Humanity Amid the Shambles

“At the Airport’s North Gate, a little girl about a year older than my daughter pops out of the crowd of thousands of desperate people, carrying an orange plastic bag … tears streaming down her cheeks, her bottom lip trembling …” So begins this second book, The Sparrows of Kabul, from Iain “Fred” Smith based on his on-the-ground observations as a junior diplomatic officer in the Civil Military & Stabilisation Section of the Humanitarian Division of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT). An additional paragraph on the cover says it all: “A deeply personal tale of Australia’s mission to evacuate people from Kabul International Airport.”

This review appears in a recent Quadrant.
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The events in Afghanistan of the last weeks of August 2021 in the wake of the collapse of the 300,000-strong Afghan Army as the Taliban marched into Kabul, the chaos at Kabul International

Airport (KIA) as hundreds of thousands of people tried to escape that unrelenting march, images of desperate people falling from the wheel arches of American planes taking off from KIA, of people bleeding and bodies butchered by ISIS-A suicide bombs, seem so long ago as the voracious twenty-four-hour news cycle has moved onto ever more horrendous disasters, all vying for our attention. 

Yet those images of desperate humanity clambering for the all-too-few places available on flights out of KIA over those final couple of weeks must not be forgotten. Why should Australia care what happens in Afghanistan or to the Afghans? Smith made the point plainly and simply in his 2016 book, The Dust of Uruzgan, based on his experiences as the first civilian to be posted to Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, serving an eighteen-month tour (July 2009 to January 2011) working out of the Multinational Base in Tarin Kowt as part of the second Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force:

The problems that brew in these “failed states” become our problems—terrorism and narcotics to start with, as well as mass migration. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are currently the leading sources of refugees to Europe, and there are over seventeen million people displaced by conflicts in Africa looking for somewhere to live.

That was six years ago, so you can probably double that figure now. And how pleased were the Taliban to announce that 2022 yielded one of the country’s biggest opium crops to date. 

Smith—“Farid from DFAT” as he became known among locals—undertook a second six-month “tour of duty” in 2013 to help facilitate the Transfer of Authority of the base in Tarin Kowt to Afghanistan’s Defence Forces. His experiences subsequently became the core of an album titled The Dust of Uruzgan—Smith is also a folk-based singer-songwriter, his “other career” through which he’d been able to bridge the cultural divide between himself and the tribal leaders with whom he was obliged to work in order to achieve the aims of the Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT)—and led to a series of eighty performances around Australia based on the album and the stories behind the songs in what he describes as a twelve-year project/obsession. Among the things achieved by the ADF and AusAID on his watch included funding the building of the Malalai Girls School which, in 2011, boasted some 1000 students. That, of course, was immediately closed by the Taliban.

Then, as Smith explained it to me, “When the music industry collapsed in March 2020, I went to Kabul to work at the embassy for a year and a bit. This was good until it wasn’t—things didn’t end well, as you’re no doubt aware.”

Early in 2020, DFAT advertised a development job at the Australian embassy in Kabul, work that Smith admits “did not come naturally” to “a diplomat from the political side of DFAT” rather than someone who “actually needed to know something—tedious stuff like contracting, risk matrices and gender-sensitive programming”. As it turned out, after arriving in May, Smith gradually got the hang of things, but everything changed with the signing, in February 2021, of the Doha Peace Agreement, the culmination of a deal that had been initiated by the Trump administration with the Taliban.

So, despite the fact that, just before he was to return to Afghanistan, Australia’s embassy in Kabul was closing, in July Smith accepted the development job in what was to be Australia’s “virtual Interim Mission to Afghanistan” in Abu Dhabi. By August 17, he was back at KIA trying to help get Australian visa holders and their families out of what was quickly becoming hell on earth.

This book relates his experience of those two weeks that followed the fall of Kabul as he experienced it over four days at KIA and then in the evacuee camps at Al Minhad Air Base in Dubai. The book is also his personal attempt to give the efforts of DFAT a human face, as against the standard presentation of its work through “disembodied press releases with dot points listing achievements suggesting the mission ran perfectly”, that he admits “will not be read and in any case will not be received as plausible”. And again, “People respond to people, they respond to stories, they respond to candour, they respond to vulnerability and they just want to know they are not being lied to.” Elsewhere in the book Smith reminds us:

Australians need to understand that a scrupulous, well-resourced public sector—federal, state, local, Defence, nurses, judiciary, chalkies, firies, cops, ambos etc.—is what keeps us from chaos. Australians need to appreciate good government, boring and expensive though it is, since, in a chaotic world, it’s what saves our country from descending into tragedy like Afghanistan.

There’s some quietly fine writing in the telling of his tale. Within an hour of arriving at KAI as part of Australia’s four-man team processing would-be evacuees, Smith has to tell an Afghan interpreter who has worked for both Australia and the US that, since his parents don’t have the requisite visas, they must stay behind. The interpreter chooses to remain with his parents but they eventually convince him he must go and he returns “with tears streaming down his face as two Turkish soldiers with linguistic sympathies to the parents led them shuffling into the warm Kabul night with a quiet dignity that took our breath away”.

In The Dust of Uruzgan, Smith reminded us:

In Afghanistan, “big man culture” prevails; personalities dominate over institutions … If we’d been prepared to stick around another couple of hundred years, perhaps we might have been able to make a dent in that. In the meantime, we could only do what we could do, with what we had.

For Smith, one of the overriding reasons for writing The Sparrows of Kabul was to tell the truth of what he witnessed at first hand, even though, as he admits, in the midst of the chaos, “Eighty per cent of the DFAT operation [was] running off my telephone.” The bulk of his twenty-hour work days was based on WhatsApp messages—from DFAT, from colleagues, from desperate Afghans who had worked for Australia’s embassy or the ADF as translators, and so on—constant, pleading, hopeful, despairing requests that brought enough successes to ward off Smith’s own sense of despair. The reality on the ground, sadly, was that “expats and visa holders had expectations for what we could do for them that far exceeded what we could do”.

“The narrative,” he opines, “on the evacuation has been dominated by advocates who didn’t get their people out. I understand and respect their motivations … I would do the same if I were them.” And he has to admit:

What dismayed our LE [locally engaged staff] was that we didn’t, or more accurately couldn’t do more. Their point of reference was the Afghan government system in which things happen through personal influence—you have a mate or cousin in the right position or bribe the right official in the right place and you get the results you want. It works in the short term and very efficiently, but of course in the long term it erodes the credibility of the system, breeding resentment among those excluded until eventually the system collapses. And that, alas, is about 50 per cent of the reason the Afghan government disintegrated in August 2021.

At least US President Biden had pushed back the original withdrawal date of May 1, 2021, demanded by Trump under the Doha Peace Agreement four months to August 31, but that meant that all Australian personnel—military and diplomatic—along with however many Afghan Australian-visa holders as possible had to be out of KIA and Afghanistan by August 24 in order to allow America’s Marines and their associated personnel enough time to get themselves out by the 31st.  

In the face of all subsequent reports painting the efforts of DFAT and the US as catastrophic failures, Smith underlines the fact that, “In the last two weeks of August, we got 4100 people out, 3300 of whom have come to Australia. That was the fifth highest number of any Western country, and not bad given we were the 12th largest contributor to the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] mission over its twenty years.” And that is an achievement worth writing about.

On reading his son’s manuscript Smith’s father felt “moved to write a fourth piece of post-retirement extracurricular prose”, as the younger Smith describes it, his father having been a reticent commentator on all things Australian diplomacy over the years, but, in an email to his son, finally accepted that he’d “had a go at getting Afghanistan off my chest”. That “extracurricular prose” analysis, “Afghanistan: America’s Dilemma was Australia’s Too”, is included as an addendum to The Sparrows of Kabul and is a worthy piece of pragmatic analysis that succinctly counterbalances the more personal observations of his son.

In The Dust of Uruzgan, Smith noted that former UK Ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, in his book Cables from Kabul, had lamented “the lack of a coherent political strategy throughout the international community’s mission in Afghanistan”. Smith goes on to state:

After returning from Kabul in 2010, Cowper-Coles became the UK special envoy for Afghanistan, working with my dad and counterparts from other coalition countries for three years to try to create a shared strategy for promoting a viable political accord in Afghanistan, central to which had to be some dialogue with the Taliban. In the end they failed, thwarted by the multiple tyrannies of complexity involved.

For all the effort on the part of a lot of good people, in the end, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban was inevitable. Everything the Taliban assured the negotiators at those peace talks that they wouldn’t do, they did, particularly the reimposition of strict sharia restrictions on the lives of women and girls.

As for the sparrows of Smith’s title, they get a rambling 244-line piece of prose poetry all to themselves, unconstrained by either diplomatic niceties or poetic conventions as the human tragedy of those final weeks of life in Kabul before the Taliban takeover unfolds below their fluttering wings, the flocks of “little brown birds” going about their lives regardless. Smith recites the piece as the concluding track on his twelfth CD, also titled The Sparrows of Kabul, which he has been touring since its release in July 2022.

The Sparrows of Kabul
by Fred Smith

Puncher & Wattman, 2023, 280 pages, $32.95

Michael George Smith is a freelance writer based in Katoomba. His latest book, A Life in Books: A Selection of Short Stories, Prose Pieces & Essays, Literary, Historical and Socio-Political, is available on Amazon

3 thoughts on “Humanity Amid the Shambles

  • Jack Brown says:

    On iView one can catch ‘Evacuation’ where UK military personnel recount their experience of that chaotic time and the impossible situation they were in. A family member based in the Gulf at the time as a medical officer worked 20 hour days once the Taliban appeared processing evacuees. Then after another very long day did an overnight evacuation flight towards the end remembering the faint smile one lucky ‘sparrow’ managed as she deplaned back at Minhad around 2AM. Parents caught at the entrance to Kabul’s airport were desparate to give up their infants knowing that Taliban had let them through to the gate but were shooting dead into the open sewers those turned away. Terrible time.

  • David Isaac says:

    Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, including the anti-civilization globohomo liberal world order. Charity should begin at home with sensible management of our own populace instead of forcing feminism onto a people to whom it is anathema. Feminism played a pre-eminent part in our own national downfall. Subsidizing single motherhood and encouraging the growth of an underclass instead of encouraging the most well-adjusted women to forgo the joys of employment and raise large families was always self-evidently stupid. Now we have lost nearly all sense of ourselves and seem happy to ‘reproduce’ by planeloads of unassimilable foreigners every day. What were those Afghanis thinking to give up such a prospect?
    As for migration, in theory it’s simple you just stop it. Of course a massive legal edifice has been built which makes such straightforward acts inadmissible, so we need a government which can remove all that and return our sovereignty. Be careful though if you try to get one, international pariah status awaits.

  • Lawrie Ayres says:

    David Isaac. Unassimilable foreigners has been playing on my mind for years. One day in the future Australia will face an enemy that wants our land and resources. If that enemy is China will our local Chinese defend Australia or will they help the invasion in the hope or knowledge that they will benefit? If that enemy is from a Muslim nation will our local Muslims defend Australia or aid the invader? Having watched the way local imams tell their followers to hate the infidel I assume the latter. Maybe immigration should be limited not only by number but also by background. It seems like suicide to invite in a modern version of the Trojan horse. If the left hate the idea then I would say that is the correct course to take.

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