “increasingly uncertain security environment”. “The government has been advised that security arrangements could not be provided to support our ongoing diplomatic presence,” he said in a statement.

The elected government in Kabul and Afghan security services remain fragile despite two decades of foreign capacity building, and their success is far from assured without continued US military support. Western diplomats and military officials have been scrambling to work out how to provide security for their future civilian presence in Afghanistan with fears growing of a Taleban comeback.

The hardline group, which briefly ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, said yesterday foreign diplomats can “continue their operations as usual”. “(We) will not pose any threats to them,” spokesman Mohammad Naeem told AFP. When the Taleban seized control of Kabul in 1996, they entered the United Nations compound and abducted the country’s former leader Najibullah Ahmadzai, who they then murdered.

Two years later, the Taleban oversaw the killing of 10 Iranian diplomats at their consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. “The only incentive for foreign embassies to remain is the humanitarian work that they are involved in, but if their personnel are endangered then there is no point in remaining here,” a foreign defense official based in Kabul told AFP. Nishank Motwani, an Afghanistan specialist based in Australia, said the Taleban would interpret Morrison’s announcement as a victory.

“The Taleban will see it as… a clear sign that other NATO and non-NATO partner countries are likely to shutter their diplomatic missions because of the US’s decision to exit Afghanistan and the security vacuum its departure will inevitably create,” he told AFP.

‘We are scared’
In recent weeks, violence across Afghanistan has soared and government forces have clashed with Taleban fighters not far from Kabul. President Joe Biden has said all American troops will leave by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the Al-Qaeda attacks that sparked the US-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the Taleban.

It was not clear whether there was a specific threat against the Australian embassy, which is in the heavily fortified Green Zone, not far from the US mission. Afghanistan’s foreign ministry said it hoped Australia would review its decision, while an Afghan employee at the embassy described fear at the mission’s withdrawal.

“I put my life in danger protecting the embassy… and now they are leaving us. The Taleban have our names. We are scared,” the employee told AFP. The sudden closure of the Australian embassy surprised some experts. “It is not set in stone that this is going to be a Taleban roll-up in the next few weeks,” said John Blaxland, Professor of International Security at the Australian National University.

“This is not Saigon 1975,” he added, a reference to the dramatic helicopter evacuation from the roof of the US embassy in South Vietnam as the Viet Cong and regular communist military forces seized the city. Australia’s two-decade presence in Afghanistan was not without scandal.

A years-long Australian military inquiry recently reported evidence that elite special forces “unlawfully killed” 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners during the war. A special war crimes prosecutor has been appointed to further investigate atrocities including summary executions and “body count competitions” and bring those responsible to justice. – AFP

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