Ministerial Statement: Afghanistan Australian Parliament House, ACT

Media statement
23 Aug 2021
Prime Minister
E&OE

Prime Minister: Mr Speaker, for almost 20 years, tens of thousands of Australians have served in Afghanistan under the authority and direction of successive governments. It is right that here in our national Parliament we give an account of recent events, as well as begin a more considered reflection on almost 20 years in Afghanistan. Liberal democracies do not shy away from history. Debate, accountability and responsibility are fundamental to who we are.

Mr Speaker, the situation on the ground in Kabul and across Afghanistan is dangerous and changing rapidly. The National Security Committee of Cabinet has been meeting daily on Afghanistan, and Australia is working closely with our allies and partners. Our priority is the safe and orderly departure of Australian citizens, permanent residents and visa holders, including formerly locally engaged Afghan employees.

I can report that with the assistance of partners in the United Kingdom and the United States, we've been able to evacuate more than a thousand people in 12 flights from Kabul since last Wednesday. The first people evacuated from Afghanistan landed in Perth via Al Minhad Base early on Friday morning, and another flight landed earlier today in Melbourne. The evacuation flights will continue for as long as we can continue to operate and get people out.

Mr Speaker, this as an urgent and dangerous mission. The Member for Herbert said it best when addressing the soldiers departing on the first rescue mission last week from 3 Brigade. “You are going into the belly of the beast,” he said. “A place where the rule of law does not exist on an operation that is dangerous, serious, and it's in our national interests for you to succeed.”

As we speak, more than 700 Australians are playing their part in this mission, from the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Home Affairs, the Australian Border Force and the Australian Defence Force. Many of these people have been deployed directly into Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. We currently have two C-17A Globemasters, two C-130J Hercules and one KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft deployed to the Middle East, conducting and supporting evacuation operations.

These evacuations are both dangerous and complex. Landing slots in Kabul are limited and the on ground time is also limited. Access to the airport for those seeking to be evacuated is a major limiting factor, and the approaches are very dangerous. I thank our key international partners, the United States and the United Kingdom, who are helping to secure Hamid Karzai International Airport, and our close friends in the United Arab Emirates who have been generous hosts for Australia's evacuation efforts. We deeply appreciate their support, and I was pleased to pass on our thanks directly to His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince Zayed, for his support. And, I thank our state and territory leaders also for the reception arrangements they have so quickly and instinctively put in place, without having to be asked, to support the returning evacuees.

Mr Speaker, since April this year, we've been able to bring out more than 430 Afghan locally engaged employees and their families who have been resettled in Australia. This is not a simple process. It has taken many, many months, both in preparation for the uplift at that time and since, and this number continues to grow as each evacuation flight makes its way from Kabul back to AMAB.

As mentioned, more than a thousand people have already been evacuated on those flights since last Wednesday, as many as four going in each and every evening, including locally engaged Afghans and their families. They will add to the more than 8,500 Afghan nationals that have been resettled in Australia since 2013, including more than 1,900 Afghan locally engaged employees and their families. We're committed to doing the right thing by those who have stood with us, and that's what we've been doing for some period of time. And, we're doing absolutely everything we can do right now to help them.

I also want to address our humanitarian intake. Australia will welcome an initial additional humanitarian intake of some 3,000 Afghan nationals by next July, as part of our annual program. I expect that this increase, this will increase, I should say, in the years ahead, and I commit our Government to continue to increase our intake of Afghan nationals at elevated levels into the years ahead. At this stage, the 3,000 will come from our existing 13,750 person annual humanitarian program. But, I want to stress that that 3,000 is a floor, it's not a ceiling. If we need to increase the size of the overall program to accommodate additional persons, then we will.

We will be resettling people who have legitimate claims through our official humanitarian program. We will not be providing a pathway to anyone who seeks to come here by any other means or change the status of others who have come by other means.

Mr Speaker, next month it will be 20 years since the September 11 attacks. Al-Qaeda, using the safe haven provided by the Taliban, attacked our way of life. Those attacks on freedom were subsequently mimicked by other extremist groups, such as Jemaah Islamiyah, in the years that followed. In 2001, when the Taliban refused to hand over Al-Qaeda terrorists, Australia supported a US led operation to root out and eliminate the capacity to stage more attacks against the West from Afghanistan. That we have hampered, interrupted and curtailed on so many occasions mass casualty attacks since then should be in no doubt, and is a testament to all those who have served. That determination to keep the world safe from terror attacks has not changed and will not change.

Mr Speaker, together with our allies and partners, we also laboured long and hard to help the Afghan people secure a better future. To restore a broken state. We invested in schools and health care, in power generation and more. We educated, well, saw to the education of women and girls. Heartbreakingly, the fruits from those seeds of hope are now very uncertain. We must recognise with realism and humility the limits of our power and resources to secure the outcome so many Afghans, not least millions of women and children, yearn for. But, let no one say this noble endeavour was anything other than a sign of what marks Australian sacrifice for the good of others. The cause was and always will be a just one.

Mr Speaker, it's been said that memory is a place where our vanished days gather, and for all our veterans, police officers, diplomats, aid workers and others who have served in our name and in our cause, there is already a gathering of days. Today, we recall the cost of this, our longest war. As the Member for Canning might say, looking sacrifice right in the eyes. And, as former Prime Minister John Howard is remind us, there is no hierarchy of sacrifice. And, I would add to that, amongst those who fall in our name, in our uniform, under our flag, standing up for our values, we honour the sacrifice of the 41 Australians who have died in Afghanistan in the service of our country, and we acknowledge the terrible loss suffered by their families, who I know so many in this Chamber, as do I know personally, and would have spoken to in these last days especially.

We must acknowledge that for every name inscribed along the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, there are thousands more who also paid a terrible price for their service. Painful memories that cannot be shaken. I know many of you are asking a simple question, was it worth it? Yes, it was. We did the right thing. You did the right thing. As with any war, of course, there are errors and miscalculations, and history won't shy away from that, and neither will we, as a free people. Yet because of your skill, you who have served, your fearlessness and your courage, Australia is safer today because of your efforts and your sacrifice. Australia is better because of you. None of us can give a full answer to the questions you're asking yourselves and of each other, and none of us can predict what will lie ahead. But, be assured of this - you are not alone. Be assured of this - Australia is proud of your service. I am proud of your service. Your families and all those who so dearly love you are so proud of you. And we are proud of your families, who have also carried the burden of your service, as only you can know, and we are deeply thankful to them.

We are proud too of our defence personnel and officials, working day and night right now to evacuate Australians in Kabul and the many Afghans who have worked with us. And, in keeping with the good and decent country you sought to serve, Australia will resettle thousands upon thousands, as we have already done, of Afghans who courageously stood with us.

So, to the living, I say this. We will remember and honour your service. And to our fallen, we say, lest we forget.