By ROD McGUIRK
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia is working urgently with the United States to evacuate the last Afghans who helped Australian troops and diplomats as Taliban insurgents make rapid territorial gains across Afghanistan, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Friday.
Australia shut its Kabul embassy in May and withdrew the last of its troops in June as U.S. and NATO forces pulled out of the Afghanistan conflict after 20 years.
Morrison said Australia since April has resettled 400 Afghans and their families who would be in danger from the Taliban because they worked for Australia.
Morrison did not say how many more Afghans will be resettled in Australia under a program that has been shrouded in secrecy.
“We have made a lot of ground on this issue in the last few months. We’ll continue to do that. We’re liaising very closely with particularly the United States and others who are engaged in that area,” Morrison said.
“We’ll continue to implement that program with a great sense of urgency in partnership with those who also are engaged in similar activities in that region,” he added.
The Taliban captured two major cities, the country’s second- and third-largest after Kabul, and a strategic provincial capital on Thursday, further squeezing the embattled government just weeks before the end of the American military mission.
The seizure of Kandahar and Herat are the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban, who have taken 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals as part of a weeklong blitz.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is rushing 3,000 new troops to the Kabul airport to help with a partial evacuation of the U.S. Embassy.
The State Department said the embassy will continue functioning, but Thursday’s dramatic decision to bring in thousands of additional U.S. troops is a sign of waning confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to hold off the Taliban surge.
Morrison described the Taliban gains as “not surprising.”
“But it is concerning and it is very upsetting,” Morrison said.
More than 39,000 Australian military personnel have served in Afghanistan since 2001, and 41 have been killed there.
Asked what his message was to Australians who question whether the 20-year campaign was worth the sacrifice, Morrison replied: “Fighting for what you believe in is always worth it.”