Sky News Afternoon Agenda with Kieran Gilbert - 17/08/2021

17 August 2021

SUBJECT: Afghanistan.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Penny Wong, thank you very much for your time. As you see these images out of Kabul, 20 years on, how do you reflect on the tragedy really for that nation and particularly the women of Afghanistan after hard fought gains over many years, now back to the Taliban.

SENATOR PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: You used the right word Kieran, and that is tragedy. It is a tragic day, a heartbreaking day, and heartbreaking time for the people of Afghanistan, for the Afghan-Australian community, for our veterans, and for families, particularly those who've lost a son or father or brother, in this campaign. But as you say, it is a particularly frightening and tragic day for the women and girls of Afghanistan who face what has been in the past a brutal, cruel and repressive regime.

GILBERT: I'll ask you the same question that the Prime Minister has been asked, and other leaders around the world, as you look back at the two decades, the lives lost, the bloodshed, the cost in dollar terms, as well, the Taliban back in the seat of power, was it worth it?

WONG: There has been a huge cost. And I do want to say to anyone who has lost someone in this campaign, we can barely fathom the pain you must be feeling at this time. People serve, the ADF serve, they do so bravely, they do so loyally and they do so because they are asked to on behalf of the nation and we take them for their service. What I would say is this; we had initial objectives as an international community after 9/11. Those objectives were met, but we sought to do more. We sought to build a better Afghanistan, a better life, more stability and a better future for the women and girls, in particular, of Afghanistan. And we made enormous gains and people's lives were changed, and the ADF and all who serve should be immensely proud of that contribution, and we're grateful for their contribution. You're right Kieran, it is tragic that those gains have not been secured by the international community, but they are gains worth striving for

GILBERT: The Federal Government says it's repatriated more than 400 Australian visa holders from Afghanistan in recent times, including those who have worked alongside our military as translators and other support staff in Afghanistan. Are you reassured by what you're hearing from the Government in terms of their current efforts to bring more Afghan citizens home that might be at risk in the face of the Taliban?

WONG: We support the mission the Prime Minister has announced but I fear it is too little too late. And can I refer you to what the former Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie said, where he said the ugly truth is that we have left it too late to help the people who helped us. That is, I think, a responsibility the Prime Minister should have taken, Mr Morrison should have taken. And yet again, he's been too late to this responsibility. I know the Government keep telling us that they are doing a lot. I can only speak from what I hear from veterans, from what I hear from people in Afghanistan, from what I hear from people who have been in the ADF, who are all saying that we have not done enough to get people who helped us out and of course, Kieran, there is an ethical responsibility here but there's also a national security responsibility that Mr Morrison should have looked to; which is, we want to be a nation whose reputation is we help you, if you help us. And I fear from what I see and what I hear, particularly from veterans, that that is being undermined.

GILBERT: The Defence Minister today, and the Foreign Minister yesterday on this program said that there'd been more than 430 Afghans, family members, civilians, those that worked alongside our troops already brought home since the closure of our Embassy. Does that not sound like there has been some progress, in the face of a crumbling nation or crumbling infrastructure in Kabul?

WONG: Of course we welcome those, the fact that there have been 430 who have been brought here, but I can only look to what is being said, what is being said, as I said by the former CDF, what has been said by veterans, the calls from Afghanistan and now the fact that we have this very perilous mission on the cards. The reality is, the Government has been, as it is in so many years, it's too slow to act, and again we see really dire consequences of that failure to act promptly. There have been calls from Labor, from veterans, from John Howard, Kevin Rudd - former Prime Ministers, as well as from Afghanistan itself, people inside Afghanistan.

GILBERT: Joe Biden today said that after 20 years, he's learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces and that he stands squarely behind his decision. Was this handled appropriately by the US President?

WONG: Well Joe Biden overnight, I think, outlined some of the very difficult and challenging issues that he, as the President, has considered. Remember, this has been a long time coming. There will be a lot of time to discuss this down the track. I think right now our focus should be on who we need to get out. And what we need to do now. But I would say this; we should have those discussions; we should learn from this. And I think the fundamental issue that President Biden and so many others have referenced is that we see in this the limits of the capacity of military interventions to build a stable state. And the limits on the capacity of external powers to ensure that stability.

GILBERT: And he makes the fundamental point that American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war, and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves...

WONG: I think that really goes to what I said, which is, there is only so much you can do to build stability, and ultimately stability and security in a nation has to be secured for itself. I mean look, the scenes overnight and the scenes we have witnessed, the rapidity of the Taliban's advance, the fall of Kabul, all of these things do require, I think, honest discussions about what we need to learn. For now, I have to say our focus does need to be on what we can do, as I said; getting those Australians citizens who remain in Kabul, those who helped Australians, and then I think that the Government really does need to fast track, and if possible evacuate the partners and families of Australian citizens who are there.

GILBERT: And also, a huge challenge, not just in the short term, but the medium to long term, is to ensure that this does not become a safe haven, once again, for the likes of Al Qaeda.

WONG: This will require an engagement from the whole of the international community about how that is to be done in a circumstance where we have the Taliban in control of Kabul and most of Afghanistan. This will be a discussion that has to occur. Obviously, Labor has had, Mr Albanese had a briefing yesterday on the situation in Afghanistan and I'm sure there'll be more to say down the track.

GILBERT: Finally, I want to ask you a broader question about the international standing of the United States - the hit to its prestige when you look at the way that Kabul has fallen so quickly to the Taliban. It evokes the comparison with the fall of Saigon in 1975.

WONG: Yes, those images have been shocking, haven't they? And I don't think there's any running away from that. I wouldn't say that this President, also President Trump, made clear the American position. A withdrawal has been flagged for a long time now, and I think we do run up against this, which is ultimately the world is a complex place and even multilateral endeavours are sometimes not successful.

GILBERT: Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong. I appreciate your time, as always. Thanks for that.

WONG: Thank you, Kieran.

Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.