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Published ABC The Drum 31 May 2011

At the Sydney Writer’s festival on 22 May, David Hicks gave a detailed account of how he was tortured while a prisoner of the United States government at Guantanamo Bay. The audience found his account so compelling they gave him a standing ovation, all 900 of them.

David Hicks was also critical of media reporting of his case. After years of being portrayed and explicitly described as a terrorist in newspapers and on television, it’s difficult for him to shake the terrorist label, even though no evidence has been produced warranting the description and he has never been put on trial or broken any law. Nor had UK Guantanamo torture victims Ruhal Ahmed, Shafiq Rasul, Bisher al-Rawi, Omar Deghayes, Moazzam Begg and others, but it’s notable that their country secured their release without requiring that they first bow to a quasi-judicial abomination and then agree to being gagged about their mistreatment. They have been compensated by the British government. An investigation is underway into the knowledge and possible involvement of British intelligence agencies in torture. David Hicks is a key witness in these inquiries.

Earlier this year Julia A Hall, Senior Counsel Counter-Terrorism, Amnesty International said:

“…Victims of rendition and secret detention. The other labels that these victims have which has made it so difficult…to advocate on their behalf and that is because of the other labels that have applied to them. Labels like terrorist. Labels like national security threat. Labels like Islamic militant. These labels do not rest easily with their status as victims. If the discourse is they are in fact terrorists or national security threats, we have had a hard time as advocates of also saying that they’re victims as well. A by-product of that difficulty has been that we have angled a lot in our advocacy. We’ve said, well okay, the governments have been very successful in casting victims of human rights violations as terrorists and national security threats first. How can we get around that? How do we have legitimacy as lawyers and human rights activists when that discourse is so powerful and the government are in league in that way. In many instances over the last eight years instead of relying, for example, on the absolute legal prohibition and moral abhorrence of torture and enforced disappearance to advocate on behalf of victims, many of us really resorted to more instrumental arguments. We’ve avoided the moral argument…these behaviours [torture] were illegal under any circumstances and they were immoral in all circumstances…It has been very difficult to humanise victims of rendition and secret detention…we want better long term results in terms of accountability and we want to have public support for that accountability….”

It’s an example of that insightful maxim, what you call something governs the way you perceive it. To paraphrase it for Hicks: what the government, in cahoots with the press, calls someone governs how they are perceived.

Simplistic and inaccurate characterisation is a habit that dies hard for some Australian journalists, shock-jocks and opinion writers who were only too willing to point out that “Hicks ain’t no Che Guevara” when hearing of his standing ovation at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. It’s one thing to say you don’t agree with the assembled throng, but to denigrate the judgement of such an audience as, “the eagerness of this naive crowd”, is quite another.

Hicks remains under a suspended sentence, part of the plea agreement extracted by an unlawful military commissions system. The original military commissions were struck down by the US Supreme Court but reconstituted before the Alford plea agreement with Hicks. After five and a half years incarceration how could he not sign an agreement that guaranteed he would be out of Guantanamo in sixty days?

There is still a push in some quarters of the press and the parliament to try and keep Hicks dehumanised and on the fringe. They want him to remain demonised and they want to keep him gagged. That he may have popular support worries them. By hounding him with threats of action under the Commonwealth Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 they are attempting to keep the lid on the truth about his torture at the hands of our closest ally without understanding that there is an optimal level of criticism or legal coercion. Go beyond that point with personal criticism, or by bringing the weight of authority down on a single citizen, and the spotlight spreads its light. It comes to illuminate the conduct of all of those involved, including those of Hicks’ critics who were and are responsible for leaving him to languish without proper support.

It was always on the cards that when Hicks eventually was able to put his side of the story the official line would disintegrate.

Hicks outlined his allegations of torture to an audience aware of reports detailing the neglect of medical evidence of torture in Guantánamo Bay, reports of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners there and George Bush’s torture admission.

The US is aware of the potentially serious personal consequences these actions might have for its government officials: leaked State Department cables already show that the Obama administration has interfered with the judicial process in Spain and engaged in a political campaign to block Spanish courts from securing accountability for torture and other egregious violations of international law that were planned, authorised, and committed by Bush administration officials at Guantánamo and elsewhere.

With his mate Bush’s admissions, and with the details provided by Hicks about his torture at Guantanamo Bay, will former Prime Minister, John Howard, repeat his earlier denial of torture?

Problems of mischaracterisation and misreporting aren’t limited to the tabloid press and instantaneous media. Respected ABC journalist Leigh Sales (author of Detainee 002: the Case of David Hicks) told the Sydney Institute in 2007:

“….Myth 2 – Hicks was tortured at Guantanamo Bay. This is also incorrect and there is a very simple explanation why. Interrogators at Guantanamo Bay never had to use any harsh interrogation techniques on Hicks because he sang like a canary from the first day he was captured.
Hicks never faced some of the questionable techniques which have caused the Bush Administration so much grief – the dogs, the strobe lights, the sleep deprivation, the loud music and so on. Certainly other prisoners at Guantanamo did, Hicks did not….”

At the time she made that speech Sales’ book stood alone, and it still stands as an “authoritative” source. It has been interpreted by some as adding “….weight to the probability that Hicks either invented or greatly exaggerated his claims of physical abuse at the hands of his American interrogators…” Although Sales suggested that a writer must get as many different viewpoints as possible so that the conclusions ultimately reflect a whole lot of different views, she admitted when asked about access to Hicks after his return from Guantanamo Bay that “…. I have not met him and I haven’t spoken to him. He’s still undecided about whether or not he wants to speak to the media, he’s trying to keep a fairly low profile at the moment and figure things out……”.

The Sales book is all about Hicks but he had no voice in it. In a letter to Sales of 15 February 2007 Hicks’ lawyer, Joshua L Dratel, specifically said:

It would be unfortunate if your book adopted a negative slant, and accepted unconfirmed claims by persons with agendas that do not reflect the facts, because David and his lawyers have declined to cooperate with you in assembling your book. There are a multitude of prudent legal and other reasons why David is correct in choosing that path. Among them are the attorney-client privilege, the duty to adhere to instructions by a client, and the corresponding obligation to act in David’s best interests.”

Yet in May 2007 Sales claimed that Hicks “….ordered his lawyers and family not to co-operate with my book Detainee 002, a decision I believe is about protecting his future opportunities….”

Some favourable reviews when the book was released ignore the fact that it shed little light either on the situation in Guantanamo as it related to Hicks or on the sequence of events which saw him imprisoned. Why the rush to print if lack of co-operation from the subject meant more research was needed into the other side of the story? While the book was being written Howard was struggling with the Hicks monkey on his back. The book release in May 2007 coincided with Hicks’ release from Guantanamo, but the monkey stayed on Howard’s back until he lost the October 2007 election.

The Sales book told us little about Hicks the man or about his torture or about the conditions inside Guantanamo Bay Prison, but with Hicks coming out at the Sydney Writers’ Festival we now have another version of his treatment in Guantanamo.

Retailers of Hicks’ book are returning copies to the publisher, apparently for reasons unrelated to demand. What is driving this and why? What’s that line in Subterranean Homesick Blues: “Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine. I’m on the pavement thinking about the government…”?

Hicks has never been shown to have been guilty of anything, and now that the system that incarcerated and abused him has been exposed for what it is (or, hopefully, was), a public acknowledgement of how Australia let Hicks down might be appropriate, particularly in light of his own testimony. But why should we take his word for it? We aren’t suggesting we should, and we don’t expect he would either.

The Justice Campaign has called for an independent and open investigation into the David Hicks case, with special consideration to be given to allegations of torture and the political interference associated with his eventual plea deal. We support that call and undoubtedly we will hear similar calls from other sources. Inevitably the diehards will resist an objective, neutral investigation, but popular demand for truth will eventually prevail. It will be interesting to see the evidence that emerges under the scrutiny of an independent inquiry about the extent of the complicity of parliamentarians, government officials and writers and reporters in the unlawful detention and torture of an Australian citizen they chose to forsake.

The time for the definitive book on Hicks will be after the independent investigation. And without detracting from the price he personally has paid, David Hicks is only a point of focus of a bigger issue. The time for Australians to ensure their government protects the rights of all of its citizens abroad is long past. An independent inquiry just may reveal the extent to which, and the means by which, compliance with that obligation has been compromised for political expediency.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat
Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and activist

Published in The Canberra Times 26 May 2011

ASIO has made adverse security findings against sixty individuals who have been granted refugee status. Once recognised as refugees they cannot be sent back to their home country. On the basis of the ASIO assessment the Department of Immigration have refused a residence visa and placed them in detention; this amounts to indefinite detention unless ASIO changes its assessment. On what basis has ASIO made these findings?

Daniel Flitton and Maris Beck writing on 16 May in The Age, said, “…a Tamil woman, Ranjini, and her two children were taken into custody at Sydney’s Villawood detention centre last week. It is believed ASIO found her former husband was a driver for Tamil Tiger separatists.”

If this is the case, how did ASIO obtain this information? From an admission by the former husband, from information obtained from its own endeavours and resources or from information provided by the Sri Lankan government, its agents and sympathisers? I have maintained for some time that ASIO is beholden to the latter for information relating to Tamils.

ASIO have accepted the line that the Tamil Tigers were terrorists and that all judgements relating to the conflict in Sri Lanka should be seen in that light. In fact the conflict was a civil war between unequal protagonists. The Tamils used whatever it took to maximise their military capacity in the context of the civil war within Sri Lanka.

For a number of years the AFP accepted advice from a so called terrorism expert, Rohan Gunaratna, based in Singapore. Gunaratna, a Sinhalese, worked with the Sri Lankan police in the 1980’s. This is the same police force which has conducted a terror campaign against young Tamils in Colombo by abducting them off the streets; few of them have been seen again.

One who did turn up alive was Premakumar Gunaratnam, an Australian citizen, who was abducted and tortured for three days in early April. As a result of considerable public and media pressure he was released and flown back to Australia.

In addition to maintaining that ASIO obtains information from the discredited Rajapakse regime, I also maintain that ASIO has instituted a program of preventive detention and can do so because of their lack of accountability. It is illegal under Australian and international law.

This contention was given weight by the ABC 7.30 Report on 21 May. Hayden Cooper interviewed Shanaka Jayasekara, based at Macquarie University; he is another Sinhalese making a career in the terrorism industry. Jayasekara argued a case that former members of the Tamil Tigers, who found their way to Australia, should be indefinitely detained as they constitute a threat to Australian security. Jayasekara claimed this threat was real because many former Tigers had been trained to use dangerous weapons and might seek to destabilise Australia by using these skills.

This patently overplays any threat that might exist. It is paranoid nonsense. Such concerns can be ascertained and monitored within the community by observation. There are many former service personnel in Australia, possessing sophisticated military skills, that ASIO does not feel constrained to lock up. Of course, for ASIO, the greater the claimed domestic threat from terrorists, the easier it is to justify their budget; accepting the line that the only good Tiger is one in detention, does ASIO and its capacity to analyse critical and complex security issues, little credit. But there is more.

ASIO, having decided that former members of the Tamil Tigers are an integral part of the continuing war on terror, and as such are inimical to Australian interests, personal animus appears to have entered into decision making with respect to at least one alleged member of the Tigers who sought asylum in Australia.

Sasikanthan was the spokesperson for refugees on the Oceanic Viking. The reason being that he spoke better English than the other asylum seekers; he was not the negotiator he was the translator, but he achieved prominence because of the presence of the media, particularly TV. You will recall that it was events associated with the Oceanic Viking that caused Kevin Rudd grief and in fact caused him some humiliation at the hands of the Indonesians who, despite his diplomatic background, he completely misread.

The word from within Canberra is that ‘they’ are out to make life as difficult for Sasikanthan as possible. And if you don’t believe ‘they’ could be as vindictive and petty as that, then you have never worked in the Federal Public Service. Sasikanthan, found to be a refugee, is locked up because he constitutes a threat to our state. I call that an abuse of power, akin to the actions of a police state – worthy of apartheid South Africa.

Sasikanthan has lost his mind.

So now we have a situation where Tamils are terrorists or have the potential to become terrorists and Sinhalese, because they were on the other side in the civil war, are experts on terrorism; a simplistic notion which ASIO has bought.

The Director-General of ASIO, David Irvine, might have given more enlightened leadership to his organisation, but only the other day he signed off on a review of the security status of Ranjini and had her locked up at Villawood with her two children aged 6 and 8. She had only been remarried for six weeks.

It is time ASIO had a new Director-General and time the Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, got on top of her portfolio, applied a critical mind and stopped swallowing some of the nonsense being dished up to her as considered analysis.

Bruce Haigh

Published The Drum 18 May 2011

Admiral Thisara Samarsinghe, was recently approved by the Australian Government to become the next Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Canberra. He joined the navy in 1974 and retired in January 2011.

Admiral Samarsinghe, as Chief of Staff of the Sri Lankan Navy, oversaw the shelling of Tamil soldiers and civilians trapped in what had been declared a safe zone at the end of the civil war. The navy then blocked attempts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate the injured, women and children from the safe zone.

From 1983 the Sri Lankan navy detained and shot Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu who ventured into Sri Lankan waters on the basis that they were likely to be helping Tamil separatists. Until 2009 400 were shot and killed, with several thousand more wounded.

According to the recently released UN report into war crimes committed at the end of the civil war, both sides were guilty of breaches under the Geneva Conventions, however the Sri Lankan government has refused the UN panel who prepared the report further access to Sri Lanka and has condemned the report as biased.

The report estimates 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed towards the end of the war, some, as already noted, by the navy. In addition, 4,000 Tamil soldiers (LTTE) are being held incommunicado by the victorious government forces. The 500-page UN report notes that, “The fact that interrogations and investigations as well as ‘rehabilitation’ activities have been ongoing, without any external scrutiny for almost two years, rendered alleged LTTE cadre highly vulnerable to violations such as rape, torture or disappearance, which could be committed with impunity.”

It is wrong for Sri Lanka to have put forward a senior naval officer intimately involved in the civil war as High Commissioner and wrong for Australia to have accepted Admiral Samarsinghe.

There are precedents for rejecting Samarsinghe. In 1995 Australia rejected the nomination as Ambassador of retired Indonesian General Herman Mantiri. His nomination was rejected on the basis of war crimes committed by Mantiri against the East Timorese. In 2005 and 2008 the Canadian Government refused to accept nominations for the position of High Commisioner put forward by the Sri Lankan government, for reasons associated with human rights abuses.

It is a crying shame that the Australian Government has settled for lower standards. In the interests of fighting people smuggling, the AFP have posted officers to Colombo to liaise with their Sri Lankan counterparts. However the Sri Lankan police have blood on their hands, having engaged in the extra-judicial killing of Tamils for several decades. They have been involved in the murder of Sri Lankan journalists. Press freedom is all but dead in Sri Lanka. In 2009 the editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered.

In the same year J.S Tissainayagam, a Tamil journalist and newspaper editor, was jailed for 20 years for publishing editorials critical of the government in 2006. He was held in jail for two years before being sentenced by the Sri Lankan High Court under anti-terrorism legislation, a catch-all law similar to but more draconian than Australian legislation.

Australia took sides with the militarised Sinhalese majority in the civil war. At the end of the war, instead of offering humanitarian assistance to Tamils trapped in government camps, it sent the Deputy Chief of the Navy, Rear Admiral Davyd Thomas, to Colombo in June 2009, to liaise with his counterpart , the then Rear Admiral Samarsinghe, on action to stop people smuggling. Thomas also met with the President’s brother, the Sri Lankan Secretary for Law and Order and Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa , a man accused of war crimes. He also met with the Chief of the Defence Force, the Chief of the Navy and the Chief of the Coast Guard. No doubt it was seen useful to have Samarsinghe in Canberra to assist when and where necessary in stemming the flow of Tamil asylum seekers.

Over the years the Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia has conducted a campaign of harassment against Sri Lankan Tamils living in Australia. They were assisted by the AFP, who saw nothing wrong in visiting and intimidating Tamils in their homes at odd hours.

A Victorian Supreme Court Judge, Paul Coghlan, strongly criticised the AFP during his summary at the conclusion of a trial into the alleged terrorist activities of three Tamil males at the end of March last year. One of the accused, Arumugan Rajeevan, had the novel experience of being “unarrested” by AFP agents. He was pulled over as he was driving to a meeting, and arrested and handcuffed at gunpoint. Realising they did not have the legal grounds to arrest him, the AFP “unarrested “him. Coghlan also commented that Rajeevan had been abused during his interview which was an “absolute departure from normal principles.” No admission of fault or attempt at recompense was made.

Although not guilty of any crime, under pressure all three pleaded guilty in order to minimise sentences. In the event the state withdrew charges but in view of their pleas the men still had to be sentenced. None went to prison.

The Age newspaper commented at the time that, “Coghlan’s damning critique of police behaviour in relation to Rajeevan’s treatment spanned not only his arrest but his subsequent treatment at the hands of federal agents. But the Tamil Tigers case – in which prosecutors last year withdrew all the terrorism charges against the three accused men – raises greater issues than just the quality of police work…The sentencing provides the final chapter in what has been a complex, international tale that raises questions about how Australia should deal with citizens caught up in another country’s civil war.”

The appointment of Samarsinghe again raises that question.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Sri Lanka.

Published in The Drum and in the Canberra Times 13 May 2011

Out of all the various groups of asylum seekers in Australia, why are asylum seekers arriving by boat being persecuted by the Australian Government?

Why is the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, being so vindictive to desperate people arriving by boat on our shores? Why does she allow the erratic Tony Abbott and his attack dog, Scott Morrison, to set the boat arrival agenda? They don’t make an issue of refugees arriving by aircraft, however those arriving by boat receive their racist bile in bucket loads.

The once proud Labor Party has succumbed to their venom. This is the party which once championed human rights, took a stand against Apartheid, sponsored support for refugees in the 1980’s and early 90’s and saw the leaders Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd express compassion for the dignity of Aboriginals.

Is this demonization of the most defenceless in our state, in our care, being undertaken to win the hearts and minds of fellow Australians? If so, God help the lot of us. Have we fallen so low that to please our compatriots we must bully and beat the supplicants that come begging for our mercy and help?
Church leaders are absent on this issue. Where is their defence of the defenceless?
Shame on the leaders of our major religious organisations for wallowing in the same secular cesspit as our morally bereft representatives.

Why is the quality of our mercy so strained? What are our law makers so afraid of?

Asylum seekers arriving by boat feed into our fear of invasion from the north. This fear has been present in the national psyche since the 1850’s gold rush. Why haven’t we been able to shake it off? It has driven us to seek the military protection of first Britain and then America. Why didn’t it push us toward self-reliance? Why haven’t we matured?

“Australians all let us rejoice,
For we are young and free…” puerile and selfish, with diminished moral courage.

“We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil…”
All the many refugees that I know, work; they want to work. Ali, a friend and former refugee, went to Sydney. I asked him what he was doing, he said, toiling. I said, yes but what are you actually doing? He said, toiling mate, you know putting toils on walls.

The government talks of bringing in more skilled migrants, why don’t they train refugees?

“Our home is girt by sea…” And that makes it difficult for anyone to come here by sea and that is why the vast majority of asylum seekers arrive in Australia by plane.

“Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands…”
It is, sadly, a country of repute moving toward disrepute on the record of its care for the disadvantaged, the needy and those seeking refuge. It is acquiring an international reputation that will not assist in getting a seat on the UN Security Council.

“For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share…”

Wonderful sentiments, but written before the Department of Immigration was given its charter by John Howard to socially engineer the future of the country and our racial characteristics. Together with Defence, Immigration is a closed shop, wagging the fearful tails of Chris Bowen and Julia Gillard.

To open up former defence facilities on Manus Island in PNG, is a desperate and futile political ploy. It does nothing to remedy the government’s lack of courage. There is not sufficient courage within the Labor Party to overcome Abbott’s bullying. (“With courage let us all combine”) Instead he pushes them lower and lower. It will not win the Labor Party an election to grovel to the Coalition (of the Boot).

The Malaysian solution would be laughable were it not so tragic for the victims of Gillard’s abuse and for the moral and mental health of this nation. Again it will solve nothing. With the problems it will create for the returnees the ‘solution’ will bite the hand that shoved them into despair and limbo.

Julia will be hard pressed to overcome a growing reputation as a nasty, shallow and policy-free manager. She is no leader.
“For we are young (immature) and (selfishly) free…”

All wealthy democratic nations are the desired destination of asylum seekers. They always have been and they always will be. As the world’s population increases so too do the number of asylum seekers. There is a direct correlation between war, dysfunctional states, poverty, ideological and religious disputes and asylum seeker movements.

There are 20 million refugees worldwide and numbers are growing. Climate change, the decline in potable water and arable land will add further pressure on numbers. Rather than trying to sweep the problem under the carpet, why doesn’t Australia take the initiative and convene an international conference under UN auspices to examine and establish positive responses to what is an ongoing need.

Such a conference might give UNHCR more authority and power to handle the complex issue of asylum seeking and assist in the provision of better outcomes than the poor deal they have become party to with Australia and Malaysia.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.

Published The Drum May 4 2011.
On Line Opinion May 6 2011
Canberra Times May 9 2011

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and her advisers, should be kept away from forays into foreign policy; her craven outpouring to the US Congress has been followed by confused diplomatic messages whilst in Beijing.

Prior to her recent visit to China, Gillard announced that during high-level talks she would be raising the issue of human rights. Not a smart thing for an Australian head of government to do before a first visit to the Middle Kingdom.

The visit was important in terms of establishing an initial rapport between the heads of two major trading partners. China’s poor record on human rights certainly warrants the strongest condemnation by Australia and other countries which have some leverage, however slight.

The problem for Gillard was that after her all-the-way-with-the-USA speech in Washington, raising human rights with China looked like complying with an American request, particularly as she made such a song and dance about raising human rights prior to her departure.

My feeling is that behind closed doors she received a less than warm reception from the Chinese leadership. It would have been pointed out that the strength of the Australian dollar was causing a reappraisal on the viability of some development projects in Australia. The increasing attractiveness of options in other countries would have been spelt out.

In a state of real concern if not panic the Gillard B Team then announced, at the end of the visit, the prospect of defence co-operation with China as a response to veiled threats.

Even if the scenario described above does not represent what took place, the way Gillard chose to play her hand was extraordinarily inept. If she was serious about improving human rights in China and the defence co-operation proposal was on the agenda she should have made it conditional on verifiable improvement in China’s human rights record.

As it was she led (trumpeted) her human rights agenda at the beginning of the visit, only to depart with a proposal for ships visits and live firing exercises – proposals which no doubt pleased but bemused the Chinese.

Why on earth would a country criticise another country’s human rights record and then propose defence co-operation – without conditionality. It makes no sense at all, unless seen in the light of a concession to Chinese supremacy.

Gillard went to China with an American brief and returned with a Chinese prospectus. That, in summary, is the reality of Chinese influence and power with respect to Australia.

Defence co-operation has been the cornerstone of our relationship with the United States for 69 years. During one short visit to China Gillard laid the foundation for another. Australia cannot have defence co-operation with both the Chinese and the Americans.

Where was Rudd when these momentous decisions were taken? Absent on a self-indulgent doddle. Due to the poisonous relationship between Rudd and Gillard, he can never be by her side overseas and advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs to the Prime Minister, her department and advisers has all but been filtered out.
Responding to the slaying of Osama bin Laden, Gillard said she was pleased to hear of his death, as did Abbott. Understanding, as they do, the deleterious knock on effect with terror groups and within the broader Islamic community, I feel confident that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs would not have proposed or recommended that such a statement be made.

Bin Laden’s death at the hands of the US Sheriff, our erstwhile ally, may well galvanise the appetite for terrorist attacks on the West: this will require careful vigilance. The fact of his death in such a manner will be compounded within the Muslim world by the action of burying him at sea.

This dysfunctional government is delivering damaging diplomacy.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.

Published in ABD The Drum 1 May 2011 and Canberra Times 2 May 2011

The Gillard government’s response to the latest deaths of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan underlines all that is wrong with this mediocre, do nothing government.

Faced with the need to tell the nation of more needless deaths in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister fronts the media and with the face of a poker player grinds out the Gillard mantra that Australia will stay the course in Afghanistan – whatever that means.

Let us take the two most recent deaths on 31 May that of Lance Corporal Andrew Jones and Lieutenant Marcus Case, both young men in their prime of life, they died for what?

Gillard and her government’s lack of comprehension of the nature of the conflict they are engaged in and sending young men and women to die and get injured in, is criminal in its mindlessness.

Lance Corporal Jones was shot by an ‘allied’ Afghan soldier within an Australian base. Not only did he shoot and kill Andrew Jones he also managed to get away. The local commander of the Afghan army claims that he is likely to have been a member of the Taliban inserted into the Afghan army. That is unlikely. Why shoot one soldier when you are in a position to take out many?

Dr. William Maley of the ANU has speculated, amongst a number of reasons, that maybe the Afghan soldier had relatives killed in an air strike or abortive military attack on a village. That is a more plausible explanation, but it does not need even to be that. NATO, the US and Australia are now perceived to be an occupying force and as such they are not liked or respected by the peoples of Afghanistan. The Russians found themselves in a similar situation.

Afghanistan is amongst the poorest nations in the world. If that requires that people need to play a double game they will. The occupying forces have money, if that means behaving like Shylock many people in Afghanistan will. They play any game that allows them to survive, including supporting the Taliban and NATO forces at one and the same time.

The war in Afghanistan is not about religion it is about survival. It is a harsh country located at the cross-road of trade between Asia and Europe and this one advantage has been played with great guile and ruthlessness for the past millennium. Religion is the cohesive force that enables a common threat to be met.

Without that threat, but against the background of a fierce competition for scarce food resources and trading income, the various ethnic groups revert to loyalty to family, village and tribe in that order.

The Pashtuns are the dominant tribal group and thanks to British colonial boundaries they exist in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. For as long as Pakistan exists they will train and supply the Taliban, which is dominated by the Pashtuns. The putative government of Afghanistan, which in reality is the government of Kabul and a handful of other cities, is a majority Pushtun government. Both the government and the Taliban persecute the Hazaras, arbitrarily depriving them of life and limb and of the means of earning a livelihood when members of the dominant tribe want something the Hazaras might have.

The Pashtuns also believe the Hazaras to be inferior. They are originally of Mongolian extraction, they are Shia in their religious orientation (the Pashtuns are Sunni) and they speak Farsi, the language widely spoken in Iran. They are persecuted as refugees in Quetta and Peshawar by Pakistani Pushtuns.

All of this is known to the Australian government yet still they turn them back.

The Russians trained a large Afghan army. When they withdrew that army dissolved into the various armed forces of the war lords. The same will happen when NATO withdraws. Officers and soldiers owe no allegiance to the President of Afghanistan; their real loyalties are as described above. They will remain loyal to Kabul for as long as the money flows into their pockets.

The Taliban is a complex alliance of competing forces held together to rid themselves of a common enemy. Whether they show it or not most Afghan soldiers on the ‘side’ of the western coalition share those feelings. By long necessity the Pushtuns are traders and that is how, at one level, they are playing the western presence.

We are told by defence that Lieutenant Marcus Case was killed when on a helicopter which crashed. Helicopters don’t just crash. There is always a reason, bad weather, poor maintenance, poor piloting or ground fire, which is it?

I for one am fed up with the half truths and lies emanating from senior defence officers over all aspects of Australia’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan; a war which in which the original objectives have long since disappeared.

There are many countries in the world that have the potential to be a breeding ground for terrorism. The preconditions are poverty, corrupt and non democratic elites, holding most of the wealth, and anger on the part of sections of the population at this state of affairs and with the United States and other powerful countries for supporting and/or propping up those regimes.

One of those regimes is that of Mohammed Karzai, President of Afghanistan. For as long as the United States is in Afghanistan, maintaining Karzai in power, expect the terrorists, aka the Taliban, to flourish.

Sadly for the people of Afghanistan, once the western alliance withdraws, the various components of the Taliban will fight amongst themselves, in a medieval conflict that will not auger well for women and children. But the people of Afghanistan with the help and interference of their neighbours will have to work that out.

The limits of US power and influence have been reached, thanks to George Bush. The tide is ebbing for the US. It cannot police the world on borrowed money and Australia needs to look after its own real interests closer to home. It might start with a complete overhaul of the department of defence.

Both major parties will suffer politically if Australian casualties continue, throughout the summer fighting season, at the level of the past week.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972/73 and 1986/88.