The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has defended Australia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and its evacuation of citizens and visa holders, saying Australia was left with no choice once the United States made its decision to leave.
The Australian Defence Force evacuated another 300 people on four flights overnight, including Australian citizens, and Afghan visa holders for Australia, the UK, the US and New Zealand.
But Morrison did not match a guarantee given by Joe Biden to citizens that they would all be safely evacuated, saying the country was a war zone.
“We will get as many people out as safely as possible,” Morrison told ABC’s Insiders program.
“I can’t guarantee the situation in Afghanistan. Australia is not in that situation.”
Morrison refused to criticise the chaotic and hasty US exit that has been condemned across the globe, saying the decision was made after 20 years of allied forces trying to make “a failed state a functional state”.
The prime minister said there had been “many discussions” between Australia and the US about the conflict in Afghanistan.
But he would not say if he agreed with the decision to finally withdraw US troops – which has allowed the Taliban to seize control of the country.
“Australia’s presence in Afghanistan is entirely conditional on the United States presence in Afghanistan, that’s just a realistic fact,” Morrison said.
“Over a long period of time, all prime ministers have had that discussion, going as far back as John Howard, about the operations that we’ve had there, as have our military planners and our military officials in terms of the success of the operations in Afghanistan.
“At the end of the day, ultimately a decision was taken, going back as far as the Obama administration … and as a result Australia has to take its decisions based on the environment.
“Let me say this: for 20 years we have all worked hard to try, in the best of our efforts and endeavours, to make a failed state a functional state.”
‘Australia’s presence in Afghanistan is entirely conditional on the United States presence,’ Scott Morrison told ABC’s Insiders. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP
But John Howard, the former prime minister who initiated Australia’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan following the September 11 attack on the US in 2001, said he did not believe the complete withdrawal of US forces by a firm deadline was necessary.
“I guess my criticism, my reservation about the way it has been handled is, was it absolutely essential to withdraw every last soldier by a given date?” Howard told Sky News on Sunday.
Howard said a small remaining force, backed by air support, could have assisted the Afghan army resist the Taliban.
“That would have prevented some of the negative images that have clearly come out of Afghanistan and could well have emboldened the Afghan army, provided it had been supplemented by some air cover to have provide more resistance to the Taliban,” he said.
“I can understand that the American public has become war weary and both sides of politics had indicated that.”
Morrison said that while the fall of Kabul had taken place earlier than expected, the Australian government had not been surprised by the Taliban takeover.
While US forces have secured the Kabul airfield, the Taliban control checkpoints on all the roads leading to the airport, making passage to the airport to board evacuation flights perilous.
In recent days, images of the violence and chaos engulfing the capital have exposed the danger facing Afghan citizens following the Taliban takeover, particularly for those who assisted allied forces and face retribution.
While the new militant regime promised “safe passage” to those who wanted to leave the country, the road to Kabul airport – crowded, chaotic and punctuated by regular gunfire – has proved impassable to dozens of Australian citizens and visa-holders trying to reach military evacuation flights.
Morrison said Australia had acted earlier than many other coalition countries, having evacuated most diplomatic staff after Australia abruptly shut its embassy in Kabul in late May. It finished withdrawing its final 80 troops soon afterwards.