Reflecting on the aftermath of September 11, 2001, former ABC political correspondent Jim Middleton asks what will happen to the vulnerable Afghans who, like those caught up in the Tampa crisis 20 years ago, are in search of a better life.
The question was simple; the answer from John Howard anodyne; the implications to this day profound.
This is a story of 9/12, not 9/11, but sometimes the responses to an act of murder and aggression can be just as telling as the act itself and of pertinence to the present.
John Howard was in Washington on September 11, 2001. He’d celebrated the 50th anniversary of ANZUS, hosted a barbecue for senior Bush administration figures at the residence of Australian ambassador Michael Thawley, met Rupert Murdoch for a private dinner and was about to address a joint sitting of Congress.
As the ABC’s political correspondent I was part of the press pack reporting the visit.
The prime minister’s visit coincided with the Tampa crisis. In late August, 433 asylum seekers had been rescued by the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa, refused permission to be offloaded on Christmas Island, and transferred at gunpoint to HMAS Manoora, which was then sailing through the Timor Sea on a voyage its commander at that stage knew not where.
Australia had yet to secure permission from Nauru to land the unfortunate asylum seekers to become the first victims of what came to be known as the Pacific Solution.
Most of the Tampa 433 were Afghan Hazaras – members of a minority persecuted by the Taliban regime then running Afghanistan and fleeing their oppression up to and including rape and murder.
President George W Bush demanded the Taliban give up Osama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda footsoldiers.
The Taliban refused and the United States set about building a coalition to support an invasion of Afghanistan.
Immediately after the 9/11 attack, Howard offered any assistance Australia could provide to help punish the perpetrators.
Invoking ANZUS would come later.
In the shell shocked hours after the attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center, I wondered whether this lethal obscenity changed the status of the Tampa asylum seekers.
They were Hazara, persecuted by the Taliban who were now Australia’s enemy.
Did not the old cliché “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” apply, I wondered.
After being whisked to a bunker at the Australian embassy and then a night at the ambassador’s residence, the prime minister emerged for a late morning media conference on September 12 under the spreading limbs of the mansion’s autumn oaks before he was to make an early return to Australia.
Amid the questioning, I asked the prime minister whether the fact that we had offered the United States whatever assistance it needed to apprehend Al Qaeda meant Australia’s attitude to the Tampa people would change.
Were they now deserving our protection because they were victims of people who were now our enemy?
After a bit of backing and filling, Howard responded that it was not a matter he was prepared to contemplate at that moment.
At that moment, the Manoora was sailing through the Torres Strait, eventually reaching Nauru where most of the Hazara were put ashore, although 130 were accepted by New Zealand.
Ninety-two were eventually given temporary protection visas and in the wake of the “forever” war there are now around 4300 Afghans in similar limbo in Australia, not quite assured of permanent residency, let alone citizenship.
And now, of course, because of the procrastination surrounding the operation to rescue the hundreds of Afghans who worked as interpreters, guards and the like for the Australian Defence Force, Australian diplomats and Australian aid projects, a sizable number have been left behind, along with their families.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently more than 3.5 million internally displaced people in Afghanistan – one tenth of the population – and rising.
Some of them – including Afghans who worked for Australia and their families – have already made their way into Pakistan. A fortunate few have been airlifted from Islamabad, many more have been left behind.
The Hazaras on the Tampa had been fleeing the last Taliban regime; the early behaviour of the Taliban 2.0 suggests time will not have tempered their murderous behaviour.
That means – just like two decades ago – tens of thousands of Hazaras and other vulnerable Afghans will again be on the road seeking a better life, perhaps in Australia.
Some could end up in Indonesia looking for a boat to get here, just as their predecessors did, including Afghans who have risked life and limb for us over the past 20 years.
Scott Morrison insists that no Afghans, not even those with visas who got left behind in the chaos, will be allowed into Australia if they arrive by boat.
In 1975, Gough Whitlam was rightly excoriated by Malcolm Fraser and the coalition for refusing to assist Vietnamese who worked for Australia to escape Saigon.
As prime minister, Fraser set out to achieve and won bipartisan support for the settlement of Vietnamese boatpeople fleeing the Communist regime.
There are hundreds of Afghans and their families who worked for Australia who were not fortunate enough to run the gauntlet to safety in Kabul or to make to Islamabad in time to be rescued.
Should our government be throwing resources at rescuing them from their peril in Afghanistan and Pakistan after what they did for us or leave them to fend for themselves, making it a real prospect that they will end up in Indonesia seeking passage to Australia on a leaky boat?
Does Morrison really want to find himself in the same boat as Whitlam?