1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment

Federation Chamber 26/09/2022

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (17:23): I thank my colleagues across the aisle, across the parliament, for their contributions on this motion, particularly those who have served our nation in uniform—the member for Herbert, the member for Solomon, the member for Braddon. Thank you. For many of us in this place, events that occurred in Afghanistan in August 2021 remain fresh in our memories. How could we forget the tragic photos and footage, the planes packed full of people, the victims of violence and the destruction at the hands of the Taliban, or the thousands upon thousands of emails, calls and representations from people to our electorate offices across the country? We all saw the tragedy unfolding before us. But, however tragic those scenes were for us here in Australia, one can’t really imagine what it was like for the brave Australian men and women deployed during the evacuation—in particular, the members of the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment and more than 250 Australian Defence Force personnel who, along with military attachments, led one of Australia’s largest humanitarian evacuations. That included not only Australian citizens but Afghan nationals who bravely put themselves and their families in harm’s way to support our operational efforts.

In total, more than 4,100 people were evacuated by Australian service personnel. Whilst we were all watching from the safety of Australia, these people were going back into harm’s way to rescue Australian citizens and passport holders, and other noncombatants from Kabul, in what truly was a rapidly evolving and perilous environment.

I’ve seen firsthand the chaos of a war zone, but I also saw, as we did in the evacuation of Afghanistan, the bravery and commitment of Australian service men and women amidst that chaos. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, I also saw the contribution of interpreters and of local staff who supported local operational efforts. Many of these interpreters and staff, of course, were let down by the previous government.

It’s hard to do these motions without being bipartisan; that’s important. But the fact is that many of us in this place were screaming for the actual evacuation and effort to start earlier—months earlier. That takes nothing away from the sterling effort of our Defence Force personnel and our people who conducted that evacuation. For many, the rescue was too late or didn’t reach them at all, despite years of sounding the alarm about the danger both to them and to their families that they faced after aiding Australia’s efforts.

This is personal for me. I will never forget the interpreters who supported our efforts in Iraq—people like Ali. He was so excited about rebuilding his country. He was half Sunni and half Shiite, and he wanted more than anything to bring his country together. Ali was found by the roadside, killed. He was beheaded by insurgents because he had been identified as having worked with us, with the coalition. For years I have thought—and I still do think—that, if he hadn’t worked with us, he might still be alive. There are very similar stories that have come out of Afghanistan of the people left behind. And I know that it is equally personal for the defence personnel who worked with them and served alongside them. Some of those personnel have contacted me to share their grief.

Whilst we often can’t agree across the political divide, I suppose we can agree on honouring the sacrifice of our defence personnel for their service. We can’t forget the failings of the past and the need to do better. In the months after the fall of Kabul, the ADF continued to support the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in moving evacuees to safety, and they did a tremendous job. I join my colleagues from across the House, including the Deputy Prime Minister, the foreign minister and others, in thanking them for their honourable service. In doing so, I also pay tribute on behalf of my community of Wills to the 41 Australian soldiers who paid the ultimate price while serving in Afghanistan, and, of course, to their families; and to all the people who returned, who so often carry the lasting physical injuries and mental scars of their service.