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The following article appeared in Pearls and Irritations on 7 July 2021.

An understanding of history might have seen Australia refuse the opportunity to get involved in Afghanistan, but an understanding of history has never amounted to much in Australia, unless it has been to embellish white supremacist myths, like Bean around Anzac.

Afghanistan has been the death bed of modern invading armies, first Britain, then Russia and now America. The reasons are topography and use of it by the Pathans, the ruthless and dominant tribe.

I have some experience with Afghanistan. My grandfather skirmished against the Pathans, with the British Army, on the border between India and Afghanistan in the North West Frontier Province in 1904/5. He was based in Quetta, Peshawar and Rawalpindi. He was with the Yorkshire Light Infantry but on secondment to 44th Punjab Regiment. He later became an instructor at Duntroon. I was posted twice to Pakistan, 1972/73 and 1986/88. The Embassy had reporting responsibilities for Afghanistan and by the time of my second posting it had leased a house in Kabul.

My bearer on my first posting, Doust, was a Pathan. His married son lived in a village outside Peshawar on the road to Kabul. His son had accused his wife of having an affair and smashed his baby’s brains out against the wall of his house. Doust was concerned about this and sought my time and the use of an embassy car to drive up and see his son. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. The son was a most handsome man, tall with black beard and hair, penetrating green eyes and a complete lack of humour. Doust told the village I had been in the army, so an ancient Belgian FN was produced and the honour of Australia was tested against bottles placed on the compound wall which I was instructed to shoot down. Honour was preserved. On the way home Doust told me he had given his son money to give to is wife’s family. He said his son regretted his action.

From 1986/88 I visited Kabul regularly; it was a war zone. From time to time, it was under attack from the Mujahideen using rockets, mortars and machine guns as well as acts of sabotage. In view of my military experience JIO gave me a compact camera and kept me supplied with film. I took pictures of Russian AFV’s, planes, helicopters, installations, radio communications and soldiers as well as damage to villages and crops. This was a risky business.

I have written a lot on Afghanistan, since Howard first committed Australian troops in October 2001. He did this without seeking the approval of Parliament.  In October 2009 (see my web site and ABC Unleashed) I wrote in ‘What are we doing in Afghanistan?’ that, ‘The United States Administration is said to be giving close consideration to its role in Afghanistan. The US military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal is calling for an extra 40,000 troops…Presumably if the United States decides to pull out, all the allies will pull out and if the United States decides to increase troop numbers and stay the allies will stay.

The lack of input and involvement with the weighty policy issues the US is grappling with throws into stark relief the role of the allies…Naturally the US military will argue for increased troop numbers in order to tame the Taliban, they are not the most imaginative…their solution was the same in Vietnam…’

And then I observed, ‘Nothing can be resolved in Afghanistan without changing the nature and role of the Pakistan Army and the intelligence services (ISI). In other words, Afghanistan extends deep inside Pakistan and the United States and its allies have to date demonstrated few strategies to deal with this…

Policy makers in Australia need to ask, what is it that they hope to achieve from the Australian military presence in Afghanistan? Is it just support for the US/Australia alliance or is Australia seriously engaged in a fight against international terrorism? If it is the latter then it needs to be explained how this commitment is achieving that and in what way does it impact positively in the long and short term the lives of Australians?

Are US objectives realistic? Can they be achieved? At what cost and over what period of time? Is the Australian commitment making a positive contribution? Are we getting value for money? Is there a down side and if so, what is it?’

Those were questions I asked in 2009, they were never answered, the mindless uneducated hawkes won out and we were left to crawl away defeated with our tale between our legs.

In December 2010 we learnt from Wikileaks that there was some pessimism on the part of the Australian government about the likely outcome of the war. A lack of confidence was expressed in the ability of the Afghan police to be trained, the capability of the Afghan government and the strategies deployed to win the war. These concerns were not expressed publicly.

Major-General Jim Molan was a vigorous and vocal defender of our involvement in Afghanistan as was Neil James, the executive director of the Australian Defence Association. In an article I wrote in The Canberra Times, 15 December, 2010, ‘The Agony of Afghanistan’, I quote his comments on Wikileaks made in Crikey, on 29 July, 2010, ‘Put bluntly, Wikileaks is not authorised in international or Australian law, nor equipped morally or operationally to judge whether open publication of such material risks the safety, security, morale and legitimate objectives of Australian and allied troops fighting in a UN-endorsed military operation. Nor should and can groups such as WikiLeaks be so authorised or equipped respectively, especially when they are unaccountable to any responsible authority or international humanitarian law (IHL) in a legal or moral sense.’ Such was the intellectual calibre of the supporters of our involvement in Afghanistan.

The lack of knowledge of Afghanistan, its politics and people saw the Australian task force in Uruzgan Province work closely with corrupt war lord Matiullah Khan. It was a poor decision. He was believed to be involved in the production and sale of opium which financed the Taliban, just as it had the Mujahideen. It was also alleged that he ran protection rackets. Did any of his corruption rub off on the ADF?

Writing in the SMH on 26 August, 2011, Rafael Epstein said, ‘Until last year, the Australian government paid Matiullah Khan for his armed men to work with Australian special forces.’ Epstein said he controlled the police unit which partnered with the Australian commandos, Dutch troops refused to work with him and the US Ambassador did not want him holding any formal Afghan government position. It seems to have been an act of pragmatic poor judgement to have aligned with Khan.

In his investigations into the war crimes of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan did Major General Brereton look into ADF involvement in the drug trade? Did he look into the use of and trading in drugs by the Special Forces in Afghanistan? And if not, why not? As in Viet Nam drugs were easily available. It would be surprising if some soldiers did not succumb, with adverse consequences on their performance in the field.

The Brereton Report covered the period from 2005 to 2016. The unlawful killings discussed in the report began in 2009, with most occurring in 2012 and 2013. It claims that 39 civilians and prisoners were murdered. A 2012 incident was described in the Report as ‘possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australian military history’ and noted that ‘the commanders at troop, squadron and task group level bear moral command responsibility’ for these events.

Dutton and Morrison have shown little interest in pressing the investigation. Dutton overturned a recommendation in the Brereton Report, implemented by the CDF, to deprive 3000 Afghan veterans of a unit citation. Both have been supportive of Ben Roberts-Smith VC, accused of war crimes in Afghanistan. There seems little compulsion or motivation on the part of the LNP government to pursue the issue of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan.

The war crimes were committed around the time there was a realisation at both the military and political level that there was nothing winnable about the undertaking in Afghanistan. Morale and leadership appear to have collapsed at about the same time. It might be said that the Viet Nam syndrome took over. That is why an investigation into the use of drugs is so important. Hastie no doubt can provide some answers.

Many members of the Taliban were members of the Mujahideen. Their existence is a direct result of the occupation of Afghanistan by a foreign power, firstly Russia then America. The Taliban has links to ISIS whose existence can be sheeted home to the American destruction and occupation of Iraq.

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan will follow the blue print of the Russian withdrawal. Retribution and a crackdown on all Western manifestations of influence will result, including female education and role in a Taliban dominated society. It is a condemnation of the false hope generated by a major power which had no game plan and no intention of staying the distance. Viet Nam, Iraq and now Afghanistan demonstrate that our ally, the US, is flaky. Driven by the arms industry it has no interest in long term outcomes, short term profit is the objective. That is why the US project against China is such a worry. China is Iraq and Afghanistan revisited. America is not a good country; it acts only in its own interests. Profit. They don’t give a fig about Australia.

The following article appeared in Pearls and Irritations on 5 July, 2021.

This is a tale of greed, denial, delusion, racism, power, loyalty, ethics and courage. Dressed in black are Howard and Downer, in white K and Collaery. The tale takes place in the subterranean world of spies, spooks, spivs, shankers, summer kings and secret trials.

The very bad people bring the very good people before the courts in a land where persecuted people from other lands are, on arrival, further persecuted. In this Topsy Turvey land where good is bad and bad is good, power, greed and money are king, but only for as long as the sun shines. When the going gets tough, when winter descends the king disappears.

According to the State that Persecutes the Innocent, the crime that needed to be addressed was that an Australian security officer working for ASIS, Witness K, was mightily disturbed that as an honest employee, of some achievement and standing, he was tasked with carrying out an illegal act by Prime Minister, Howard, and Foreign Minister, Downer, against a small, needy and vulnerable target, Timor-Leste.

The State that Persecutes had a significant advantage in power and technology and used this advantage to bug a cabinet room where discussions took place by representatives of Timor-Leste on how to secure the best deal they could, in negotiations with The State, over disputed oil and gas reserves under the ocean bed between the two countries. Putting aside the illegality of the undertaking there was also a complete lack of ethics. It was grubby.

Witness K took his concerns to the management of ASIS, which authorised him to discuss his concerns that a crime had been committed, which of course should have been seen as our concern, with the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, a mysterious job because no one is allowed to scrutinise the Inspector-General. It’s all about all of us taking a deep breath and trusting. Anyway, the Inspector-General did the right thing and authorised Witness K to consult a lawyer which he did in the form of a prominent Canberra lawyer, Bernard Collaery. But then it went pear shaped for K when the mysterious IGIS was replaced with an opaque IGIS who withdrew the earlier approval to consult a lawyer, putting both K and Collaery in an invidious position. K for having divulged the nature of his concerns, which were governed by the official secrets act, and for Collaery for having heard them and for beginning to act upon them. The State that Persecutes had a Problem. The Oxford loving Attorney-General at the time, Brandis, sat on his little hands waiting for his posting to London as High Commissioner to solve his dilemma, which it did. His egregious smile floats on.

He was replaced by anything but Christian, Porter, best known for some recent excellent dramatic performances on Australian television, which some say may have opened doors for him doing Shakespeare in London; apparently Brandis has offered accommodation while he finds his feet. In any case as the new fearless AG, he took the bit between his teeth and in order to protect the impeccable reputations of Little-Iraq-Overboard, Johnny Howard and call me darling, Downer, he bravely undertook to prosecute K and Collaery.

But a Magistrate in the ACT, who had heard the case in secret, decided that basically K did not have a case to answer and gave him a three month suspended sentence. That was a blow for the forces of darkness, particularly Porter, who despite his rising thespian career, had had to vacate his position as AG in the face of serious allegations of a possible criminal nature. He has been appointed Minister of Silly Walks, a kind of sinecure, until he has to face the Mad Hatter.

The redoubtable Bernard Keane of Crikey, a publication that aspires to turn The State of Persecution into Wonderland, said, ‘The wrong person was in the dock being sentenced last week in the ACT Magistrates Court…It is Alexander Downer who should have faced court.’ He notes that the beneficiary of knowledge gained from the bugging was the major polluter Woodside. Incredibly Downer went on to receive grace and favour employment with Woodside.

However, in my opinion, the racism and elitism of Downer and Howard underpinned their greed and facilitated their quite extraordinary undertaking. Just as an aside Howard never once expressed opposition to Apartheid on the floor of the House, despite having many opportunities and Downer demonstrated marked discomfort in the presence of Indigenous people as leader of the Opposition. This is relevant in view of their subsequent treatment of the East Timorese.

In my book, ‘The Great Australian Blight, Losing the plot in Australian foreign policy’, published in 2001 by Otford Press, p71, I said, ‘Howard remained opposed to an independent East Timor until early 1999. Downer attempted to finesse Howard’s recognition of the strength of Australian public opinion in favour of independence as a “shift in government policy”…nonetheless the Government continued to acknowledge and affirm Indonesia’s right to occupy East Timor.’

Downer denied the involvement and arming of the East Timorese Militia by the Indonesian Army (TNI) until not long before the intervention of the Australian led, international peace keeping force (INTERFET) in East Timor. The shadow foreign affairs spokesman, Laurie Brereton accused him in 1999 of lying. Greg Sheridan of The Australian backed Downer’s anti-East Timor, pro-Indonesia line.

Later, p122, I noted, Downer was reported in the SMH, on 8 December 2000, as saying Australia and Indonesia needed better defence ties. ‘Bereft of ideas, morality and shame the government blundered about looking for its old comfort zone, unwilling or unable to acknowledge that following the ballot in east Timor the dynamics of the archipelago had irrevocably changed.’

On p123, I said, ‘Nevertheless, Australia and East Timor did find Major-General Peter Cosgrove just in the nick of time. Cosgrove and his troops performed the task of securing peace and stability in East Timor in the manner in which every Australian hoped they would. Cosgrove provided leadership of a quality which had been sorely lacking in Australia. John Howard, John Moore (Minister for Defence), and Alexander Downer latched onto his coat tails hoping to gain some of the reflected glory and increase their diminished stature.’

Howard and Downer were humiliated by the way events unfolded in East Timor. They gave every indication they felt belittled and they had reason to. They had behaved in petty and mean spirited fashion further demonstrating these characteristics with the authorisation of the bugging of the cabinet room in Dili. They have unleashed the most bizarre and cruel chain of events which will not end well for them.

Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator.


This following article was published in Pearls and Irritations on 15 June 2021.

For the second time in their lives the two adults of the Murugappan family have been forced to be resilient and brave in the face of confrontation by a government intent on causing them harm.

In the first instance they fled a Sinhalese regime wrecking genocide upon a hated Tamil minority who had dared to fight for their freedom from oppression. The instruments of genocide were torture, rape, murder and confiscation of homes and the means of livelihood – land, shops, fishing boats, for those not killed, leading to suicide and mental illness.

When they had a right to expect succour after all they had been through, they received cruel punishment in Australia. Initially they found protection and kindness with the caring community of Biloela. After the trauma they had been through with the civil war and the blood letting of the Sinhalese armed forces toward the Tamil minority, they felt safe, and despite their nightmares, sufficiently secure to start a family. Nades and Priya had two much loved daughters, Kopi and Tharnicaa.

Priya had endured the multiple raping of her mother and the bashing and blinding of her father by Sinhalese members of the occupying force.

Taken from Biloela on expiry of their temporary visas by the then Home Affairs Minister, Dutton, they were held in detention in Melbourne while appeals went through the legal system and then transferred to Christmas Island when those issues remained unresolved. The stronger the protests by refugee support groups, human rights activists and the community of Biloela the more Dutton dug in.

After three years in detention the youngest daughter succumbed to the conditions and in May, 2021, came down with Pneumonia. She was given pain killing tablets by medical staff at the detention facility, ten days later she became so ill she was taken to the hospital on Christmas Island where she was diagnosed with septicaemia and rushed, by emergency flight, to the Children’s Hospital in Perth, 2,600 kilometres away.

There followed calls for the family to be allowed to go back to Biloela. Decent Australians are horrified at the treatment of this family. The former Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Gerard Brennan has accused the government of deliberate cruelty. He said, “Cruelty is being inflicted upon her (Tharnicaa) to punish her parents who came by boat without a visa and thus to discourage others from breaching one of our immigration policies.” Think on it. This is the considered opinion of one of the most respected Judges to have sat on the High Court.

The Premier of Western Australia, Mark McGowan, has said the issue is “Internationally embarrassing”. He strongly urged Morrison to allow the family to settle in Biloela.

 Karen Andrews, the new home Affairs Minister initially called for the family to be resettled in either the US or New Zealand, as did the Minister for foreign Affairs, but they withdrew that suggestion. Andrews then said she was ‘not going to open the gates to people smugglers’. Where does that come from? Sounds like vintage Dutton.

In any case Andrews should know that her department is involved in operations, through the Australian Embassy in Colombo, to prevent boats with Tamil refugees coming to Australia. It covers activities on a number of fronts. Several years ago, Australia donated patrol boats and more recently drones. Payments have been given to Sinhalese involved in the people smuggling trade including navy and police officers and at one time the brother of the President. Sri Lanka is a chronically corrupt country and increasingly authoritarian. Democracy is a sham. The police and military control the north, where the majority of Tamils live. It is a reign of fear. Land has been stolen and given to the military, together with businesses. It is difficult for Tamils to make a living. Women and girls live in fear.

Dutton is no doubt aware of the arrangements that exist to control people smuggling. Before the last election, which the LNP expected to lose, several refugee boats left from Sri Lanka. Their arrival had the possibility of embarrassing the incoming Labor government. It was never satisfactorily explained how these boats managed to get so close to Australia with all the preventative arrangements that were in place.

In 2019 Dutton said it was safe for Tamils to return to the north of Sri Lanka. There has been no indication that the Australian Government has revised or rejected the advice that this statement was based on. The Australian High Commission is in a difficult position. The Australian government does not want to know the condition of Tamils in the north because that would mean acknowledging that many are eligible to be considered as refugees. In a politicised public service sending advice contrary to what the Government wants to hear is a prescription for losing preferment and promotion. The same is happening at the moment with respect to China.

Advice that the Australian Government has been operating under, namely that the north of Sri Lanka is safe for Tamils was recently overturned in a decision of a British Court. It found that State sponsored torture existed and that all Tamils in the north faced the risk of abuse and torture. (Upper Tribunal decision of 27.5.21, Appeal Numbers: PA/09978/2016 and PA/13288/2018). In light of this decision the Tamil Community in Australia has asked that DFAT amend its advice to reflect that the prospect of torture for Tamils in the north is high.

On the 2 June, 2021, a young Tamil man, Chandran Vithusan, aged 22 was arrested by Sri Lankan Police from the Intelligence Division outside of his home in East Iruthayapuram, Batticaloa, taken into custody and beaten to death. Nades and Priya are from Batticaloa. Given their background of seeking asylum in Australia it is likely that Nades and Priya would be taken into detention were they returned. What would happen to their children?

I worked on the Refugee Review Tribunal from 1995 until 2000. I handled cases from Sri Lanka. In my judgement Nades and Priya should have been found to be refugees. Not to do so was poor decision making of which there has been much.

By way of further example in June, in the North-East, Sinhalese Police arrested Tamils for ‘violating travel ban’ guidelines. This demonstrates that the movement of Tamils is regulated and controlled by the occupying authorities. At the same time police targeted a number of individuals, including the Mayor of Jaffna, for promoting LTTE ideology. It is a standard ploy for the police to claim LTTE activities in order to harass and intimidate whilst seeking bribes, funds and favours.

The occupying Sinhalese forces in the north hate the Tamils. At Mullivaikkal at the end of the war in 2009, 150,000 Tamils were murdered by the Sri Lankan military, this and other documented acts amounted to genocide and were found to be such at a session of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal held in Bremen in December 2013 at which I was present. Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group recognise the killings as a war crime. The hatred which led to these atrocities is still there.

Barathan Vidhyapathy, a Tamil film maker and Member of Tamil Refugee Council based in Melbourne says, “Today, Sri Lanka’s Tamil population lives under one of the heaviest military occupations in the world, and is subject to attacks, racism, and insecurity. It’s little wonder that Tamils would flee the island, seeking asylum in Australia.”

The Murugappan family cannot be sent back to Sri Lanka, they have suffered enough, they must be allowed to go back to their friends in Biloela.

Bruce Haigh is a retired Diplomat and political commentator. He was a Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal and he served at the Australian High Commission in Colombo.

This article appeared in Pearls and Irritations on 29 July 2021

Despite the line being spun by recently retired Secretary, Frances Adamson, AC, DFAT appears to be in the process of being scuttled by ASPI.

Speaking as a guest on ABC Insiders on 20 July, the Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, gave an unenlightening tour of the foreign policy issues facing Australia, from all the way with the USA to it’s all China’s fault, the audience learnt nothing. Well perhaps not quite.

Ms Payne from time to time appeared to refresh her memory from dot points, if so, it would seem to indicate prior knowledge of the questions or at least the direction they would take. Further more both questions and response appeared to be based on policy developed and articulated by ASPI. Perhaps indicating the extent to which DFAT is taking on water after being rammed by ASPI.

If, what the outgoing Secretary of DFAT, Frances Adamson, AC, had to say at the National Press Club, on 23 June 2021, is an indicator of Departmental thinking then it has run up the white flag. It was a defence of the indefensible, it was an apologia for an Australian government that has failed on every undertaking it has embarked on. From Climate Change, Covid, China, the Pacific, Timor Leste, Africa, SE Asia, Afghanistan, the Middle East, renewable energy, manufacturing, universities, Indigenous Australians, welfare, refugees, the Arts, you name the issue and the LNP has failed.

I know it is hard to represent and develop policy for a dysfunctional government, but giving it what it wants without a fight is surely just as hard and perhaps it is even harder to administer and comply with its failures. Certainly, that was the case for many public servants and defence personnel with respect to Tampa and children overboard.

Difficulties have been building in the relationship with China for the past five or six years, but instead of seeking to ameliorate areas of difference and points of friction they have been magnified. It was following a ‘conversation’ with Daffy Donald Trump that pushed Skittish Scott Morrison into calling for an ‘independent’ inquiry into the coronavirus last year. Go back and listen to the tone in Morrison’s voice, the cockiness and the arrogance. It rankles many here in Australia, it certainly rankled the Chinese, who at the state level are very alive to nuance. It was crude and that crudity was repeated and reinforced by Marise Payne, Simon Birmingham and more recently Dan Tehan.

There are newspapers, academics and think tanks which seek, and so far, have succeeded, in taking a hard line against China. None of it in my opinion constructive. There is talk of war. All are emboldened and indeed encouraged by the United States, which tells us it has our backs but then actively seeks and succeeds in picking up 40% of the trade we have lost to Chinese sanctions.

For a long time, we had a difficult relationship with Indonesia, a lot of it centred around its takeover of East Timor. There was a strong anti- Indonesia lobby group in Australia, comprising academics, journalists, church and other groups. The US always sought a strong relationship with Indonesia and because of that Australia did likewise. I remember it was not always easy, it was a difficult path within the Department and for the government. Indonesia at that time gave Australia many hard issues to deal with. But the lines of communication were kept open and alive by both sides, despite at times some very acrimonious exchanges. And why were the lines kept open by Australia? Because the government wanted them to be.

And they could be with China. China is looking for an apology for Morrison’s oafish and thoughtless statement, all the more so because he was so obviously the lickspittle of Trump. And he continues to rub salt in the wound, sending Australian war ships to sail with US and UK ships in the China Sea. And why? China is not going to threaten the shipping lanes it needs. Yes, China needs push back on its cyber incursions, its ‘education camps’ in Xinjian and heavy handedness in Hong Kong. And just to be even handed the US needs push back on cyber security, police brutality toward black Americans, gun laws, Iran, Israel and China.

At the Press Club, Frances Adamson said, ‘Few really grasp that this great power (China) is still dogged by insecurity as much as driven by ambition. That it has a deeply defensive mindset – perceiving external threats even as it pushes its interests over those of others.’ The old adage applies. Those in glass houses should not throw stones. The white Australian ruling elite is dogged by insecurity and has been for the past 100, 150, 200 years, take your pick. It has a deeply defensive, if not offensive, mindset. And taking off the rose-coloured glasses, it is fair to say the US has pushed its interests over those of others, big time.

‘It (China) is too ready to suspect containment instead of judging issues on their individual merits. This siege mentality – this unwillingness to countenance scrutiny and genuine discussion of differences – serves nobody’s interests.’

China is contained, that is the point of US defence strategy. Surely Adamson is aware of that? And it is extensive and comprehensive, including 7 bases or facilities in Australia. Without making too fine a point of it, I would say Australia has a siege mentality and has since the 1890’s, founded on the Yellow Peril, which is alive and well today.

Raising the list of 14 points of differences, problems and irritants in the relationship, at the Press Club, that the Chinese Embassy raised last year, was not wise or diplomatic if the aim of public discourse is to improve the relationship. This was a Chinese diplomatic blunder, done as part of Wolf Diplomacy which has now been reined in. It was best left. Unless the intention was to kick China in the shin.

Finally, it is not up to China to improve the relationship, it is up to China and Australia. To put it all on China sounds very much like LNP talking points for Sky News.

Adamson has left a sinking ship. It may be salvaged but it will be a different vessel. Policy will not form part of its refurbished functions, that will be claimed by ASPI. DFAT will become a clearing house for down graded information, a meet and greet, hale fellow well met, and a flier of the flag overseas. DFAT oversaw the biggest Australian foreign policy disaster in seventy years with the collapse of the relationship with China. This is not a matter of concern for ASPI.