2GB, Drive with Jim Wilson
Jim Wilson: Every few weeks I speak to the Foreign Minister and the Minister for Women, Marise Payne, and there's plenty to talk about today. Minister, welcome back to Drive.
Marise Payne: Good afternoon, Jim.
Jim Wilson: Thank you for your time, as always. The scenes out of Afghanistan are extremely distressing, Minister. What's the latest in terms of Australians on the ground there? How many Aussies are in Afghanistan right now?
Marise Payne: Jim, it's a very distressing time, both in Afghanistan and for so many Australians who have given so much over a very long period of time. We are working closely with our international partners, particularly with the United States and the United Kingdom addressing the issues for Australian citizens and visa holders who are in Afghanistan. We have over 130 Australian citizens who have been in Afghanistan and, of course, a number of the locally engaged staff and their families that we are working now to ensure we are able to assist to leave.
Jim Wilson: Okay. I understand we're in the process of sending up to 250 troops to help get our people home. What can you update as far as that's concerned this afternoon? How many planes have we sent and where are they now?
Marise Payne: So the deployment is underway. There are planes en route and also a plane that has been in the Middle East. In terms of the operational security of those activities, we're obviously not going into a great deal of public detail, but suffice to say that, as has been indicated by the ADF and the Defence Minister, we are deploying more than 250 personnel to support those efforts. And we will also be supporting the work of the United States, the security efforts they are making, particularly in relation to Hamid Karzai International Airport. And we'll provide our KC-30 for air-to-air refuelling operations as well.
Jim Wilson: Okay. I've got a question from Tim from Goulburn, one of our listeners. He says to you, Minister, “I'm an ex-serviceman of 27 years deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The British and the Americans have troops on the ground in Kabul. Why are we sitting idly by in Dubai? What are we waiting for?”
Marise Payne: Well, first of all let me acknowledge Tim and thank him very much for his service across those many years. And it is people like Tim who will be feeling the raw pain of seeing what is happening in Afghanistan right now. We're not sitting idly by though, as I just said. And so we have our C-17 Globemasters departing and into the Middle East in the coming days. We have to ensure that the US is able to provide the security at Hamid Karzai International Airport. It is with their contribution and their strong engagement that we will be able to land our planes and to ensure that we can support those Australians and those visa holders to leave.
Jim Wilson: So no doubt you're across the chaotic scenes we've seen at Kabul Airport, those awful scenes earlier today of people running across the tarmac desperately trying to get on planes. The Taliban has taken over Kabul, the capital. When do you think it's feasible and realistic to get our planes to actually land there?
Marise Payne: Jim, I'm not going to speculate. Obviously we rely on allocation of landing slots through the usual processes. But we are working very closely – very closely with the British, very closely with the United States on these matters, literally in constant engagement with them, including from our Chargé who has been working with our post in Abu Dhabi to make sure that all those preparations are in place.
Jim Wilson: Okay. Has anyone in the Australian Government, Minister, raised their eye with the US Government about its decision to abandon the Bagram Air Base in July? I mean, the US controlled it for 20 years. I would have thought when it comes to evacuating thousands of people from a war-torn country that the US Army would realise the need to have multiple runways to land planes on.
Marise Payne: Well, Bagram is an air base I visited myself in the past. I'm quite familiar with it. I wouldn't put it in those terms. The United States made a very clear decision which they announced and articulated some time ago now that they were going to shift their position in relation to Afghanistan and that they were going to make the changes that they have. We are part of an international coalition and have been part of an international coalition for the decades that we have been engaged.
In that context we have worked with them, but, as you know, the ADF made its decisions and through those processes communicated that to government in relation to their own proposals for leaving Afghanistan as well. They have been implemented now for some time. But the decisions the US has made are ones which they have communicated to coalition partners and are now clearly in the process of implementing.
Jim Wilson: Do you think that the withdrawal was premature as far as the US goes?
Marise Payne: Well, that is a decision which the United States made, and we work constructively within the international coalition. Whether or not it was premature is I'm sure a matter which will be debated at great length. And, in fact, I heard the President of the United States doing just that today.
Jim Wilson: But we are a strong ally and a close ally of the United States. You're the Foreign Minister. Was it the right move?
Marise Payne: Well, I understand that almost whichever country has been engaged in Afghanistan over a very long period of time had formed views some time ago that there was not a military solution to the challenges that beset Afghanistan. And so many have been working on the prospects for a resolution, a negotiated resolution, between the Taliban, between the Afghan National Government and, in fact, strongly brokered by the United States over a long period of time. And I would strongly encourage the Taliban who have made multiple commitments during that process as to the future of Afghanistan and as to their own behaviours. That they're commitments that the international community expect them to honour, and that includes Australia.
Now I know many will say that it is unlikely or not realistic that the Taliban may walk down that path. But, Jim, the international community has to be very clear, and I think the words of the UK Ambassador to the United Nations Security Council meeting overnight in New York are very powerful in this regard, when James Kariuki said ‘If the Taliban continue to abuse human rights, they cannot expect to enjoy any legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people or the international community'. And that is a view that is strongly held not just by the United Kingdom but by Australia and many other leaders.
Jim Wilson: Okay. We're speaking to the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne. There's no question there must be many innocent Afghans who our diggers, our military men and women who served on the frontline, who we owe such a great debt of gratitude to, I mean, interpreters, fixers, all sorts of people like this. Do you have any idea how many of these people remain in Afghanistan?
Marise Payne: Well, I know that we have brought 1,800 here to Australia, locally engaged staff and their families, since our special humanitarian program for those people who supported us started in 2013. We have granted 640 new visas under that program since April of this year and more than 430 of those have come to Australia already.
We are working very closely with the Department of Home Affairs and the Minister for Immigration and the Department of Defence on others who may fall within that category to ensure that we are able to support them through this process that I've described to you in our earlier conversation about visa holders being able to depart Afghanistan safely.
Jim Wilson: How concerned are you right now that these people who helped our soldiers in their time of need and now the Taliban have regained power, surely they'll face persecution for helping us? That is just deeply, deeply disturbing.
Marise Payne: The human rights aspects of this for so many people in Afghanistan are of great concern to the Australian Government and to me personally. And that includes those who have helped us, which is why we have been running this program over the years that we have. Not every country has done that, frankly, Jim. And we have been able to bring 1,800 of those locally engaged staff and their families here during that time, including, as I said, more than 430 since April of this year and granted further visas. And our contacts with them on the ground in Afghanistan have been ensuring that they are aware of the efforts that we are making currently and that they are part of our planning in that regard.
Jim Wilson: And trying to bring more back to Australia?
Marise Payne: That's correct.
Jim Wilson: Yeah ok. I spoke to Professor Greg Barton from Deakin University yesterday. He said it was inevitable that Afghanistan will once again become a hot bed for tourism – I beg your pardon, not tourism – terrorism in the future. It's a bleak message to send our heroic diggers, isn't it? I mean, they fought so hard for 20 years, Minister, to rid the country of terrorism and keep the West safe, and now all their hard work could be undone.
Marise Payne: It is deeply distressing. And I know so much has been given by so many Australians and their families – the 41 Australian men who gave their lives, who made the ultimate sacrifice, and their families, those who have been horrifically wounded, both physically and mentally, by their service, and those of the 39,000 other men and women who wore the Australian uniform in Afghanistan. But what they worked for, the focus on ensuring that the international community would not experience again the horrors of 9/11 – and we know that we are coming so quickly to that 20th anniversary – that the international community, Afghanistan itself, would be as far as is humanly possible when the globe puts its shoulder to the wheel on these things would be protected from that.
And that wheel is carried by those men and women who have served for us and served to protect and support the values that Australia stands for over so many years. The position of women and girls that they have been able to advance in that time, the changes, for example, in access to education, in access to women being able to teach, in addressing family and domestic violence, in school enrolments which have increased tenfold since 2002, access to health care increasing from 9 per cent to 57 per cent. This has changed people's lives.
And I saw an interview last night with a commentator, an Afghan commentator, who made all of those observations about what important steps they were for his nation and for the future of his nation. Changing access to education for generations in that 20 years has been profoundly important.
But I don't underestimate for a moment the absolute chilling experience it is for those men and women to see the events of the recent days and weeks.
Jim Wilson: Yeah, they sacrificed so much, and we thank them for their service over, you know, a couple of decades. Minister, thank you for your time this afternoon.
Marise Payne: Thanks very much, Jim.
Jim Wilson: That's Foreign Minister and the Minister for Women, Marise Payne.
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