Although it is reasonable to expect any election campaign to focus predominantly on domestic issues, it is nevertheless somewhat disappointing that matters of foreign policy have been put on the backburner in this unfulfilling 2010 Labor/Liberal contest. Aside, that is, from the essentially meaningless Tony Abbott mantra ‘turning back the boats,’ and both sides affirming an Australian military presence in Afghanistan. Surely there must be more going on in the world worthy of attention, because what happens outside Australian borders when it comes to environmental, cultural and political factors can have a profound social impact in this country as we all stumble into the early years of a new decade. When it comes to asylum seekers – an issue of major significance for dubious reasons – there has been considerable lethargy creeping into official debate on the topic, and critical factors that directly address the question of why people seek asylum in the first place – which one would expect to be discussed in the mainstream media with an attention to detail that goes beyond doctrinal repetition – appear to have been ignored altogether.
It is well understood by people who pay attention to such things that disruptions to the flow of everyday life stemming from economic impoverishment, violence and natural disaster which cause a sudden deterioration in basic living standards, will inevitably result in population displacements that increases the amount of refugees travelling to Western countries to seek asylum from the very interventions or economic policies that the destination country has often actively engaged in or supported.
A lack of attention to such issues on the part of elected politicians and the more populist elements of the mainstream media points towards a consistency that can be worked out by travelling back a mere nine years to the fervent debate that started to pick up pace around the time that greater numbers of refugees from countries such Iraq and Afghanistan began appearing in nearby waters. This happened because both countries had been ripped apart as a direct consequence of direct foreign intervention.
In the case of Iraq, the lingering aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, including UN imposed sanctions that remained in place until the 2003 US-led invasion of the country, had catastrophic social consequences. Had the sanctions regime – which received considerable support from Western countries, including Australia – not been implemented in such a way as to cripple the Iraqi civilian population over a long period of time, it is entirely possible that the number of asylum seekers fleeing the hideousness of the sanctions would have been considerably reduced. This should have been expected as an inevitable outcome of Australian Government support for both the sanctions regime and the so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ in 2003 when the US-led invasion of Iraq caused a flood of refugees, although mostly into neighbouring regions.
Moving right along, Afghanistan had been ravaged by the 1979 Russian invasion and the subsequent bloody conflict between the Russian military and the US backed counterinsurgency that eventually rejected what had become substantial US patronage throughout the 1980s and subsequently turned against the West. Afghanistan had become such a mess by the time Soviet forces finally left the country in 1989, it is little wonder that refugees would consider their survival options and start to make their way to safer countries like Australia. This is something you would imagine Australian planners having factored in considering the widespread acceptance that in the years prior to the 2001 US-led invasion, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan had been causing considerable grief.
As for Iraq, well, the fate of that country doesn’t get talked about much these days, even though it is possible to pick up a newspaper, as I did the other day, and read a brief news segment which mentioned that 43 people had been killed in Basra from a spate of bomb blasts before adding that ‘the unrest has fuelled concerns of a deterioration in security’ as up to 100 people had been killed in recent weeks, yet ‘US officers insist Iraqi soldiers and police are up to the task’. (The Canberra Times, 9 August, p.7).
No further commentary is offered, which makes sense given that this kind of violence has become so commonplace it is no longer newsworthy, although the question does remain: Whatever happened to the noble goals of bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq espoused so exuberantly by Bush/Blair/Howard/Berlusconi and others on the pro-war team? In response I would suggest that the facts speak for themselves. Now that US troops are leaving Iraq in larger numbers according to Presidential deadlines, the population has been left to an uncertain fate, and one that doesn’t quite fit with dreams of glory.
The noble vision has in fact turned out to be a dismal failure, and this assessment has been confirmed by a recent US State Department report, which suggests that Pakistan has now become the missing link in the Islamic terrorist chain. The report titled The Country Reports on Terrorism 2009 has been discussed in an AFP media story that includes a claim from a State Department official that ‘Al-Qaeda’s core in Pakistan’ remained a potent force and that ‘Pakistan was now working hard to tackle the threat from militants after charges its ISI intelligence service had backed them as a foil to perceived threats from neighbouring India.’
On this sour note, it is worthwhile turning to an excellent book by Tariq Ali published in 2008: The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power. He observes, with typical bluntness, that in Pakistan ‘most of today’s jihadi groups are the mongrel offspring of Pakistani and Western intelligence outfits, born in the 1980s when General Zia was in power and waging the West’s war against the godless Russians.’ (p.12) It seems that the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) has been hedging its bets for some time, and Tariq Ali goes on to explain that the ISI ‘size and budget grew at a phenomenal rate during the first Afghan war against the Soviet Union … and played a central role in arming and training the mujahideen, and, later, infiltrating the Taliban into Afghanistan.’ (p.13)
This was at a time when the US was actively supporting Afghan freedom fighters who eventually turned against their former paymasters for reasons that are not too difficult to explain. Ali observes about Pakistan that ‘one of the basic contradictions confronting the country has become even more pronounced: thousands of villages and slums remain without electricity or running water.’ (p.3) He concludes this passage stating: ‘This is the real scandal.’
And so it goes, unless massive reparations are paid to countries like Iraq and Afghanistan as compensation for widespread destruction caused by superpower grandstanding, and unless considerable efforts are made by these same entities to adequately address the suffering of their victims. Until this happens, alarmist media reporting on issues such as the Pakistani Intelligence Service supporting terrorist groups will become more prevalent, and it won’t be long before asylum seekers to Australia from Pakistan will increase in numbers to match those from other places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, thereby raising the asylum seeker non-debate from the major Australian parties to new levels of absurdity.