Prime minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that the first successful emergency evacuation flight out of Afghanistan’s Kabul Airport took place on Tuesday evening, with plans for more flights subject to clearance and weather conditions.
At 10.40am AEST the first rescue flight safely delivered 26 people in the Emirates, where Australia has established a base to offer medical care and process people for onward transfer home.
Among the Wednesday morning evacuees were Australian citizens, Afghan nationals with Australian visas, and one foreign official.
“This is not a simple process. It’s very difficult for any Australian to imagine the sense of chaos and uncertainty that is existing right across this country,” Morrison said, explaining that ordinary forms of communication had broken down and made it difficult for Australian officials to reach people directly.
Morrison confirmed a small continent of personnel from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Home Affairs and Defence were deployed in Kabul last night to establish a system for processing civilians that the Australian government would help leave Afghanistan.
This group would coordinate contact with as many people that Australia could help to get out of the country quickly and safely, he said. This included establishing contact with would-be visa-holders, ensuring they were in a position to reach Kabul Airport when the departing flights were scheduled to leave, processing people and getting them on to flights.
“We need to be very clear who’s getting on our planes, who’s going to our base, and who is going to come and live here in Australia,” Morrison said.
“We are taking all the sensible precautions but moving urgently to address the very real need in these very stressing conditions.”
On Wednesday, a US photojournalist reporting from Kabul shared photographs with the world via Twitter of distressed crowds attempting to reach the airport. His images of bleeding and injured women and children were accompanied by the caption ‘Taliban fighters use gunfire, whips, sticks and sharp objects to maintain crowd control over thousands of Afghans who continue to wait for a way out on airport road’.
During today’s press conference in Canberra, it was confirmed that traffic stretching for kilometres along roads to the Kabul Airport added to the logistical mayhem. Some eligible civilians had to be lifted up over the fence that lined the airport perimeter to be evacuated, foreign minister Maris Payne said.
Payne told reporters that the Taliban was yet to form a government and it remained to be seen what form and membership a future parliament of Afghanistan would look like.
“I would also say a request for trust is usually met by an expectation that trust is earned,” the minister noted, alluding to the Taliban’s commitment to peace.
Fears about a return to the brutal experience of living under Taliban rule of the late 90s is what has many in the capital panicked, in particular the fate of the country’s women and girls who previously were forbidden from going to school or leaving the confines of their homes.
Answering a question about whether the treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan was a precondition to recognising the Taliban as a legitimate government, Payne declined to speculate.
“[Those matters] will be the subject of international discussions, as they have already been in terms of the engagement at the UN Security Council. We will continue to talk with partners,” she said.
The pm said that once the evacuees reached Australia, arrangements had been made with the states and territories to accommodate them in appropriate quarantine facilities. He added that more Defence resources would be sent to the Middle East, including an extra C130J Hercules and two C17 hangar aircraft to support the other military aircraft evacuating more people over the coming days.
The RAAF aircraft would support regular fights out of Kabul “for as long as we can continue to operate those flights to get people out,” Morrison said but the mission was limited by the logistical challenges on the ground and inclement weather. The presence of UK and US forces on the ground at Kabul Airport however was helpful for security, he noted.
“It still remains an incredibly challenging environment in which to operate,” Morrison said.
“Kabul is a dangerous place and we’ve got Australians operating in a very dangerous environment to get their fellow Australians and those who’ve helped our cause over a long period of time and to bring them to safety in Australia.”