The federal government is prepared to send Australian soldiers back to Afghanistan if needed to prevent terrorist threats, Defence Minister Peter Dutton has declared after confirming the withdrawal of troops in recent weeks.
Mr Dutton raised the possibility of deploying special forces if and when a new mission served Australia’s national interest or the interests of allies such as the United States.
Australian soldiers in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan.Credit:Kate Geraghty
He also called for a special day to honour Australians who served in Afghanistan, saying they had helped stop terrorist attacks that might have repeated the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001.
But the idea prompted a cautious response from the Australia Defence Association, which said there was a place for a day to mark the war in Afghanistan but that it should not undermine Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.
Australia has had 1500 defence force personnel in Afghanistan at times but reduced this to 80 in recent months and flew the last of them out in June, leading Mr Dutton to confirm the withdrawal in an interview on Sunday.
The war, which Australia joined in October 2001, has cost the lives of 41 soldiers and required the deployment of 39,000 troops. A study by Brown University in the US earlier this year estimated the war had led to the death of at least 47,245 civilians.
“We’ve now withdrawn, that’s appropriate for us, and we now pivot, of course, to our own region,” Mr Dutton told Sky News.
“That’s happened in recent weeks, it was ahead of the September deadline that we had set.
“That doesn’t mean that we won’t be a part of campaigns with the United States, perhaps involving the SAS or special forces, where we deem that to be in our national interest or in the interests of our allies.”
Setting out the possible scenarios that might justify military action, Mr Dutton said the threat of terrorism had not gone away and could require further deployments.
“Whether we see that manifesting in our own country, in the Middle East or elsewhere around the world, we will be part of an effort to defeat that and to make sure that we can keep, in our case, Australians safe, and wherever possible, the lives of our allies as well,” he said.
Australia’s role in Afghanistan has been the subject of several reviews into alleged war crimes, including a report by academic Samantha Crompvoets and a formal inquiry by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force, Paul Brereton.
In a further controversy, a series of alleged murders by special forces soldiers will be investigated by a team of homicide detectives recruited from police forces.
Mr Dutton was not asked about war crimes but said the Australian Defence Force had helped prevent terror attacks by serving in Afghanistan.
“From a selfish perspective, the fact that we haven’t had a 9/11 style attack in the developed world, over the course of our engagement in that region, that should say to Australians that our sacrifice has been worthwhile,” he said.
Australia Defence Association executive director Neil James said the war in Afghanistan could be marked in the same way as the Battle of Long Tan anniversary on August 18 marked the Vietnam War and the Battle of Kapyong anniversary on April 24 marked the Korean War.
Mr James said the government should make sure its new occasion did not detract from the way the community honours defence personnel on Anzac Day.
“It depends on what they mean by a special day,” Mr James said. “The days to honour all those who serve are Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised to work “as fast and as safely as we can” to issue visas to Afghans who served alongside Australians, amid fears those who cannot flee the country will become the victim of reprisals by the Taliban.
Mr Dutton said 1480 visas had been issued to Afghan interpreters and other personnel and their families since 2013, including 200 in the past few years, but that every application required thorough checks.
He said the government had to be careful not to allow in someone who had worked with the ADF at one stage but later “played both sides” and worked with the Taliban.
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