ABC Radio National – AM with Sabra Lane

  • Transcript
Subject: Situation in Afghanistan
17 August 2021

Sabra Lane: The Foreign Minister is Marise Payne. I spoke with her a short time ago.

Marise Payne, it's been chaos at Kabul airport, and it's still closed. How soon can Australians be flown out?

Marise Payne: Well, it is obviously a very difficult situation, Sabra, and we are working with our partners, particularly the United States, as they work to ensure the security of the airport. But we have ADF flights, as you know, on route with Australian officials, and they will be able to help with this process as soon as possible.

Sabra Lane: Once they're allowed into the airport will they be taken into the Al Minhad Air Base in the UAE?

Marise Payne: Well, I think the arrangements around the movement of individuals will be things that we protect for their own safety and security. But we have put in place a plan to ensure that we can take Australian citizens and their families, permanent residents and visa holders out of Afghanistan safely and return them to Australia in due course. At the moment all of these movements are complicated by the requirements of COVID-19 as well as the difficulties in Afghanistan. But that is the planning that we have been doing.

Sabra Lane: President Biden has been blunt this morning about this saying what the world has seen in the fast few days – the government collapsing there and the army giving up – has vindicated his decision to withdraw. Does Australia agree with that assessment?

Marise Payne: Once the coalition and the United States within the coalition decided to withdraw, then that was the position that Australia had to follow, of course. And we've given a huge amount in the last 20 years and seen real progress. And I hope that what the international community is able to do is that focus on the protection of human rights, to keep the country from becoming a haven for global terrorism, hopefully seeing a representative government established. I hope those gains can be preserved.

Sabra Lane: We'll come to those points in a tick. Australia's already helped out 400 Afghan interpreters and contractors. How many more and their families are we trying to get out of the country right now?

Marise Payne: Sabra, that 400 is actually part of 1,800 of those locally engaged staff and families who have come to Australia under our humanitarian program. We have, I think, several hundred more locally engaged staff and, of course, Australian citizens and permanent residents that are known to us in Kabul that we are trying to help and to support now. But this has been a program, as you know, which has been in operation since 2013.

Sabra Lane: The UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, has admitted that not everyone is going to get out. Do you concede that?

Marise Payne: I certainly acknowledge that this is an extraordinarily difficult situation. The security issues, the lack of arrangements on the ground in Kabul make this very difficult for everyone. But we will do our level best to make sure that we are able to support those Australian citizens and their families, the permanent residents and visa holders and applicants through his process. But I absolutely acknowledge the difficulty that we face in doing that.

Sabra Lane: Britain, Italy, Germany, Spain, the UAE have all staged rescue missions and got people out. Why has Australia been so slow to help?

Marise Payne: Well, I don't agree with that, Sabra. We have Defence capacity underway now. We have the Australian Defence Force deploying its personnel with a KC-30 that is going to assist in air-to-air refuelling as well as our C-17 Globemasters, which will also be in the Middle East this week. We are making sure that we are assessing the mission against the latest development. And it is extraordinarily difficult. I think the international community and Australians who have seen the challenges of security issues at Hamid Karzai International Airport know that. We're working very closely with the United States. I spoke to the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, yesterday myself about these issues. And I know that they are very focused on ensuring that security and stability to enable countries like Australia to be able to support our civilians, our citizens and those visa holders.

Sabra Lane: It's been reported that there are at least 4,200 Afghans here on temporary protection visas and 53 nationals in immigration detention. Will they be allowed to stay now?

Marise Payne: All the Afghan citizens who are current in Australia on a temporary visa will be supported by the Australian government and no Afghan visa holder will be asked to return to Afghanistan at this stage. And that is something which we have, again, also discussed as a government.

Sabra Lane: You said that you hoped the gains that had been made will be retained in Afghanistan, but surely knowing how the Taliban has operated in the past is usually a good indicator of future performance, you'd have to be realistic.

Marise Payne: I'm very realistic, and it is devastating to see what is happening at the moment. And for the many Australians of whom we are so proud who have served over many years, the advances that we have made, the protection of Afghanistan and, frankly, the international community from many of the horrors of extremists and terrorism, which took us there in the first place, those protections have been advances worth making, the humanitarian advances, and particularly in relation to women and girls. But I am realist, Sabra; I know this is a very challenging environment. But the international community also has an obligation, and Australia is part of that, to have a very strong lens on the developments that take place in Afghanistan in the coming days, weeks and months, and also a very strong focus on what the formation of any entity that calls itself the government of Afghanistan looks like. And we with our partners – I know that I share this view with the United States, with the United Kingdom – we will be watching that very closely.

Sabra Lane: Minister, thanks for talking to AM.

Marise Payne: Thank you very much, Sabra.

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