Will Australia learn from Saigon?

Aug 18, 2021

It is a few months more than 179 years since 4,500 British and ‘Native’ troops and 12,000 camp followers were forced to leave Kabul.

The Afghan rebel Akbar Khan had struck a pistol in the mouth of the British political advisor, Sir William Hay Macnaughten, and shot him dead. Shortly after the British Commander-in-Chief Sir William Elphinstone surrendered Kabul and begun the retreat to Jalalabad.

The only one of the Army to make it back was the Army’s doctor, William Brydon, immortalised in Elizabeth Butler’s painting now in the Tate Gallery.

A year later the British went back and razed Kabul. Yet today the British along with the Australians and the US are – like the Russians before them – retreating yet again.

The remnants of an army Elizabeth Butler

Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

They leave behind Afghans who trusted and worked with them. They may also even leave behind Australian citizens.

There were plenty of warnings that interpreters and others were at risk if they were left behind. The Morrison government prevaricated, procrastinated and managed to get a miserly 430 people out. Now they are talking about rescue flights – if they can land at an airport.

Like so much the Morrison government does it is all too little and too late. The Taliban is in Kabul and the Presidential Palace. We are seeing scenes similar to the fall of Saigon.

The difference between the fall of Kabul and that of Saigon will be the attitude of our government. Following the Saigon fall Malcom Fraser and some subsequent PMs took in thousands of Vietnamese refugees.

Kabul airport. Image via Twitter

Fleeing Saigon

When thousands of Afghan refugees start arriving in boats in the year or so ahead what will Scott Morrison do? Welcome them as Malcolm Fraser’s Government did; turn them back; or imprison them on an island or a refugee centre?

At Malcolm Fraser’s Scots Church funeral a small contingent of Vietnamese-Australian leaders held a silent vigil in tribute to him outside the Church.

When John Howard’s State Funeral is held sometime in the future it is unlikely there will be a group of Afghans or Iraqis standing in silent respectful vigil.

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