As Australia retreats from Afghanistan, it is time to be generous to those who helped us, writes former diplomat John McCarthy. What we do now to aid friends in need could shape our international standing for many years to come.
The current debate about visas for Afghans who aided Australia’s long military and civilian deployment poses questions about the sort of people we are.
Australia has historically veered between kindness to strangers and insularity tinged with meanness of spirit.
This is the country which, until half a century ago, confined immigration almost wholly to whites; which has a pathological fear of the arrival of boats crowded with refugees; which declined in 1975 to evacuate local employees from its Phnom Penh and Saigon embassies; and which with COVID-19 has been more obsessive than any nation about control of its borders – even those within Australia itself.
It is also the country which opened up to displaced persons after World War 2; which was one of four countries which took the bulk of refugees from Vietnam in the years after 1975; which after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 allowed 42,000 Chinese to remain in Australia; and which gave Indonesia $1 billion when a tsunami bludgeoned it in 2004.
The government is taking flak for its rigidity in approaching the Afghan visa issue. To be fair, current circumstances in Afghanistan are not, as alleged by some, on all fours with the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. Over recent years, we have taken a number of our former Afghan employees and other Afghans threatened by the Taliban. And, according to our Foreign Minister, we have taken 230 former employees in the past month. And it is not yet a given that all or most of Afghanistan will fall to the Taliban.
But it soon might be. An aspect of the Vietnam analogy which is truly worrying is that when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) began its offensive in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam on 10 March 1975, few understood the degree to which panic is infectious or anticipated the speed with which South Vietnamese morale would collapse. The NVA captured Saigon on 30 April.
An aspect of ministerial and official comments on the Afghan visa issue is the propensity to take refuge in the bureaucratic niceties of immigration. These include whether an employee identified with Australia worked directly for us or for a subcontractor, and the importance of “strict” health and character checks.
Kabul Garrison General Command (KGGC) interpreter Sadruddin Stori displays his Australian Operational Service Medal – Civilian for his work assisting in Afghanistan - June 14, 2017. Image Credit: Australian Defence Image Gallery.
As John Howard suggested last week, it is not the time for legalisms. There are going to be people otherwise eligible for entry who may be sick. We can treat them. On “character “, war zones produce a motley crew. Give them the benefit of the doubt. And police checks in Afghanistan? Well really!
Some of the best examples of statecraft are decisions made by leaders comfortable in their skins who are prepared to go beyond conventional policy responses or bureaucratic diktat. Bob Hawke showed this capacity with Tiananmen Square. So did Howard after the tsunami.
Moreover, when a Prime Minister puts political weight behind an issue, things can get done very quickly. In 1999, Howard decided to accord temporary refuge to groups of thousands of both East Timorese and Kosovars. The decisions were implemented in two or three weeks.
There are also broader issues involved here. The Americans went into Afghanistan — with Australia and NATO behind them — for a plethora of reasons emerging from 9/11.
Part of these were about American and western security and the need for a visible signal that America was not to be challenged – above all on its own turf.
Another argument was about values. Putting aside the usual hype about “freedom” which accompanies western military ventures, the Americans and the rest of us were genuine in advocating the merits of our ideals and our systems.
These perspectives took on added salience not only with developments in the Middle East and West Asia, but against a background of authoritarianism in Russia, a shift to the Right in parts of Europe, and an increasingly aggressive China.
If indeed the outcome in Afghanistan is as bad as the runes suggest, the adverse consequences for the reputation of the United States, NATO and the West will be severe. The photos of an abandoned Bagram airbase already say a lot. If Taliban flags again fly over Kabul, they will testify to another lost American war.
Respect for America will thus be vulnerable to the sort of erosion which occurred for the decade after Vietnam, and which suffered body blows during the reign of Trump. Western authority as a whole will diminish with it.
These are much larger issues than the question of whether Australia should be big hearted towards our Afghan friends or should hide behind the arcane ramparts of the Department of Home Affairs.
But this choice is far from irrelevant to bigger things. We are a part of alliances and other international and regional groupings claiming a set of values that further the principles of liberalism.
Against a backdrop of an Afghanistan in which the West is seen to have failed, we must practice the values that we preach if we are to retain an element of credibility. It is time to be generous again – and quickly.
John McCarthy is Asialink senior adviser and former ambassador to Washington, Tokyo and several other Asian capitals.
Banner image: Australian soldier guards Royal Australian Airforce C-17 at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan - October 11, 2020. Credit: Australian Defence Image Gallery.
A version of this article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review on July 12, 2021.