The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel
Leon Byner: Thanks for joining us. The Prime Minister has expressed more than dismay and fury at the frightening and increasingly violent situation in Afghanistan, and you’ve got suicide bombers from ISIS K who let off dual bombs outside Kabul’s international airport on Thursday evening.
Of course, it’s pretty obvious that you can’t negotiate with these people. They’re not of the mind to do that. They have their way of doing things and you either agree with them or they’ll do whatever they can to make sure you don’t exist.
So let’s talk to the Defence Personnel Minister Andrew Gee. Andrew, good morning. Faced with a challenge like this what are we left with?
Andrew Gee: Well we’re left with a very dangerous situation in Kabul, and this was a murderous atrocity, Leon, and if anyone was ever in any doubt about the righteousness of the Australian mission in Afghanistan, this is a brutal reminder of the terrorists and criminals we were fighting against and the threats they posed to international security, but also our national security as well.
But for the folks on the ground, it is now a very, very difficult and dangerous time, and obviously ‑ well, my concern is that once the last international troops pull out, that veneer of law and order to the extent it exists at the moment will totally break down and you’re just going to be left with chaos. So it is very, very difficult and dangerous in Kabul at the moment.
Leon Byner: So we are going to withdraw, aren’t we?
Andrew Gee: Yeah, so Australia’s already out. We’ve left and the Brits are still there, and the Americans are still there but that is winding down so it’s still the 31st as the deadline. I think it’s just going to get more difficult and more dangerous.
Those attacks at the airport, one was at the Abbey Gate. That’s where not only Australian troops have been helping to guard, but where we have been sending people, it’s the south gate at the airport.
The Baron Hotel where the other attack was, that is the, or was the staging area or the marshalling area for evacuees and so messages were going out before all of this for people to marshal at the Baron Hotel, British citizens. So I would say that’s why that was attacked.
But I think to the credit of our people and our operation there, we were warning people a day or two beforehand. So people we were trying to help on the ground were getting messages not to go to the airport and that proved to be very wise. But we just don’t have any visibility on who in terms of the Afghani people were killed in those attacks. Obviously we have the numbers of 13 US service personnel, and our condolences go out to the friends and family and loved ones of all of those who were killed in these murderous attacks.
But for those folks left on the ground I think it is going to be a very dangerous time and what we now are doing is trying to work out how many Australians are there, how many visa holders are there and how many people were part‑processed in terms of people who just put up their hands and said “I need help” for whatever reason. So there are a number of classes of people there that we’re going to have to get a handle on very quickly and obviously do everything we can to get out. But for people on the ground it’s now just even more dangerous than ever before.
It’s not that easy to get out over land is my information on the ground, so not all of the over-land border crossings are open and so people are just going to have to shelter as best they can and just basically, I think prepare for the worst. If they have any contingency plan I think it’s time for them to activate it.
And as I said, I think it’s just going to potentially lapse into total chaos there, because the reports were that Taliban targets were also attacked in these bombing attacks. So I think that the potential for chaos and a total breakdown there is extraordinarily high, especially once the last allied troops leave.
Leon Byner: Is it safe for our country to put a military aircraft in there to evacuate people? Is that something that’s safe to do or is there a big risk in that too?
Andrew Gee: I think we made the decision that it’s no longer safe so we’re out. So all of our people are now out safely, thankfully, and that is something to be very grateful for, but I don’t think there’s any chance of any more Australian flights going in and I think in terms of getting people connected to Australia on our allies’ aircraft, I think that is going to be very difficult as well because they’re going to be flat out just getting their own evacuees out and pulling out their own military personnel and infrastructure.
I think that in terms of the Australian operation the window has closed. We are out. Thankfully everyone was safe. 4,100 people were evacuated. But one of the problems has been Leon, is that the number of Australians who’ve put up their hand has just grown exponentially. So there were a lot more people in Kabul than we knew about and so we were initially looking at about, you know, it would have been ‑ there’s no precise figure but let’s say under 200, around 150.
Leon Byner: Sure.
Andrew Gee: Who we thought were there and that needed help and then as every day passed more and more people would suddenly say, “Oh yeah, no, we’re back”. They may be Australian citizens who have gone back over to be with their family and friends and haven’t notified us. So every single day that list has grown. But it’s not only them it’s, “By the way, can you help us get our family out as well?”
Leon Byner: Oh boy.
Andrew Gee: So it’s just been a mammoth task and I think we’ve done very well to get 4,100 out. It was always a tinder box and there were always fears that this could happen. It is an atrocity and, look, I hope that the US does hunt them down, but I don’t think that’s going to happen straight away because at the moment it is chaotic there and the mission is to get the remaining US personnel and the British personnel and their people out.
So as far as we’re concerned, I think the window has pretty much closed and now we’re going to have to work to find ways to get more of those people out through the humanitarian visa program, for example. We’re going to have to try find ways to get any citizens out, but first we’ve got to get, you know, a handle on how many are there and work with our allies to do that, because some people were making multiple applications to get out with multiple countries.
So it is very chaotic and very fluid there but unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, I think the tragedy is going to continue. When I was talking about the veneer of law and order, the Taliban themselves have been going house to house, they were interrogating people and there was organised looting going on. So when they were going into people’s homes they were, you know, they were looting homes.
So now you’ve got this new ISIS K threat which has emerged. They’ve been there for a long time, but you’ve now got them potentially fighting the Taliban. You’ve still got elements of the Afghan Army in the northern areas. There’s still resistance going on.
So it just looks to me like a very — not only a dangerous situation, but a tragic situation for the people of that country. You know, we’ve been working so hard for the last 20 years to build a future there and at least in the near term it just looks like more tragedy.
Leon Byner: Thank you very much, Andrew Gee. Andrew is the Defence Personnel Minister just explaining the big challenge on the ground in a place that’s a long way away but affects us all, and that’s Afghanistan.
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