24 October 2010

Afghanistan vs East Timor

To illustrate which sort of military involvements Australia should do more of, and which less of, let's compare East Timor and Afghanistan.

In East Timor, Australian troops went in and established a provisional government, which has since been elected and retains popular legitimacy. Australian troops have been there for more than a decade, but Australia's engagement is far broader now than just military.

If Australian troops pull out of Oruzgan province, there will be no contact between Australians and Afghans: any civil aid effort will be thwarted by corrupt local warlords who can't make money from do-gooders, and Taliban who know that Western aid offers Afghans the kinds of services other people recognise as essential for popular legitimacy. Because the government there are clowns, there is nothing to support for locals or Australians, and training a local police force would be busywork to prop up PR efforts in Australia rather than to stabilise society in Afghanistan.

East Timor's neighbour, Indonesia, has a strong government that has learned its lesson and is attending to other issues than East Timor. Afghanistan's neighbour, Pakistan, has a weak government that is partly working with the Taliban, partly not, and generally achieving bugger-all for themselves and others.

In both places, Australians are recognised as foreigners, but East Timorese welcome Australians while Afghans merely tolerate the presence of our (yes, our) troops - and some don't even go that far.

In East Timor, the bankruptcy of Indonesian rule was clear; the incoming government needed to find its feet so the people embraced the Australians and worked closely with them until the incoming government could step up. In Afghanistan, the bankruptcy of Taliban rule was clear and the incoming government was clearly just as bad, so no embrace of the foreigner was possible until force majeur compelled people to make a choice - and the choice they've made is to keep Australians isolated as invaders.

Even in postwar Japan, Australian soldiers were not so disengaged from people they were trying to help as they are in Afghanistan. In both World Wars, the Australian government made it clear that our quarrel was not with the German people but their governments. In Korea and Vietnam the Australian engagement with local people was half-hearted, and overruled by ham-fisted shows of "strength". In UN peacekeeping efforts, Australians have shown that a broader engagement backed up by military force - and not consisting wholly of it - gets positive results for locals and Australians alike.

We can't be sure if we're doing a good job or not because there is no local voice to tell us one way or another, and the locals don't really engage with Australians anyway because they're more concerned about IEDs than building sound ties.

One thing is clear: the assertions by the Department of Immigration that Afghanistan is fine and all the asylum-seekers can go home, are the most vicious types of lie. They also put the lie to the notion of a 'queue' which Afghans are said to jump. The fact that they can't get into that queue without bobbing up on Ashmore Reef shows the Phillip Ruddock Fib shows a wasteful disconnect in Australian public policy, a commitment to waste that should appal anyone who realises that disconnect kills people.

East Timorese refugees helped shape Australian policy toward that country; for many years Jose Ramos Horta lived above a TAB in western Sydney. Afghan refugees aren't considered valuable sources of information; they're a burden, an embarrassment, a menace apparently.

In neither location are Abrams tanks or Tiger helicopters any damn good at all.

Australia's interests are clear in East Timor. In Afghanistan we're there to support the Americans, and they are there because they're there.

1 comment:

  1. > They also put the lie to the notion of a 'queue' which Afghans are said to jump

    I find it ironic that most of those who complain about queue jumpers would, if they found themselves stranded in Afghanistan or similar hellholes, do exactly what the queue jumpers are doing - try and get the hell out to a better place any way they could. It's us that have the problem because they threaten our nice wealthy paradise, but we blame them.

    This doesn't mean we can afford to let all comers in. If we want to preserve our standard of living then we need an immigration policy and limits on entry - but at least we could limit the degree of hypocrisy while we do it.