ABC RN Breakfast with Patricia Karvelas - 17/08/2021

17 August 2021

SUBJECT: Afghanistan.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: More than 250 Defence Force personnel are being deployed to the Middle East, to try and rescue Australians, following the Taliban's takeover of Kabul, and the total collapse of the Afghanistan Government. But the evacuation efforts have been thwarted by chaotic scenes at the city's international airport, where thousands of Afghans have surged onto the runway, desperate to board the last few flights leaving the country. The Australian mission involving three Air Force transport planes will also try to pick up an unknown number of Afghans who have been issued with humanitarian visas to settle in Australia. Penny Wong is the Shadow Foreign Minister and joins us this morning. Senator Wong, welcome.


KARVELAS: This is a dangerous, high-risk mission, will it work?

WONG: We all hope so and obviously we support these efforts, this mission, the efforts to evacuate people from Afghanistan, but I have to say I fear it is too little, too late. We have been calling for months and weeks now for people to be evacuated, for Australia to ensure that those who helped us, particularly, come to Australia. We've seen calls from former prime ministers, calls from Labor, but importantly calls from veterans who have been warning we should urgently get people to safety. And now we're left waiting and hoping on the success of a last minute and high-risk operation. I have to say, PK, I think, Admiral Chris Barrie, the former Chief of the Defence Force said yesterday, the very ugly truth is that Australia seems to have left it far too late to help those who helped us is regrettably true. I do not understand why Mr Morrison has not taken responsibility for this earlier.

KARVELAS: Is that really fair given the West has been blindsided by just how fast the Taliban was able to take over the country. Joe Biden, the US President admitted as much today. Could anyone have foreseen the speed at which the Government capitulated to the Taliban?

WONG: Look it is true that the Taliban have advanced far more quickly than people anticipated. I think that is self-evident and it is tragic, it is devastating for the people of Afghanistan. And I do want to say this is a very difficult time for veterans and for the families of veterans, particularly those who have endured the tragedy of losing a son. But this is not something that has been unforeseen. We have been raising this for months. I sat in Senate estimates and questioned Senator Payne about this and was told that, yes, we were urgently processing. Now we have both Australian citizens, but importantly, people who have helped us, who have not yet been able to have their visas considered, who are still in Afghanistan, who are still in Kabul. And that is something that has been on the cards for a long time. And I'd make the point again, as I have made for a very long time now; our national interest is in ensuring those who help us are helped. And that's because we don't want to send a message to the rest of the world that if you help Australia you'll be abandoned. We want the message to be if you help Australia you'll be helped. There is a national interest, and also an ethical responsibility, Patricia.

KARVELAS: Senator, there is mayhem at Hamid Karzai International Airport. US forces have just secured and cleared the airfield, allowing flights to resume in and out of the capital. But it's a very fraught situation.

WONG: Yes.

KARVELAS: It's not clear yet if they'll be able to maintain control of that airport, or how long they'll be able to do that. Have you been briefed on what steps are being taken to secure the site so that Australian transporters can get in?

WONG: The Opposition has been briefed. I'm in isolation, in quarantine, Patricia, so obviously I couldn't get to a secure facility. But Mr Albanese was briefed by the Government, and we acknowledge that. It is a security situation that is fraught. And what I am simply saying is we ought to have dealt with some of the issues that we are confronting now to get, particularly, those Afghans who assisted Australia in our 20-year operation in Afghanistan, to safety.

KARVELAS: The US Military is aiming to ramp up flights out of Kabul, lifting peak evacuation capacity to as many as 5,000 passengers a day. Do you have any sense if Australia will be able to get our citizens included in that quota?

WONG: Well, we are fully supportive of this operation and fully supportive of the Government's attempts and the ADF's attempts to bring people to safety.

KARVELAS: Do you know if there's any deal though, between the Americans and the Taliban to allow foreign nationals to depart Kabul without any hindrance?

WONG: Well, there's certainly been media reporting of discussions or of calls on the Taliban. I think we have a history though, the international community has a history of knowing how the Taliban behave. And this is a very dangerous situation for Australians and those who assisted us.

KARVELAS: Do you think there's any evidence that the Taliban has changed?

WONG: I find that difficult. Well, they've certainly changed in that they've become, probably, in many ways, more sophisticated. But I don't think we can assume that they're going to behave in a way the international community would expect and that is why this is such a tragic and heartbreaking time for the people of Afghanistan, and particularly for women and girls in Afghanistan, who will bear the brunt of what is a cruel and oppressive regime.

I do want to say there are a few things I think the Government do need to do, Patricia. I think we need to ensure that in addition to ensuring Australians depart the country and to ensuring that those who helped us, people who worked for and with Australia in its operations, are provided with a safe passage. I would also say to the Government, we need to deal with the partner and family visas of Australian citizens, many of whom have not been processed, who have been waiting for a very long time to have their applications processed. And then of course, we do have an unallocated humanitarian visa capacity. I would be saying to the Government, that should be applied to those most at risk, obviously activists and women in particular. And I think we do need pathways for existing Afghan TPV holders to remain in Australia. And I will note that the Minister made some comments to you earlier, or to Sabra earlier, indicating that that would occur. That should be operationalised.

KARVELAS: She used the language, I was listening very carefully to that interview, 'for now', does that worry you, should that be permanent?

WONG: The reason I used the phrase 'pathways to remain' in Australia is because I think we ought to dispense with the fiction that somehow people are going to be likely to be able to return.

KARVELAS: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is going to announce a new and bespoke resettlement scheme for the Afghans most in need, should we be doing something similar?

WONG: That's what I was referencing when I talked about our unallocated humanitarian visas. We have, because of the border closures, even without the Government changing its position on that, and there may be good reasons for that, we do have space in our humanitarian visa category to enable people to come to Australia and we should be utilising that particularly for those who we know are at high risk of being targeted by the Taliban.

KARVELAS: Do you fear Afghanistan could once again become a training ground for terrorists, a safe haven for terror?

WONG: I think these are discussions that the international community will have to have in the coming months. We do know the history of the Taliban, I mean this is a situation where we, I think, realise the limits of military intervention and the limits of foreign powers' capacity to build a functioning state. There'll be, I think, an honest discussion I hope, about some of the issues which arise as a consequence of what has occurred. President Biden did go to some of these in the address he gave overnight in the United States.

KARVELAS: 41 Australian soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said freedom is always worth fighting for, whatever the outcome. Do you think that sentiment would be shared by the families who lost their sons, their brothers, their husbands, or would they be despairing that their great sacrifice was for nothing?

WONG: I think the pain that families of those lost would be experiencing, particularly at this time, is difficult for all of us to fathom. So, I think the first thing I would express to the families of those who are grieving - and we lost 41 Australians in this war, over 200 were seriously injured, and we lost hundreds more thereafter - I would say to you we understand your distress. We understand how difficult this time is. I would thank them for the service of the son, or husband, or father. And I would say that the ideals we strove to fulfill in this mission, which were obviously to deal with the safe haven issue but also we sought to build a better life for the people of Afghanistan over 20 years and that those ideals are worthy. And I would acknowledge, honestly, that it is tragic that we've not, the international community has not been able to secure this.

KARVELAS: Penny Wong, thanks for joining me this is morning.

WONG: Thank you, Patricia.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.