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Kabul in the morning

Australia’s responsibility to Afghanistan and to its people

An online discussion on Tuesday 7 September, 4pm (AEST)

What is Australia doing for refugees from Afghanistan and for those that are already here? Explore this critical discussion with academic experts and community leaders as we focus on what Australia owes to Afghanistan and the world.

The upheaval in recent weeks since the Taliban seized power in early August has confronted many Afghans with the stark choice of staying or leaving their country.

After being involved in two decades of occupying the country, what responsibilities does Australia owe to the people of Afghanistan? What more needs to be done by the Australian and other allied governments?

This conversation brings together Afghan Australians Mujib Abid who recently escaped from Kabul with his family, and Shukufa Tahiri, former Policy Officer with the Refugee Council, as well as leading academic experts to share their insights. Hear from our panel including: 

  • Mujib Abid, University of Sydney alumnus (Master of Peace and Conflict Studies) and PhD candidate at the School of Political Science & International Studies at University of Queensland.
  • Professor Mary Crock, Co-Director of the Sydney Centre for International Law. Her expertise spans immigration and refugee law, and she is regularly cited in the media, research papers, and in Australia's Federal Courts and High Court.
  • Professor William Maley AM, Professor in the Department of International Relations at ANU, barrister and Vice-President of the Refugee Council of Australia.
  • Professor Tim Soutphommasane, Director of the Culture Strategy at the University of Sydney, political theorist and former Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.
  • Shukufa Tahiri, Deputy Director of National Refugee Advocacy and Advisory Group (NRAAG). Her work involves policy analysis, research and advocacy on issues affecting people seeking asylum and refugees.

This online discussion is presented in collaboration with the Culture Strategy and Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

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Podcast transcript

ISOBEL DEANE

Welcome. This is the Sydney Ideas podcast, bringing you talks and conversations from the best and brightest minds from the University of Sydney and beyond.

FENELLA KERNEBONE  

My name is Fenella Kernebone, and I'm the Head of Programming for Sydney Ideas. 

Before I introduce you to your moderator, I would firstly like to acknowledge and pay respects to the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we all meet, where we live, where we work, and we share ideas wherever you happen to be joining us today online. 

I also acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation because it is on their ancestral lands that the University of Sydney is built. And as we share our own knowledge, our teaching and our learning, as well as research practices within our university, we also pay respects to the knowledge embedded forever within the Aboriginal custodianship of country. 

So again, thank you for joining us, and it is now my great pleasure to introduce and welcome our moderator for today's conversation, Professor Tim Soutphommasane. Over to you, Tim. 

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you so much Fenella. I'm Tim Soutphommsane and I'm Director of Culture Strategy at the University of Sydney, also Professor of Practice in the School of Social and Political Sciences here at the University and thank you for being part of this discussion about Australia's responsibilities to the people of Afghanistan. 

As we know, it's been a tumultuous time for Afghanistan these past few weeks. On Sunday, 15th of August, the insurgent Taliban took control of the Afghan capital Kabul, confronting many Afghans with the stark choice of either staying or fleeing their country. We saw scenes of people scrambling to Kabul airport and while some managed to board flights out of the country, many others were not able to do so. 

The scenes of helicopters evacuating people from the grounds of the US Embassy in Kabul prompted many to recall similar scenes going back to 1975, and the fall of Saigon.

Well, today, we are joined by a panel that is eminently qualified to help us not just make sense of what has happened in Afghanistan, but perhaps more importantly, what we, particularly here in Australia can do, and must do, for the people of Afghanistan. 

And today we asked the following questions. What is Australia doing for refugees from Afghanistan, and for those from Afghanistan, who are already here in the country? What more needs to be done by the Australian and other allied governments; and central to all this is another central, essential question, what exactly are the responsibilities that Australia owes to the people of Afghanistan?

Before I get into our panel, I also just want to acknowledge that for many here in Australia, who have family and friends in Afghanistan, this is of course, a very distressing time; and want to highlight, there is support available via Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

So let me now introduce to you our panellists for today. Mujib Abid, Mary Crock, William Maley and Shukufa Tahiri. 

Mujid Abid is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland and he conducts research on the histories of encounters with modernity in Afghanistan. He has a particular focus on questions of power, resistance, and tradition. And he also currently teaches as a sessional academic at the University of Melbourne. Thanks for joining us, Mujib. 

MUJIB ABID  

Thanks for having me, Tim. Thank you. 

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Also joining us is Mary Crock. Mary is Professor of Public Law and Co-director of the Sydney Centre for International Law at the University of Sydney.

She's one of Australia's pre-eminent public and international lawyers. Her expertise spans immigration, citizenship and refugee law disability rights, administrative and constitutional law among many other fields; and she's written many leading texts on Australian immigration and refugee law and the intersections between disability migration and human rights. Welcome, Mary.

Also joining us is William Maley, who is Professor in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University, where William was previously the Foundation Director of the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy. William has taught for many years at UNSW ADFA. He's also held visiting posts at the Russian Diplomatic Academy, the University of Strathclyde and the University of Oxford. He's also Vice- President of Refugee Council of Australia, and brings to our discussion today more than 40 years experience studying the international politics of Afghanistan. 

And finally, last but not least, Shukufa Tahiri joins us. Shukufa is Deputy Chair of the National Refugee Advocacy and Advisory Group, and is a former policy officer at the Refugee Council of Australia. Her work involves policy analysis, research and advocacy on issues affecting people seeking asylum and also refugees. 

She's an advisory member to the UNSW Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and a member too, of the advisory panel of Australia's resettlement of Afghan nationals announced recently by the Australian Government to advise on the settlement needs of Afghan refugees. 

Let me get things underway then. And I might start with you, Mujib. Mujib, you were evacuated from Kabul with your family very recently. So you have been on the ground there in Afghanistan and have borne witness to what's happened these past few weeks. Can you tell us a bit more about where you are now? And about your experience evacuating from Kabul?

It's wonderful to have you joining us. But I know that our audience would be really interested to hear your reflections having been there on the ground. 

MUJIB ABID  

Yeah, no, absolutely. So yes, I was in Kabul and I was there to help my family get out of there. I got there late July. And then before I knew it, we kind of run out of time, the few plans that we had didn't quite work out, and were changing very rapidly on the ground. And, you know, at one point, I was as stranded as all of them.

And then from there, the week-long struggle of trying to get to the airport started, as you know, which also sort of gave me this exposure to the reality of a horrifying situation that was unfolding right in front of our eyes. And in our case, to have to experience that time and again, like many other thousands of people had to experience that. 

It was volatile, it was chaotic, entirely out of control. The people who are authorised, but keeping with crowd control and whatnot – you couldn't; you weren't quite sure who you were talking to, because they were different lines. So you had the Taliban militia men, then you had these so-called Zero One or SifrYak units, who are at the payroll of the Americans; had been for years. Quite a notorious reputation. And so you had to deal with those guys. And then, if you were lucky, you could reach one of those lines where, coalition troops would be standing and hopefully they will talk to you. 

So we tried a number of occasions, and we couldn't get; but eventually we did and I'm very grateful for that. 

But look, as a whole I think it's a perfect storm, what happened at the Hamid Karzai International Airport. I think many different factors have had to coalesce; had to come together for a situation as combustible to kind of materialise. It includes the crescendo of the war on terror, the way it came to a head. It includes 20 years of wartime propaganda; misinformation that had affected people's imaginaries of one another, I suppose, including the Taliban in this case where people were running away from. 

And look, another thing that I don't think we should forget about, it includes, you know – and again, it might take a lot of reflection and thinking and writing to make sense of this.

But I think to me, the airport stood for like a breakdown of the sort of hierarchies that the war on terror had been built on and state building had been built on. It was this sort of liberal promise that was never quite afforded to everyone. But it was nonetheless promised everyone. It managed to deliver to very few elite.

But with the airport, I think all of those lines and boundaries all of a sudden, they were not there anymore. So a shopkeeper and a US military contractor were both finding themselves at the same position at long last, that law, that promise could be materialised – if only one could manage to get themselves to the airport. Also when the thought process I imagine. So but still there is a lot I think that we should engage with; thinking together to make sense of that situation.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you Mujib, and lots for us to really think through there. But those scenes at the airport really serve to crystallise so much of what's been happening over the past 20 years. 

So Shukufa, let me bring you in here. Mujib's described a chaotic and combustible situation at Kabul airport. You remain very closely engaged with the Hazara and other diaspora communities from Afghanistan here in Australia. Can I ask you how people in those communities have responded to what's happened in recent weeks?

SHUKUFA TAHIRI  

Thanks so much, Tim. Thanks everybody, for listening to this webinar. I'd like to begin with acknowledging that I appear here from the land of the Eora Nation. 

It has been a few very, very difficult weeks, I think probably in our life. We've seen a crisis of a significant magnitude on every level. Every one of us has spent the past few weeks in utter despair, shock and helplessness, you know, seeing long standing existential question about the future of Afghanistan, since we have been kids really. 

For me, the equation began when I was about five to six years old, when we escaped the Taliban's first round of actually takeover in late 1999. We all witnessed the horrifying scenes from the airport. And as Mujib said, it was chaotic. But I think that chaotic is very much an understatement. It really stands as a metaphor for the fragility of the ground that Afghanistan stood on, and that it broke in a way that was for some predictable, but I think that for for me, and for other communities, it was a total shock. 

I think importantly, the airport scene was really symbolic for the despair, hopelessness and frightened population of Afghanistan now at the hands of their enemies. It's one of the biggest hostage situation, for most of the population that are facing a very, very bleak future. 

In terms of the communities here, obviously, in addition to the despair that we are individually facing, I suppose there has been pressure and asks for help from all sides, especially from refugees who are on permanent protection visas, who still have sort of their long stays in long standing, ongoing with application say, for five, six years for their families to unite with them; who are de-prioritised, by migration instruments, as they're considered IMA arrivals. 

And then, you have on the other hand TPV holders – so temporary protection visa holders – refugees who are genuinely recognised under our own domestic processes, as Australia owing them protection, who have no prospect at the moment of gaining permanent protection in the face of the crisis that has unfolded in Afghanistan. So the despair from them really then, has been compounded, asking questions of whether we are able to save our families. And obviously, we each, in diaspora have families and friends and communities stuck there. When it was the evacuation phase, it was really the desperate calls to save them. And you know, there was such a demand, such a huge number of asks to be saved for, especially for prominent people that were connected with that. I think rate of amnesty was too little and too late. And you now have a lot of these people stuck under direct threat of the Taliban. So it has been a really, really difficult few weeks, on all sides. I suppose they're trying to actually talk on all sides – with community, with the civil society, with the government – to come up with some solid commitment in the face of such a huge crisis in which Australia has historically been involved in and we owe a committment to people of Afghanistan.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you Shukufa and you paint a very clear picture of how people are responding to what's happening. 

William, I want to bring you in here now. Mujib and Shukufa have set the scene for us, here as it were, and I want to get us into this question of responsibility. I know you've been studying Afghanistan for a very long time, given the occupation of Afghanistan by allied forces for almost 20 years. I wanted to ask you, what is the responsibility that Australia and other allied countries – what is the responsibility they owe to the people of Afghanistan given what has happened?

WILLIAM MALEY  

I think one needs to distinguish between different individuals and actors in Australia who may owe responsibilities. At one level, the Australian government has responsibilities towards Afghanistan in general, and people within Afghanistan because of specific commitments that may have been made in the past. 

Whilst for purposes of domestic consumption in Australia, the narrative defending a deployment to Afghanistan tended to be cast in terms of the alliance with the United States, and the need to prevent terrorism from coming into Australia, which is always a rather spurious argument. 

Afghans within Afghanistan were assured repeatedly by the United States, and its allies including Australia, that their presence was there to support the Afghans and that they would not abandon them in the future. And in a sense, if you make promises towards people, you shouldn't be surprised if people expect those promises to be kept. When you say, 'I promise', that's not just uttering words, it's actually doing something. And so obligations can flow from the durability of the commitments that were foreshadowed by Australia and other Western players when they became involved in Afghanistan. 

Separate from those, we have a very strong sense of commitment towards particular people in Afghanistan, flying from the personal relationships that developed over time between Australian military personnel who had interpreters and other support staff, between aid workers and their own teams within Afghanistan. Those people may well regard their Afghan counterparts as much more their mates than they would regard politicians in Canberra. And this has confronted the Australian government with a somewhat unusual situation where large numbers of potential refugees within Afghanistan have very strong supporters within Australia already; those who might flow out as refugees, and not just nameless numbers on a list that was afterwards mislaid. 

But people who are known to significant people within the community and very strongly supported by those and that does create a challenge for the government because whilst, with elections coming up, there may well be a disposition to try to keep Pauline Hanson supporters happy in Queensland, that can run up against the sense of obligation that perhaps thousands of people in the wider Australian community to feel towards Afghans who work for them, who supported them, who often put their lives on the line in order to protect foreign workers serving the cause of reconstruction in Afghanistan. 

And that gives rise to a very tricky situation at the moment where moral claims which very often political leaders would like to be able to brush aside, may be not so easy to brush aside as they would like.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you, William. 

Mary, William there talks about some of the promises that have been made to people in Afghanistan. Can I ask you, what legal duties do you see Australia owing? The Australian government owing to the people of Afghanistan, and how did those legal duties differ from the moral duties that may be?

MARY CROCK  

Well, thank you, Tim. I've got my microphone on this time. 

I think Professor Bill has set out very well the moral obligations that Australia has assumed in becoming so embroiled in Afghanistan. In terms of the legal obligations, we should start with the Afghans who are physically in Australia, because there you can talk about some very hard law that is available. We are – we owe obligations to protect Afghans in Australia who would be at risk if they were sent back to Afghanistan, no doubt about it. And I know for a fact we've got close to 400 people who are still in asylum determination processes. Those people should be pulled out of those processes, whether it's in the court system or in part of the administrative process, they should be pulled out and visa-ed straightaway. 

You have individuals who are at threat of removal from Australia – that threat of deportation – those people should be assured that they are not to be removed if they face persecution upon return to Afghanistan. So I would start with the people in Australia. 

I would love to see everyone who is on a temporary visa and Shukufa referred to a number of these people already, it's deliberate, giving people temporary faces rather than permanent to stop them from sponsoring family; there's no doubt about that. 

But I think at some point, Australia really has to grapple with our obligations under international law, which do extend to obligations to allow families to reunite, certainly immediate family. And we have individuals in Australia, who have wives and children, who they are unable to bring to Australia because of their their visa status here. So if we look at international law and obligations, we absolutely have legal obligations to do more with the Afghans who are physically in Australia. 

As for those who are overseas, I think Professor Bill set it out beautifully. We've got many individuals, I have been fielding all sorts of calls this week – as I'm sure many of my colleagues and people online have been as well – about people at obvious risk in Afghanistan, who were not able to make it onto those planes. 

Now, strictly speaking, we don't have a legal obligation to do anything for these people. But morally, it is an overwhelming obligation, I think. And people understand that. There are academics all around the world, who are getting together, setting up shared Dropboxes, and starting by looking at all the different countries and what ways; what visas are available from India through to Sweden, to bring people out. So this is truly a global conflict. It's a conflict that has affected people all around the world. And I think the sense of overwhelming sense of moral obligation is weighing heavily on a lot of people in Australia, as in other countries.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you Mary. And we do want to get into some of the details around how we can help or how we can ensure that people get to safety. But before we do Shukufa, can I bring you back into the conversation?

We've heard the government say that it's reserved 3,000 places within the existing humanitarian intake for refugees from Afghanistan. Can you talk us through – given that you've been following this so closely – how many refugees are coming to Australia from Afghanistan? And do you think the government here has been doing enough to support the situation?

SHUKUFA TAHIRI  

I think the question of whether Australia is doing enough is – is no. It's not doing enough. I think that so far, the focus has been entirely on evacuation and settlement of those who have been actually evacuated and the post-settlement discussions. But I think here we are missing something, and that is actually a solid commitment from the government, in response to such a huge crisis in Afghanistan, where we have been historically involved. 

And obviously, Australian government has been saying that we will honour in a way the the historic involvement that we have had in Afghanistan, by reflecting that in the response that we'll take. I think the time for that response is now, and imminent. We can't really wait for the situation to get worse. It already has been worse in the past few weeks. I think people are very, very frantic at the community level about a solid or specific or more accurate response that Australia takes.

And obviously the number that Australia has announced, and that's the second commitment post-evacuation is 3,000 additional to the program that we have that takes in 13,750 refugees every year. And, you know, just a side note that this is an already reduced program. It was cut, actually by 5,000 last year. It used to be 18,750. So we are already actually on a reduced program and increasing that composition by not 3,000 actually because the intake of Afghan refugees have been there. It's more so speaking around 2,000. And considering that, we're not really clear whether a number of adults who have been evacuated would actually fall under that program. How many numbers would that leave for others? For families for instance, if they are trying to save their families to it through that program. So it is not a commitment, absolutely not even remotely meets – not even the demand. 

But I think that what's the right thing to do, and I think that reflecting on the history of Australia, Australian government and under this government actually, taking measures to announce an intake of say 16,000 for Syrian Iraqis a few years ago under the administration of Prime Minister Abbott, who – the possibility is there, the capacity is there,a nd I think that the public sentiments has never been so much in favour of an intake that's meaningful. 

When Tony Abbott actually made that announcement of 16,000, there wasn't – that sentiment was actually born out of our own quota's picture. But now, the response that Australia needs to take actually is born out of our 20 years of involvement in direct involvement in Afghanistan. So if the commitment is not at least 16,000 announcement over perhaps a few years, it has to be more. 

Saying that this 3,000 is a floor and not a ceiling is unclear, it really provides a very vague and confusing picture for people who are actually forming false hopes about this program, as to whether it is actually worth having, you know, giving it a go for people who are really in desperate situations. 

And at a community level obviously, it has created anxieties, stress, a lot of despair, and hasty applications to secure a spot that they may have. So I think looking at recent history, Australia is obviously able to make a better commitment, and I think, a timely commitment as well, because time is running out.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you, Shukufa. Mary, can I bring you in here? Canada, very quickly announced after the Taliban takeover that it would resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees. Is that the sort of thing that the Australian government should be considering doing?

MARY CROCK  

Well, I look at what we did after the war in Vietnam, where we brought in hundreds of thousands – I know that nobody had the appetite for that today – but I think one of the questions we need to ask is, how are we going to safely get people out of Afghanistan? There are a lot of people holed up in Pakistan, and in a sense, they are easier to deal with. Pakistan already, before this outflow, was hosting nearly a million Afghan refugees. But I think consideration needs to be given globally, with the US to try and to create a program for the orderly departure of individuals who want to leave the country. That's what happened after Vietnam, and I know it's very difficult to talk about, when everything is so raw. But the US managed to do it after the fall of Saigon, and so I think that, at some point, we need to start treatying with the Taliban, if they are able to form a government of some kind. I'm just going to put that out there.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

We'll come to that very shortly. Before we do, Mujib I wanted to ask you a question about how things have got to where they are, in thinking about what we need to do. I'm tempted also to ask, should we have done more earlier and recently? 

Australia's former Australian ambassador to the United States, Japan and India, John McCarthy, wrote about the Australian response to Afghanistan. He says, and I quote, "Western governments have been on notice since April of the dangers of the precipitate collapse of major Afghan cities. Some, like the British and Canadians, tried to do something about it. We could all remember Saigon. Australia dragged its heels taking refuge in the arcane pettifoggery of a Dickens novel—ignoring the views of those who understood what was happening on the ground." Quote. Mujib. Does John McCarthy have a point here? Does that square with your assessment having been on the ground recently?

MUJIB ABID  

Well, I guess he does and he doesn't. I'll put it that way. Well, first and foremost, I think he's right that there were indicators, very strong indicators. Since May of this year when this Taliban campaign started. The rapid collapse of districts every month, there would be 50, 60 and then that number kept rising. Those were clear indicators that things were going to change. They are already changing and there was going to be again, a moment where, the status quo could no longer be sustained. So in that sense, he does have a point and more should have certainly been done ahead of time. 

On the way here, for example, I spoke to an Australian guard slash interpreter at the Australian – Afghan guard and like staffer of the Australian embassy, who worked there – and he was there with his family. We started talking and he was telling me how, before the crisis, only four members of the entirety of the Australian staff – the Afghan staff at the Australian embassy – were actually given visas to move with their family to migrate to Australia. And then we all know what happened. And then overnight, Australia changed its position and gave out more visas. I'm saying that; and this is the same with the SIV program, which is the American program – Special Immigrant Visa program – for similar people, which until very recently; there were some numbers on the news, out of the 20,000 applications before the crisis, only 700 were at the final stages. And hence they were close to being relocated. 

It's because ahead of the crisis, there was a great degree of anxiety about the Afghans coming into our societies as a whole, an apprehension towards giving these people refuge, and then all of that changed with the takeover – sudden, seemingly takeover by the Taliban. But it shouldn't have been sudden, and I don't think it was sudden. There's almost this romantic notion of the so-called blitzkrieg on the 10 day takeover of the whole country, which clearly Taliban would like to reproduce and we seem to also reproduce it because it fits some sort of a narrative about all of us being caught off guard. But the reality is, I think since May, we have had enough indicators that they were on the rise, and they were really, really bent on a total takeover of the country. And that's exactly how it materialised.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you Mujib. William, do you agree with this assessment that there's been this narrative as Mujib has described it, a romanticised if you will, exoticised narrative about Afghanistan falling so quickly to the Taliban? And then, does Mujib have a point here, and I'm interested too, in your thoughts on whether something like this, and by this, I mean the collapse of the Afghan – pre-Taliban Afghan – government, the return of the Taliban displaced person. Was something like this always inevitable, given that occupation has not generated many good results in Afghanistan over the years?

WILLIAM MALEY  

No, I don't think it was inevitable. The international activity in Afghanistan I don't think was doomed. It was undermined massively by things like the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003, which had ramifications for other areas in the world that were really quite dramatic and which the more insightful American observers now recognise. 

I think it was absolutely clear that the agreement that the United States signed with the Taliban on the 29th of February 2020 in Doha was an exit agreement for the United States. It was not a peace agreement for Afghanistan. And essentially, the Americans at that point, gave the Taliban everything that they really wanted, which created no incentive for the Taliban to negotiate in good faith with the Afghan government thereafter. 

I also fully expected that things would unravel very quickly in Afghanistan. I checked my diary the other day, and I had a lunch with some officials in early May, where I predicted things would happen far more quickly in Afghanistan than most people had anticipated. And the reason for that was partly historical. If you look at earlier regime collapses and Afghanistan has in 1992, or 2001, they tend to occur within about a month of the onset of the crisis, rather than be drawn out. And there's a reason for that, which is that it doesn't pay to be on the losing side. And people's normative commitments, which may not be to the Taliban at all, run the risk of being overwritten by the prudential desire not to be on the losing side, because it often doesn't pay to be on the losing side in a place like Afghanistan. And that can lead to a situation in which people switch sides. Because they see that as the most rational thing to do in the circumstances that confront them. 

It's really a reflection of Hobbes's comment that reputation of power is power. And the Americans undermine the reputation of power for the Afghan government, labours to the reputation of the Taliban. 

There was one other problem, which was that the specifics of the agreement that the Americans signed with the Taliban really amounted to deflating the tires on the Afghan military machines. That the Americans committed to the withdrawal of contractors who were playing an absolutely critical role in sustaining the nice capabilities of the Afghan military, even to the point where they extracted the software from helicopters that were used to enable them to identify and target enemy on the ground. And this reflected the fact that the bulk of international forces were actually withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The whole process since then was concerned with inducing the United States to extract a critical niche capabilities that were actually sustaining both the Afghan National Army and also confidence within the population that they were not about to be abandoned. And that's the sense in which the diplomatic process which we've just witnessed, is probably the most clumsy, blundering, incompetent example of diplomacy of since Neville Chamberlain went to Munich to negotiate with Hitler in 1938.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Shukufa, William has mentioned negotiations with the Taliban. Mary touched on a future need or question on negotiating with with the Taliban. Can I get your thoughts on the sort of diplomatic relations that you believe should be considered with respect to the Australian bilateral relationship with Afghanistan now, given the Taliban is in power?

SHUKUFA TAHIRI  

I think it should be handled very delicately, because I think there are so much at stake. You know, they've already sought a lot of political legitimacy to begin with, as Professor William Maley said, it was an exit strategy and not a peace process. 

It was really apparent in the beginning, because when when the Afghan people were sidelined, when that process began, I think that the fear and anxiety of people in general arose to the aftermath of it. And here we are, obviously. 

The people of Afghanistan feel very, very alone and unsupported. I think that with the whole of population, they feel like they are in a hostage situation. And so I think with the ongoing relationship of Australia, in its chequered account; the gains that have been made in the last 20 years, obviously, Minister Payne has said that we will continue to have relationship with Afghanistan into the future for peacebuilding; and the gains that we have made for the rights of women and children. 

The reality is that we can or should not be swayed by the words of the Taliban. We need to be really careful about how they implement those policies. It's one thing for them to make promises, though, in very vague terms under very broad Sharia law frame, as they said. But I think that time will tell in terms of how they will implement it. 

Unfortunately, we are hearing already from rural areas especially, or cities other than Kabul, where you don't actually have many cameras rolling, and you don't have the monitoring of the world there, that we're already hearing that women who have worked with the national police have been killed brutally, while she was pregnant. And that goes to show the notoriety of Taliban and the fact that they have fundamentally not changed. 

It's really surreal to really think that we are now at the mercy of the Taliban as a government; never in the history of terrorism, as a phenomenon in the movement, have they received such reception that they have been receiving in the last two years, at least from the US and the broader international community recognition and political legitimacy that led to this. And I think that we need to be really careful with giving and granting that legitimacy. There are rights that need to be assured there are guarantees that need to be placed when it comes to the rights of women, children, minorities, and people who have historically been persecuted by the Taliban. 

And we can only look at the very recent chapter of Afghanistan in the last 20 years, where you had an equilibrium between peace and war. The threats that were facing the Afghan population were from the Taliban. Taliban were taking active responsibility for explosion, suicide bombing, massacre of children and women. And so I think that in considering all of that, we need to be really careful about how we handle that. But in the meantime, we really need to pay attention to the needs of the Afghan population, and really then mould our response to that relationship that we need to have with the Taliban as a government.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you, and we'll come to questions very shortly. Thank you for all of the activity on Slido. We've got a really healthy list of questions coming through. But before we go to that, I wanted to get your thoughts Mary, on how we should be thinking about relating to the Taliban, and I guess what kind of relationship needs to be established with an Afghan government that is run by the Taliban? What are your thoughts on this, Mary? How do we get it right, given the obvious human rights issues and concerns here?

MARY CROCK  

Well, I think that's a really good question, Tim. I don't know that I have the answer other than to say, I don't see the Taliban as a monolithic concept. I think, as we've already seen in Kabul and in the regions, you get two very different experiences. And, in fact, that is why so many people from the regions have fled to the big city to seek protection there. The way the Taliban behaves in the big cities is going to be different to out in the remote areas, where I think you've always had a series of warlords, governing particular areas. 

So look, there's a reason that foreign powers have found Afghanistan so difficult over so many years. It really is a very, very interesting country, and Professor Bill can can attest to this. 

What do we do? How do we behave? Well, we have to find a way to treat with whoever manages to form a government in Afghanistan, for multiple reasons. The other issue that we haven't addressed here is the role that China is playing, and indeed, other countries in the region, including Pakistan – in terms of coming into the void that's going to be left with the withdrawal of the US. Afghanistan is a very resource rich country, and that's why countries over centuries have been trying to take the state over. 

So look, I can't answer that question, Tim. But it clearly is much more in the realm of the expertise of Professor Maley. Other than to say that, it's going to be difficult, but we have to do it. We did it with Vietnam, and we have to do it here again. 

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Yeah. No, thank you, Mary. Let's go to questions now. The challenge I'm going to give out panellists here, in the interest of trying to get through as many questions as we can is, I'm going to ask them to give a very quick response to these questions so that we can move through as many as we can. So let's take the first one. Considering the ongoing pandemic environmental and other humanitarian crises, how can we avoid fatigue on this issue? William, what do you think? How do we avoid fatigue on this, given everything else going on?

WILLIAM MALEY  

I think fatigue should be taken for granted. There is just too much crowding on the international agenda at the moment for to be realistic to expect that Afghanistan is going to remain at the top, particularly because the Taliban at a certain point are going to be very keen to cut down vision coming out of Afghanistan that points to any deficit in their control of the situation there. 

What I think it's important to do, therefore, is to develop a principled way of responding to the situation in Afghanistan, in terms of a principled approach to protection of refugees, a principled approach to the development of humanitarian assistance, and in particular, a principled approach to engagement. There, we have the advantage that Australia recognises states only so that we can engage pragmatically with the Taliban without that constituting diplomatic recognition of any kind. 

And my sense is that there's no appetite in western circles for any kind of formal recognition of the Taliban, partly because they're brutal, partly because they are really a terrorist group, and partly because there's little confidence that anything they say is truthful in any meaningful sense of the term. So I think we'll see pragmatic engagement, but it is very important to affirm a set of clear principles that will guide the way in which powers of the outside world approach the situation in Afghanistan.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you, William. Shukufa, so let me ask you the next question, which is from Shabnam. There is no doubt that Australians agree and support more action for Afghanistan is needed right now. How do we make our politicians listen to these calls and take action, particularly if it goes against some of their own legacy policies?

SHUKUFA TAHIRI  

 I think that legacy was in place when Tony Abbott was a Prime Minister as well. I mean, we were really like afresh. Australia had just passed like the legacy caseload legislations in the parliament. In fact, Abott's prime ministership was actually won on the back of anti-war sentiments, anti-refugee sentiments that he had. Tet the public sentiment was enough to convince him to take an action and actually announce an intake of Syrian Iraqi refugees from Middle East. So if then that's possible, now it's absolutely possible because we see all parts of Australia community coming together to help this; support the call for more intake for actually also importantly, I think, decision-making that's closest to the decision-makers domestically. 

For instance, we can make a decision without any cost for those refugees who have sought asylum on the basis that they have run away from the Taliban, who are living in Australia in limbo for over nine years, at least. 

We can change that instrument of migration act, to enable family arena for temporary visa holders and give them permanent protection, which is the only form of meaningful protection. We can actually then change instruments that relates to the prioritisation of Afghan refugees; thousands of them who are still waiting for their citizenship to fulfil their prerequisite to reunite with their families who are stuck inside Afghanistan. 

We don't have to go far – too far or too remote – to fulfil some obligations that are closest to Australia's decision making and comes without a cost. It's very easy, given that the public support is there in a very unprecedented level. And while that exists, I think the politicians can do that without any risk of losing support, for instance.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you. I hope that answers your question. Shabnam. Mujib I might ask you to respond to the next two questions on our list. First up, is it okay for you to explain the entire situation – very quickly, of course – happening in Afghanistan? And also the second question there. What does the future look like? How would the Taliban pay for the administration of Afghanistan, given that much of the Afghan central bank's reserves is physically outside the country, and 70 to 80% of the government's income comes from foreign aid? Mujib.

MUJIB ABID  

Yeah. Look, I can't go into too much detail in terms of first question, there are a couple of books right there; lying behind that question. But I will just say this much. To me, the conflict in Afghanistan is in many ways about divergent attempts at grafting Islamic perspectives on two models of a modern state model. Right. So this has been like over the last 45 years, the conflict has been about interpretations of what does it mean to have an Islamic State or an Islamic Republic or Islamic government. 

If we were to narrow down our focus to the last 20 years, we have had this contestation over between two groups. One, western backed, western supported, liberal, that took its cues from sort of a western and more nakedly or starkly western set of cultural priorities – and that was the former government of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani later on. And because of the resistance against that interpretation, we have, essentially the war on terror. And the violence that emanated from that, on the other hand, we have the Taliban. 

Now, the Taliban, we shouldn't confuse this – they are not an explicit Islamist movement. They don't quite subscribe to that. If we remember, in the 90s, they rose explicitly as a backlash against the fundamentalism of Islamists at the time, who are more inspired by, the Egyptian or the Pakistani variants of political Islam. So they are somewhere in between. It's not very easy to categorise them. 

But to me, they're somewhere in between a tradition that looks to the let's say, the Afghan village; and it's Sufi Islam and it's a more spiritualist approach to organisation of society and an almost egalitarian approach to organisation of society. But it's in between that, and a more new Islamist approaches. 

But still I think, especially since February of 2020, when the Doha agreement was struck, we know for sure that they have no desire for any sort of globalist or even a political expansion that's simply not in their ideology, that's simply not in their political discourse. 

So just to summarise it, to me the conflict is between interpretations of what does it mean for Afghan society to organise power and the clashes unfortunately, because they are based on ideologies, and these ideologies, time and again, for six different periods of so-called – what Afghans called pachagardishi – or a change in the political class. For six times, we've had a radical slash fundamentalist ideological groups trying to impose their interpretation of what they state and its relationship to society should be. 

On to the second question as to what the future could look like. Look, I think Taliban to me is a reality, they're going to be there. I think, talking about fatigue, and perhaps stamina, I don't quite see it in the western world to try to do anything as dramatic as October of 2001, when they went into Afghanistan. 

Now, on the other hand, we see, and Professor Mary alluded to this, we have China, which is already being branded quite publicly by the Taliban as their principal diplomatic partner. There is a very close relationship with Pakistan. And then, of course, it is the fact that Taliban has changed. It's not the 90s anymore, and they are quite aware of that, and they articulate it in different ways. They have so-called matured. 

I think what that leaves us with is this particular reality that we have. We have over 35 million Afghans who don't have a recourse to, or an alternative to move to western countries, seeking refuge there. And for the sake of all of that, and given these changed, I suppose, circumstances under consideration, I think in the future, Taliban would enter into different sorts of understandings, or they would be recognised essentially, by more and more countries. It will start by those countries that I mentioned earlier, but it will kind of grow from there. 

Turkey is another country that I think would recognise it quite soon. Qatar would be another one. But then that leaves us with, again, going back to the question of obligation, I think countries like Australia have an obligation not only to the people who were displaced and voluntarily, which clearly has, it has as much to do with the people who are displaced as it does about us. It's also about humanitarian responsibilities to people, moral and legal to people who are stuck back home. I think we should do more, and we have to do it for the sake of Afghans.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Okay, thank you. Mujib. Lots there. Let's try and get a few more questions to our panel before we wrap up. I'll bypass the top question there and come to it very shortly. But I wanted to clump the second and third question for you, Mary. What type of aid do you think will assist Afghans the most? And if we just jump and segue to the third question there on the list, most of the conversation has been about those who supported our troops. But we also need to help those who worked for the Australian foreign aid community construction of schools, women's empowerment. What is Australia going to do for them? Your thoughts on that Mary?

MARY CROCK  

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that we can do more to help people in Afghanistan, if we do start to engage with the people who formed government. I know that it's very difficult to do that. But there are levers that are there to be pulled in terms of foreign aid, and in terms of the money that's being held internationally. 

But having said that, I think Australia is a very small player in this and much will really turn on the attitude of the US going forward. But my personal view, is that we should always start with the local. Start with the community, with the connections that we already have with individuals in Afghanistan. And without putting individuals at risk, because that's a real issue at the moment, if we communicate with people and could very well put them at risk. But we've got connections there. And I think, either we try and push our government to set up and to bargain for or argue for an orderly departure program. Or, we find ways to actually keep supporting people in situ – 35 people in Afghanistan, clearly 35 people do not want to leave Afghanistan. 

I think when you have upheavals like this very often, it's very easy for Australians on their little island – big Island – to suddenly think, 'Oh, they'll all want to come to Australia.' They won't. They don't. 

But where we have connections, those connections are real. Those connections carry moral obligations. And I think we individually should do our best to honour them. 

But to answer a question further down the page here, should we impose sanctions on the Pakistani government for their support of the Taliban? That would be emotionally very satisfying. But politically – I think asked you this to Professor Bill – somewhat unwise. Pakistan is continuing to carry the burden of most of the refugees from Afghanistan. And I think, the more connections you can keep open, the better, in all of this.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you, Mary. And in the interest of time, I might ask the panel to wrap up now. So my apologies, we haven't got through all of the questions you've put up on Slido. But I want to give an opportunity to our panellists to give some closing reflections before we wrap up this afternoon. It's been a very rich discussion. 

But to each of the panellists, if I can get a very quick 30 second answer on the following question, what's the most important thing we can do to fulfil our responsibilities as Australians to the people of Afghanistan? And William, I might open it up with you.

WILLIAM MALEY  

Yes, look, I think we have to be starkly realistic at the moment. And one of the elements of reality that we need to recognise is that what's happened in Afghanistan has not just been a product of an internal conflicts. Mujib made clear this, they're very different visions that have been on offer. 

It's also been a creeping invasion from Pakistan, with sanctuaries for the Taliban, and logistical support and finance being absolutely critical to their search through Afghanistan. This was not a campaign of roving gangs. It was a campaign with a very, very clear strategic vision underpinning it, almost certainly coming out of general headquarters. And if we're not willing to recognise that this is a transnational conflict, rather than just an internal conflict, then we're going to undertake the kind of misdiagnosis that really poisoned the diplomatic endeavours of the United States.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you, William, and a quick closing reflection from you, Shukufa?

SHUKUFA TAHIRI  

I think that Australia is – looking at actual Australian government and what Australia can do internally domestically, as well as outside in Afghanistan, I think that the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban or terrorist group will have a knock-on effect to the entire region, and perhaps to the world. And so keeping really close eye and really staying engaged with the issues that emerges out of Afghanistan. But also, unfortunately, as time goes by, and the mediaa cycle gets tired or fatigued, asylum, humanitarian catastrophe would continue to take place under the administration of the Taliban and government. And so therefore, it's really important to have a watch – you know, stay engaged in Afghanistan issues and what we can do from here, in terms of helping is really staying in touch with the Afghan diaspora communities. They are really involved in this. Either it is actually in financial terms that have been here and measures, but also pushing for calls and foreign policy changes, really taking the lead from them. 

Importantly, I think that we need to look to the sort of refugees that live in Australia – 5,100 who are in literal limbo – given the crisis, we need to really see whether we can actually change policies because the public sentiments are in our favour to do that. It is possible, it's a win-win situation, and it really depends on the structure.

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Okay, thank you Shukufa. We've got a minute left. So Mujib, 30 seconds from you, and then Mary.

MUJIB ABID  

Just reiterating what you just said, and secondly, I think this is an opportunity for all of us collectively, in Australia, I would imagine – I'd venture to say the whole of the Western world – to take the Afghan catastrophe, the terrible two decades that we've just experienced, and learn from it, and sit with it, and reflect on it so that we don't end up committing ourselves to subjecting another country for another two decades, three decades, four decades, to essentially colonialism and imperialism. We have got to learn from this moment. That's what I would request for all the listeners here. 

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Thank you Mujib, and Mary, final word from you.

MARY CROCK  

Well, I think I agree with everybody I would like us to stay engaged; is the final word for me. Because I think after the Vietnam War, the disengagement from the region had some catastrophic results. 

I would also like us to think local, and start with the Afghans that we have in Australia and recognise and acknowledge the moral obligation and the legal obligations that we have for these people because of our engagement in this conflict over so many years. Thank you, Tim. 

TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE  

Mary, and the perfect note on which to end today's discussion. The obligations we owe can't just be legal. They're also moral and so important that we do what we can to support action at the local level, particularly Afghan diaspora communities here in Australia. 

Thank you so much, Mary, William, Shukufa, Mujib. It's been a great discussion. 

Thank you for your engagement too, audience members. It's been great to get your questions, and look forward to seeing you again at Sydney Ideas very soon.

ISOBEL DEANE

Thanks for listening to the Sydney Ideas podast. For more links, resources or the transcript, head to the Sydney Ideas website or subscribe to "Sydney Ideas" using your favourite podcast app.

Resources

Speaker bios

Mujib Abid is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. His research focuses on histories of encounters with modernity in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on modernist enactments of power and embodied subaltern experiences, resistance and tradition. Mujib brings in (and critiques) a postcolonial/decolonial sensibility to his work. He currently teaches as a Sessional Academic at the University of Melbourne. 

Professor Mary Crock is Professor of Public Law and Co-Director of the Sydney Centre for International Law at the University of Sydney. Her expertise spans immigration, citizenship and refugee law, disability rights, administrative and constitutional law, public international law, particularly human rights and international refugee law, and comparative law.

Her publications include leading texts on Australian immigration and refugee law and ground-breaking work on the intersections between disability, migration and human rights.

Her research has been cited frequently in Australia’s Federal Courts and High Court and she has given evidence before many parliamentary hearings in Australia, serving as adviser to the Australian Senate (Inquiry into Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program, 2000); consultant to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (on immigration detention); and consultant to the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse (on children in immigration detention).

Professor William Maley is Professor in the Department of International Relations. Previously he was the Foundation Director (2003-2014) of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.

He taught for many years in the School of Politics, University College, University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, and has served as a Visiting Professor at the Russian Diplomatic Academy, a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde, and a Visiting Research Fellow in the Refugee Studies Programme at Oxford University.

He is a Barrister of the High Court of Australia, Vice-President of the Refugee Council of Australia, and a member of the Australian Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP). He is also a member of the Editorial Board of the journal Global Responsibility to Protect, and of the International Advisory Board of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University.

Shukufa Tahiri is Deputy Chair of National Refugee Advocacy and Advisory Group (NRAAG) and former Policy Officer at the Refugee Council of Australia. Her work involves policy analysis, research and advocacy on issues affecting people seeking asylum and refugees. 

She is an advisory member to the UNSW Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and a member of Advisory Panel of Australia's Resettlement of Afghan Nationals announced recently by the Australian Government to advice on settlement needs of Afghan refugees. 

She is an executive director at Akademos Society, a charity that helps fund the education of girls and youth including child labourers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She was chosen by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as one of the two Australian civil society representative to attend the month long UN Human Rights Council session 40 in Geneva.  The Australian Financial Review has also named her as one of 2018’s 100 women of influence in Australia. 

Tim Soutphommasane is Professor of Practice (Sociology and Political Theory). He was Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner from 2013 to 2018. He is the author of five books about multiculturalism, national identity and race, including On Hate (Melbourne University Publishing).


Event image: Photo by Mohammad Rahmani on Unsplash

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