Minister, thanks so much for your time this morning. What is the status of this evacuation mission?
Well Laura, clearly circumstances are incredibly difficult, tragic on the ground, in Kabul at the airport at the moment. So we’re working very closely with the Americans, and order needs to be restored to the airport before we’re able to land any of our assets there.
But we’ve worked very closely with the Americans, particularly over recent days, in terms of our own planning and our pre-positioning of our assets and of our personnel as well. Some of that is still underway, but it gives us the ability once there is order restored to the airport to conduct the uplift that we’ve been planning.
We’ve all seen the chaos at Kabul airport, these tragic and desperate scenes. Is there any hope that this can be cleared to allow this mission to go ahead, and do you have a time frame?
Well, from Australia’s perspective we don’t have the capacity obviously to secure the airport, but the Americans, as I understand, have that operation underway at the moment. So that will continue. It make take some time, but for Australia, we won’t be landing aircraft into the airport until it’s safe to do so.
Obviously, as you know, we have a significant base in the UAE, and that’s where our aircraft will pre-position before they’re deployed into Kabul and we’ll do that in concert and working very closely with the Americans and other European allies who are there.
Do you have the capacity only to go to the capital, Kabul, or is there an option to go back in a Kandahar and back into Tarin Kowt?
No, the only option available to us is Kabul. Now circumstances are changing very quickly as we see in the country and it’s difficult the further out of the capital you get, but circumstances might change, but at this point in time the only option available to us is Kabul.
So Minister, if you can get in there how many can you get out?
Well a couple of points Laura. Obviously over the last few months, particularly since April, Australia really has ramped up its activity in terms of pulling our own people out, so we don’t have any personnel there from DFAT, the embassy staff have been evacuated, our Defence personnel have been taken out of Afghanistan already, and we were advised early on that we should act quickly. We took that advice from the military planners and we withdrew over the course of the last couple of months – not only the DFAT staff and the Defence personnel – but also some of the locally engaged staff. So we’ve been very fortunate in that ramp up over the course of the last three or four months to bring 430 people to Australia, the locally engaged staff and their families.
That has been a very significant piece of work and, as I say, I think we were well-advised. We took that advice and we’ve been out ahead of the scenes that we’re seeing playing out now in Kabul.
There are still some people left, Australian citizens included, who have taken a decision to stay there because they’re working for an NGO or because they are a contractor, and we’ll provide support to them where it’s appropriate to do so. But many of those companies will have their own evacuation plans in place. For the locally engaged staff, for some of them – for quite a number in fact – they’ve made application to Australia, but also to the Americans and to Europeans, and in some cases they’ve taken up that offer over the offer that we’ve made to them. So that’s the picture that we’re looking at, at the moment.
As I understand it, only people that are Australian citizens and visa holders will be evacuated in this mission and I understand there’s a list of around 800 contractors, interpreters, Afghans that guarded the embassy, journalists and their families that are still in Kabul. Are they on your list? Do they have any chance of getting out?
Well again Laura, I don’t think lists are as accurate as they would want to be at the moment because some people have taken up offers to go to another part of the world. So even though an offer of a visa has been made or in some cases the issuance of a visa, that person has still taken a decision to go to Europe, for example. So we’ll work through that.
There are also other examples, to your earlier point, where people are in other parts of the country and they’ve not been able to make their way to the capital. So that’s difficult as well and all of those circumstances and those individual circumstances we’ll be working through.
But we need to be realistic about not just the situation at the airport, but also the corridor between Kabul and the airport, it is a difficult route as well. So people will be finding it difficult to get to the airport. But for Australia, we really have ramped up the numbers that we’ve taken out over the course of the last few months and I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to do that.
Minister, I was speaking to an interpreter overnight that worked with Aussie troops in Uruzgan for years on an AusAID project that essentially allowed Afghans to live a better life and really, it was one of those hearts and minds projects that won over the local people and was able to trample on the Taliban in this area. He’s been able to make it to Kabul. He tells me he’s already hiding out in a building where the Taliban have occupied. They’re going door-to-door in Kabul. He’s living on two watermelons and a water bottle. He has family there. He has no options. Australia has rejected his visa status. Is there anything you can do for him?
Well Laura, I don’t know the individual circumstances. I’m happy to look at the case and happy to get the details from you off air, but in some cases there are people – and as I say I know nothing of this case – but there are some cases where people have provided support to Australia over a period of time – maybe 10 or 12 years ago – but the intelligence has indicated to us very clearly that in the intervening period they’ve also been working for the Taliban or for Al Qaeda or they’ve acted against our interests or the interests of our allies in Afghanistan. In that case, that person will not be coming to Australia. I’m not bringing people to Australia that pose a threat to us or that have done us harm in Afghanistan, even if at a point earlier they had provided assistance to us. So let’s be very clear about the difficult circumstances of some of these cases.
As you point out, people living in war-like conditions often trade sides, often have different equities and make different decisions at different points in time. We have to look at all of that intelligence, some of which is not made public, and we have to make tough decisions in relation to individual cases, but if people pose a security threat, regardless of their status, they won’t be coming to our country.
Afghanistan for centuries has been a very, very difficult part of the world. The whole Middle East, as we know, has been through war in different iterations over centuries and the people who are arguing today that Australia and the United States should continue on in Afghanistan 12 months ago, were arguing that we should get out as quickly as possible. So we’re dealing with a difficult situation as best we can.
But from Australia’s perspective, firstly, we should be incredibly proud of the service of the 39,000 men and women who have served in our country’s name, in particular, the 41 who lost their lives, because they prevented Australian lives from being lost. Because of their presence in Afghanistan, not only were we able to defeat Al Qaeda off the back of the tragedy of 9/11, we were able to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and crush that network – and that has directly resulted in Australian lives being saved.
So we should be very proud of their service and what they have done for our country because without that service, without our presence in Afghanistan, we would have had significant terrorist attacks in our country and in countries that we are allied with and that would have been an unspeakable tragedy. So I am, and I think our country is, incredibly proud of the service of those men and women and that is what we should concentrate on and honour.
We will do the best that we can in very difficult circumstances to help the remaining people out, but Afghanistan has and will, I think, for a long time be in a very difficult position.
Just finally Minister, the Taliban says it’s a changed Taliban. It’s promised through its various social media channels that there will be no retribution. Do you believe them?
Well, that will be demonstrated through actions, not words. I want to believe that that’s the case, but that will be demonstrated. We want to see women and young girls treated equally. We want to see young boys and young girls be educated. We want to see the governance arrangements and the bureaucracy that’s built up there to allow the government to function and the country to run to continue.
There are many countries like Australia who have nothing but goodwill for the
Afghani people and for the future stability of that country. We want whatever regime is in place to be able to honour those decent norms and honour the humanitarian aspects of what it means to be a responsible power and leadership group to lead a country.
The world’s eye now is on Afghanistan and watching what the Taliban do. Now is their chance to operate in a very different way than what we’ve seen them operate in decades past. We hope that that’s the case. We hope that stability can be provided. They obviously want coalition forces out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible and we want that to be done in a safe and orderly way – and that will be their first test.
Minister Dutton, thanks for your time.