MOTIONS - Afghanistan

MOTIONS - Afghanistan Main Image

On the motion moved by the Prime Minister on Afghanistan, I want to thank him and the Leader of the Opposition and all those who have spoken on this matter. We have a very vibrant Afghan population in my electorate of Macarthur. I've helped train a number of medical students who have come from Afghanistan or whose family has. For over 20 years we have had quite a large Afghan population; in fact, for a number of years one of the local chicken shops was run by a professor of English literature from Kabul University. My heart goes out to them. My office is doing all it can, working with Minister Payne and DFAT to do what we can to support our Afghan friends and their relatives.

For me, this present situation is a very terrible repeat of what happened many years ago, with the end of the war in Vietnam. I was actually in Afghanistan in 1973-74 as a medical student for a brief period of time. I had taken some time off university and, with the help of Tom Stapleton, who was a professor of paediatrics at the University of Sydney, I got a job working with UNICEF to set up immunisation programs in the subcontinent, following a large refugee population moving down the east coast of India after the split of Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan. As part of that, we were setting up immunisation programs, mainly for children, through UNICEF. I was based at the BCB Medical College in Orissa, on the east coast of India. We were providing immunisation programs throughout the subcontinent.

We briefly went to Afghanistan and met with some of the Afghani leadership. It was a time when the Prime Minister was Daoud Khan, who was part of the Afghani ruling family; he had broken with them, abolished the monarchy and set up a quasi-democratic Afghani government, which, for students of history, fell when he was assassinated in 1978. That led to the present Afghani war or Afghani insurgency, whatever you like to call it, which has gone on for almost 50 years since the fall of the Daoud government.

Professor Das was the leader of our delegation when we went to Kabul. I was quite optimistic about being able to help with immunisations for common childhood illnesses like measles, diphtheria, tetanus, polio—all those things—because we'd had some success in India itself, in Bangladesh and also in Pakistan. I remember, as we were flying into Kabul, talking to Professor Das with some degree of optimism, and he said: 'Well, don't set your hopes too high. This is a very difficult place to work in.' And it made me realise, and he explained to me, that Afghanistan was not one country; it was a feudal area ruled by a whole range of different ethnic groups. There are over 20 ethnic groups in Afghanistan. There are the Pashtuns, the biggest group, from which the Taliban are derived, and they rule certain areas. There are many others, from Turkmens to Tajiks to Hazaras. People are loyal to the leadership that will protect them, and many of those relationships have been built up over hundreds of years. How we deal with them is a matter of what the local warlords want, and that doesn't change. What happened was that the immunisation supplies were basically left at the airport until they were no longer useful, because UNICEF had a policy then, as it does now, of not paying bribes to politicians et cetera to use their services. So they were wasted.

We tend, from the West, to see Afghanistan as one country, but it is clearly not. What has happened in Afghanistan is very similar to what happened in Vietnam, with flawed military intelligence, flawed local intelligence and overoptimistic estimates of what could and couldn't be achieved. I remember General Westmoreland, in Vietnam, giving very optimistic assessments of how the war was going in his time there, and even afterwards, just before the Fall of Saigon, still being optimistic about how local governments could maintain nationhood in the face of local insurgencies. A similar thing has been repeated in Afghanistan, with some rapidity and very poor responses—too little, too late. We're seeing that play out now.

I want to give credit to all our armed services personnel who fought and who worked in Afghanistan, because I think what they did, their legacy, will live on. I certainly think that their efforts were not in vain and are not in vain now as they work to evacuate as many people as they can. I want to thank those who are there and all those personnel from DFAT who are working tirelessly to get as many Australians and people who supported Australia as possible out of the country. Of course, they are really dire circumstances, and my heart goes out to the Afghan people and all those who are suffering. I hope we can continue to provide support and I hope that we accept as many refugees as we possibly can.

I want to point out what a great support to the Macarthur community our Afghan citizens and those of Afghan origin are. I've seen many of them grow up and go through university. One, who went through our medical school, at the moment is training to be a neurosurgeon. Many others are doing medicine or law, or are teachers and nurses—they're doing a whole range of jobs in our community.

What we're seeing unfold is, of course, a tragedy. It is far too soon to be making any judgements about the effects of our presence in Afghanistan. I think, like Vietnam, the true effects will not be known for decades afterwards. I certainly will not be saying that our efforts were pointless, because I don't believe that's true. I think that the deaths of those 41 soldiers were not in vain. What they were able to demonstrate to the Afghan people is that there is a better way and there is a better life. I know that it doesn't seem now like that is playing out, but I think, in the future, they may well have made a very big difference. We have shown in particular that the education of women is a very important thing. We have shown the Afghan people that there is a better social way of living, and I hope very much that that will sow the seeds of something better in the future.

At the moment, it doesn't look like it, and my heart does go out to all those suffering in Afghanistan. I know there will be suffering to come. I personally do not believe any of the Taliban's statements that they are a more progressive party now than they were in the past. I don't think there is any evidence for that at all, and I'm very concerned about what is going to happen in Afghanistan. It's important to remember that what happened in Afghanistan was, as far as we can see, supported by other countries in the area. That leads me to a great deal of concern about what's going to happen now.

I acknowledge the difficulties that everyone is facing. Our brave men of the Defence Force are presently in Afghanistan, and I thank them so much, as I've said, for their service and what they are doing. I just hope that what they are doing now can lead to more people getting out. We have a real moral obligation to all of those who have supported us. I hope that none of our servicemen are hurt either physically or psychologically in that process. We have a lot to thank them for.