Sky News, Afternoon Agenda
Kieran Gilbert: How devastating are those images, Foreign Minister – the return of the Taliban – for the hopes, the freedoms, the lives of women in Afghanistan?
Marise Payne: Kieran, good afternoon, and this is a very difficult day – a difficult day for many but for no-one more than the people of Afghanistan. As you say, it has been a very long and difficult struggle over so many years and I know that Australians as well have given an enormous amount in those many years. We know that 41 Australians made the ultimate sacrifice, and I am thinking of their families today. I am thinking of those who were wounded, all of those who served, many of us who have friends who served as we watch this extremely disturbing and distressing circumstances.
Kieran Gilbert: And obviously for the women of Afghanistan as well, we all know the atrocities that life was like under the Taliban. Now we see these images of the Taliban back in control and those hard-fought freedoms, at least in the capital cities, they're gone.
Marise Payne: For women and girls, I fear this is devastating. And we have, indeed, seen in recent weeks as the Taliban has completed its surge towards Kabul where that has been the case. And we have worked so hard with the people of Afghanistan, with the women of Afghanistan and with international partners, both governments and humanitarian and non-government organisations, to make those changes, to see women represented in elected office, to see girls able to attend school and women able to teach, to address questions of family and domestic violence, maternal mortality, all of those things that we have done.
There is now I think an enormous weight of expectation on the international community on those issues in how they approach engagement with the Taliban, and that includes Australia, how they approach engagement with whatever form of government we end up with in Afghanistan in the coming days and weeks to really ensure that that focus is not diminished. But it will be extraordinarily difficult and we absolutely know that.
Kieran Gilbert: So in that context, does the Federal Government intend on recognising Taliban, the Taliban as the formal government of Afghanistan?
Marise Payne: I think it's premature to engage in that discussion. I know that the UN Security Council is meeting tomorrow – or Monday US time – to address some of these issues of concern. I know British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also called for these international discussions to be held. And I don't want to speculate on that, but it is a focus for us right now in trying to support Australians, Australian permanent residents and their families in Afghanistan and those locally engaged staff that we have been bringing to Australia in recent months and their families as well.
Kieran Gilbert: Now you've copped some flak – the Federal Government that is – from the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He says it's unbelievable, potentially lethal negligence on the part of the Morrison government, towards Afghans who've stood with Australians for over a decade. He says, “I've been pleading the government to bring them to Australia for months.” What do you say in response to that? What is the government doing for those that have stood by our troops?
Marise Payne: Since April of this year, in fact, we have granted visas to over 640 of the locally engaged staff and their families and brought more than 400 here in those months since April. That increases to a total of 1,800 of locally engaged staff who have, with their families, been able to come to Australia through this continuous program that we have had in place. In fact, we have, I think, more than 8,500 Afghanis here on humanitarian and protection visas, including that 1,800 person cohort.
We're very, very focused on working with the international community, particularly with the United States who are assisting principally with security leads in relation to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul to ensure that we are able to support those Australians, permanent residents and visa holders and those who have applied who want to be able to come to Australia to leave in a safe and orderly way. The challenge, of course, is making sure that is the circumstance that applies in Kabul. And so that is the expectation the United States have made very clear to the Taliban, have made very clear that will be a condition precedent to enabling both military and commercial flights to leave Afghanistan with those sorts of people on them.
Kieran Gilbert: You've mentioned more than 400 visa holders have returned since May. How many remain in Afghanistan? Have you got a sense, a number, of how many Australian citizens and also those who have a right to come to Australia having helped us either as translators or in any other capacity?
Marise Payne: Kieran, we're working with a number of people, but you would appreciate that these are very sensitive issues and very sensitive for individuals. Certainly, across the Parliament my colleagues and colleagues right across the Australian Parliament have been raising particular issues with them that may affect people they know, their electorates, and we are working with all of those people. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been engaged right across this last weekend in particular on ensuring that we're able to support those Australians, those permanent representatives and visa holders. But in terms of the detail, I don't want to go into that detail publicly so I can ensure we help them in as safe as possible a way.
Kieran Gilbert: What's to stop Afghanistan returning to become a safe haven for terrorists like al‑Qaeda, like they did a number of decades ago, and that was the whole point of getting in there in the first place? What's to stop that happening again?
Marise Payne: I think that the international community from countries like Australia and the many others that I have sat around the international tables, where the issues of terrorism and counterterrorism are discussed, the international community has come a long way in the way in which we are engaged and working together on these issues. Not one responsible nation sitting around those tables has any intention of allowing those sorts of safe havens to come together ever again. That takes a lot of effort in terms of intelligence, in terms of coordination and cooperation. And we know here in our own region how absolutely vital it is to address those issues. We have seen them too often. We have seen them in Indonesia. We've seen them in the Philippines. We know what happened in Marawi, for example. And they have all been related to the influence of extremists in the Middle East, and we deal with this on a daily basis. It is an absolute focus for us as a nation. It's an absolute focus for this government and for the international community.
Kieran Gilbert: Comparisons have been drawn between the fall of Kabul with the fall of Saigon in the mid-1970s. How damaging is this to American standing internationally?
Marise Payne: Kieran, I think it's invidious to draw those sorts of comparisons. Every single situation is different. And I actually don't think it's about any one country's standing at this point in time. This is about the people of Afghanistan. This is about Afghanistan itself and its future. It is about Australia, the United States, the UK supporting their nationals in Afghanistan who wish to be able to leave and their families. There is a lot of work to do and that is our absolute focus.
Kieran Gilbert: And final question – I'll ask you a question that's been asked of the Prime Minister and I think leaders around the world: was it all waste? Twenty years on we see the Taliban back in power.
Marise Payne: Kieran, the subjects that you and I have discussed in the last few moments – the position of women and girls, the protection of Afghanistan, the international community from the horrors of extremists and terrorism are all those – all that work that has been put into those very, very important areas is, in my view, not wasted. And the contribution of so many Australians who fought, who engaged, who supported Afghanistan at a time of its greatest need has helped every step of the way.
Most importantly, as the Prime Minister has said, from Australia's perspective we've always stepped up in the fight for freedom. We've always stepped up on the values that make us who we are. And I want to acknowledge every one of those 39,000 Australians – the men and the women – who have been part of this over so many years.
Kieran Gilbert: Foreign Minister Marise Payne, I appreciate your time. An historic day, a difficult day for Afghanistan. But I appreciate your time. Thanks.
Marise Payne: Thank you, Kieran.