Given that Australia has been engaged in military operations in Afghanistan, in addition to military/civil reconstruction and stabilisation efforts, in the provinces for over 18 years, it is only appropriate that we should greet the publication of a considered history of our relations with that country, explaining how we came to be so deeply involved in a country that previously we knew little about and seemingly cared less until this time.
Those 18 years represented the longest sustained military deployment (war) in Australia’s history, involving some 25,000 troops with the highest level of casualties since the Vietnam War.
The publication is: Australia-Afghanistan Relations by William Maley, Professor of Diplomacy at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University (Canberra: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2019)
Of course the commitment over that period was not prompted by a bilateral concern for Afghanistan and its people as an integral issue in Australia’ diplomatic relations. The intensity of the commitment was in response, with the United States, to the New York and related terrorists attacks in September 2001, in an endeavour to track down and destroy the al-Qaeda bases in the northeast of Afghanistan. The broader context was the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Prior to that Australia’s interest in Afghanistan was distant, noting that for some years it had been an arena for US/Soviet rivalry as evidenced by Soviet development activities in the north of the country and with the US doing much the same in the south. There was an element of the 19th century Great Game in this, as viewed from a distance by Australia too. The northwest frontier of Pakistan also attracted attention, both in relation to India and Pakistan. The 1980s had seen the Soviet’s unsuccessful invasion in 1979 and its eventual withdrawal, between which events Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser boycotted Australia’s participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. That was done in a Cold War context, not as a solidarity gesture to Afghanistan per se.
The publication under reference sketches our earliest contact with Afghans in the 19th century who introduced camels to make up the camel trains that became essential for transportation in the far north and northwest well into the 20th century. Initially their number were just a few hundred and any possible increase in this was thwarted by the introduction of the White Australia Policy directed primarily at restricting or preventing Chinese and Japanese immigration, not Afghans. However by 2016 their descendants were recorded as numbering 46,800.
Was there a vacuum between these early arrivals and the presently unresolved Afghan War? Maley’s book notes that as Afghanistan was a neutral in both the First and Second World Wars “there was little to draw the states together”, though both had been members of the League of Nations and currently of the United Nations. He might have mentioned that personal contact among our diplomats would have been facilitated, in both, by the fact that our delegations sat next to each other at meetings due to alphabetical proximity.
The pace of Maley’s account quickens as Afghanistan became a member of the Colombo Plan in 1963 and this led almost directly, it would appear, to the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1968 with External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck securing joint accreditation between the Afghan Embassy in Canberra and the Australian High Commission in Pakistan with respect to Afghanistan.
However there wasn’t a gap between 1963 and 1968 and it involves inter alia one John R Kerr QC, future Governor General of Australia. One may note that Kerr’s photograph appears twice in the book, the first being his call on President Mohammad Daoud in March 1975 (Daoud had previously deposed his own King and was himself deposed and assassinated in 1978 prior to the Soviet invasion). The other shows Kerr inspecting a smartly dressed guard of honour during the same visit to Kabul.
Curiously, and this is my point, Maley mentions at footnote 30: “This was not his (Kerr’s) first visit to Afghanistan. He had paid an earlier visit in 1964 ‘as representative of the Australian Government at a seminar of the United Nations Division of Human Rights’”. How did this come about and did Australia/Afghan relations progress over 1964 and beyond? If so there was there less of a gap between then and 1968 as implied?
The background to this was that recently appointed External Affairs Minister and Attorney-General Garfield Barwick had agreed with Kerr that Australia should participate in the UN seminar. The event was the ever first United Nations sponsored meeting in Afghanistan. Apart from promoting human rights Kerr was in a mission on behalf of the Australian Bar Association to establish bar associations in south and west Asia, in particular Pakistan and India. I was delegated from the High Commission in Pakistan, where I had been posted in 1963 as Third Secretary, as Kerr’s Alternate at the seminar.
I can say that the seminar was a success, in particular a Reception we organised at the Hotel Kabul for the some 20 delegates plus their diplomatic representatives in Kabul which included the Soviet Ambassador. The timing was more than interesting as the Chinese had just tested their first nuclear device and Kerr sought the Soviet Ambassador’s views on this in animated discussion. The reception was made possible by the British Embassy which provided, at cost, the necessary liquid refreshments (not otherwise available). The Australian Treasury eventually agreed to reimburse Kerr for the costs overall.
There was a further bilateral dimension to this vis-a-vis Afghanistan. I had been instructed to enquire from the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs whether Afghanistan might wish to avail its membership of the Colombo Plan to nominate a post-graduate student or two for English language training in Australia. They took this on notice at the time and later invited me to visit again to confirm that there would be places for two such students under the plan who set off the following year. The basis for further Colombo Plan projects had been laid.
A record of the above appeared in two issues that year of the Department’s Digest of Despatches which would now be unclassified and available in the DFAT archives.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, law academic and trade policy adviser