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Published Crikey, New Matilda and The Canberra Times June 24 2011

Somewhat guardedly, the outgoing US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, announced on 20 June that the United States and “others” were engaged in talks with the Taliban. No further details were provided except, when pressed, Gates hesitatingly said that the talks had been going on for about two weeks.

Less guardedly the US President, Barack Obama, announced on 23 June a withdrawal of 10,000 US troops by December 2011. They are said to be part of the ‘surge’ of 33,000 troops deployed into Afghanistan over the past thirty months. The remaining 23,000 will be withdrawn next year.

Obama claims they are being withdrawn because of the military success against the Taliban and the increasing capability of the Afghan army to carry the load. Neither of which is true.

The Australian Prime Minister, in a predictable statement, said Australia welcomed the announcement but that Australian troops would remain in Uruzgan province until at least 2014, when the Afghan people take over their own security.

There have been rumours of talks with the Taliban for over a year. It was said that the Dutch engaged in a dialogue prior to their departure from Afghanistan. From time to time reports have appeared of both the British and Americans having contact with representatives of the Taliban and officials from Pakistan have maintained contact with the Taliban throughout the war. The Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence organisation (ISI) has provided training and supplies including arms to elements of the Taliban.

Gates said that he doubted the Taliban would engage in serious discussion until they suffered further military setbacks, he put the time for these discussions toward the end of the year.

Gates appears to have been pushed into his announcement by a precipitate statement from the Afghan President, Hamid Karzi, on the 19 June, claiming that the US and the Taliban were engaged in talks.

Talks only began in earnest between the North Vietnamese and the US, when America realised the war was unwinnable and wanted out. The US economy is stagnant, with few signs of recovery and with Obama seeking Congressional approval to extend the national debt to $US21 Trillion from $US14 Trillion, it is fair to assume that the Administration wants out. Obama said when announcing the troop withdrawals, “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.”

The war is unwinnable, Senator John McCain thinks differently but not so Republican Presidential candidates.

The US is talking to the Taliban and perhaps has been doing so for some time, but who are they talking to? The Taliban are an alliance, a loose alliance, that will likely disintegrate and turn upon itself when the US and NATO leave Afghanistan. Who is the US talking to with confidence that their interlocutors can deliver?

Both major parties in Australia have few doubts about the need to stay the course in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has said we are there for the long haul and the Leader of the Opposition agrees on the basis that Afghanistan must be turned into a state that will never again harbour terrorists. Is another three years a long haul. Gillard had been talking about another ten years, at least until 2020. When did 2014 become an end point? Will Australian troops be amongst the last to leave? At what point does their security become critical in light of American withdrawals? Who is providing Gillard, Smith and Rudd with advice on Afghanistan?

Was the Australian government aware that its US ally was engaged in talks or soundings with representatives of the Taliban? Has Australia been involved as one of the “other” countries?

I sought a response from the office of the Prime Minister, and that of Defence and Foreign Ministers. Neither the office of the Prime Minister nor of Defence responded.

I sent the following; “The ABC reports today that outgoing US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, has said that talks are taking place with the Taliban. These talks have been taking place for at least several weeks and involve other countries as well as the US. Is Australia a party to these talks? If not, was it advised of the talks? If so when?”

The reply from the office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs was; “The US has made no secret of its interest in facilitating a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan.
The Australian Government has long stated that the conflict in Afghanistan will not be solved by military force alone.
Australia supports reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.
Australia believes this process must be Afghan-led and subject to insurgents agreeing to renounce violence, sever links with terrorist organisations, and abide by the constitution of Afghanistan.”

I thought the response defensive and irrelevant. No attempt was made to answer the questions posed, which given the non response from Gillard’s and Smith’s office and the attempt at deflection from Rudd’s office, led me to believe that the Australian government knew nothing of the feelers (‘outreach initiative’) being extended to the Taliban.

However the response does raise some interesting questions. Despite the lack of US secrecy I would like to have spelt out what political solution(s) the US envisions as possible or probable in Afghanistan? In what ways does the Australian government see resolution of the conflict by means other than military? With whom and by what means does Australia support reconciliation in Afghanistan? Does Australia regard the ISI as a terrorist organisation? Who is going to define terrorist, given that not only does the ISI support the Taliban, it also deals with US and Australian officials?

Obama now states that, “We do know that peace cannot come to a land that has known so much war without a political settlement. So as we strengthen the Afghan government and security forces, America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban.”

This statement ignores the fact the US took one side in the war which rendered reconciliation impossible, and until recently one of the stated aims of the war was to militarily defeat and crush the Taliban. The Presidents statement indicates the change if not reversal in US policy toward Afghanistan – a change that has gone unremarked in Australia.

The nature of the conflict in Afghanistan might better be described as a civil war, why, in that case, would the Taliban want to abide by the constitution of Afghanistan? Such a pre-condition would not aid or assist a negotiation and reconciliation process.

Removed, as it appears to be, from the ‘outreach initiative’ and absent both physically and intellectually from the policy process now unfolding, Australian has once again given the United States a blank cheque to do what it likes with our troops; without an Australian input into US foreign policy and strategic plans in Afghanistan our contribution becomes little more than supplying mercenaries.

Published in The Drum 14 June 2011

Professor James Hathaway, a Canadian, is regarded as the pre-eminent authority on refugee law. He has written many learned texts and papers including a book referred to by all lawyers and judges involved in determining refugee status. The book was first published in 1991 under the title “The Law of Refugee Status”, it is internationally renowned. It is a reference known to, and occasionally used by, the Australian Department of Immigration.

Hathaway was interviewed on the ABC news and current affairs program, The World Today, on 10 June 2011. During the course of that interview he said that the deal the Australian government had negotiated with Malaysia over the forced transfer of asylum seekers from Australia to Malaysia was illegal under international law.

The 1951 UN,” Convention relating to the Status of Refugees” which came into force on 22 April 1954, and which Australia not only signed but helped to draft, specifically excludes the transfer of asylum seekers to non signatory countries, of which Malaysia is one. The Convention also excludes the transfer of asylum seekers to an environment where they may suffer further trauma, harm and discrimination.

Australia has begun a process which, when completed will see it break international law. When this occurs Australia will have abrogated its right to protest Japanese whaling, to criticise China’s abuse of human rights and the many other injustices that Australia currently feels compelled to protest and comment on.

If a government is prepared to break the law, why should it expect better from its citizens?

Once Australia signs the deal with Malaysia we will lose the international status and standing that many Australians fought long and hard to build and maintain. It will be in the company of some fairly ordinary rogue states.

There is a notion that Australia seeks to set international standards. However as a wealthy, and predominantly white, nation on the edge of Asia, the fact that the Gillard government feels the need to enter such a dirty deal to try and stop a few boats with asylum seekers coming to Australia, will do nothing to add to the stock of goodwill, that a middle power like Australia needs, in order to achieve outcomes on a par with more powerful nations.

In that vein it has diminished its chances, if ever it had a chance, of securing a seat on the UN Security Council.

Who decided to break international law? Was it the Prime Minister and senior ministers acting against departmental advice? Were they aware that by entering the proposed agreement with Malaysia they would, as a consequence, break international law? If they acted on advice but were not aware, who failed to warn them? If they acted on advice and knew that by proceeding they would break international law, why did they proceed?

If public servants drew up the advice, since when in Australia has it been authorised for them to create schemes that in implementation will break the law?

How low have we gone when Ministers and advisers are prepared to break the law in order to achieve a political outcome? In terms of cesspit politics it’s about on a par with Menzies when he deceived the Australian parliament and people by introducing conscription for service in Vietnam.

I didn’t think with Gillard and Abbott that we could stoop much lower in Australian politics, but clearly we have. With a distinct lack of the back bone normally provided by moral fibre, they appear quite capable of slithering under an even lower bar.

Australia desperately requires a reality check. Scientists are marginalised in order to bring about a political solution which does little for the environment in the Murray/Darling Basin. The Department of Defence is so enmeshed in secrecy and self that it failed to advise the minister on the unseaworthiness of three major naval vessels and provides upbeat and incorrect advice on the war in Afghanistan. A failed Pink Bats scheme; the school shelter shed rort; the removal of non renewable energy sources from the agenda; a half baked carbon policy stitched together by a Labor Party acolyte, who seeks to bully the rest of Australia into the bad deal he sold to a gullible and impractical government. Ross Garnaut put together a dog of a scheme that has too many politically driven compromises for it ever to achieve what is claimed for it.

If Australia wants a workable carbon policy, try the CSIRO, but allow them complete independence, protection of that independence and proper funding for the organisation to undertake such projects.

The media driven knee jerk reaction to the slaughter of cattle in Indonesia, says much about this unworldly and unsophisticated government, where the life experience of most members can be written in two paragraphs. Where was consideration for the subject of the ban – the cattle? What of those left stranded on wharfs, in trucks, in feedlots and on farms and stations short on feed?

It seems to me that what is lacking in the current political leadership is commonsense and courage, reflected in collapsing major party membership. The absence of courage starves compassion of oxygen. We see this in the carcases of policies which once worked but were discarded in the face of fear and race driven diatribes, and opinion polls which breed and feed off fear.

Where is the leadership to counter fear?

Although it is unlikely to happen, now is the time for both Gillard and Abbott to leave the political scene and replaced with Combet and Turnbull. The, ’say anything to get elected’ Abbott, is a clown and political courtesan, respected by few even amongst the ranks of his erstwhile supporters. If he ever becomes Prime Minister he will be an embarrassment to equal Gillard. Haven’t we had enough?

The best and probably only thing going for Abbott is Gillard. She is out of her depth, with her partner claiming she should be respected because she is Prime Minister.

The Malaysian deal will ensure respect is marginalised for a country, which had so much on offer but failed to live up to its own and others expectations; a wealthy and spoilt member of the international community, living off its inheritance with little effort to create wealth.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and reformer.

Published in The Australian Financial Review Monday June 6 2011

It is absolutely right that there should have been public outrage and anger at the gross mistreatment of cattle in Indonesian abattoirs. If the Australian government allowed reporters with cameras into their detention centres for asylum seekers I have no doubt that there would be similar outrage.

The Germans did not allow reporters with cameras and the Red Cross into their concentration camps either, it was only after the liberation that we learnt of the horrors. Let us hope that the committee that is to investigate the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, and the cruel and inhumane camps that they are held in, can tell the rest of Australia what has been going on and liberate these poor human beings from the hell that they are consigned to by a frightened government and opposition.

The fear of the major parties has made them as callous and indifferent to the fate of asylum seekers as the slaughtermen of Indonesia are to the cattle in their care.

Bruce Haigh