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18 August 2021

With Greg Earl

The tragedy of Afghanistan

US and Australian involvement in Afghanistan lasted twice as long as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and about four times longer than the two British invasions in the nineteenth century combined.

So, the takeover by the Taliban this week, which happened much faster than the Biden administration expected, is a historic failure of Western intelligence and military and economic power.

Joe Biden is taking most of the blame for this. But all Australian prime ministers have backed the Afghanistan deployment, committing Australian troops to the effort and promoting nation-building during their visits to the country. Scott Morrison’s trip was suddenly cancelled for security reasons in 2018.

As the first Western power to close its embassy after the US announced its withdrawal, Australia was also a significant contributor to the chaotic evacuations now underway.

With all of the political capital invested in Afghanistan by the Western diplomatic establishment – and the financial capital, amounting to as much as US$2 trillion in US spending alone – it is not surprising that the unsavoury reality of the current situation is not getting the attention it deserves.

The Taliban could not have taken over so fast, and with such little resistance, without significant acceptance at the grassroots level and at least some complicity from parts of Afghanistan’s elite.

This seems to suggest that a Western system of government, with its military discipline and civil protections, can’t simply be transplanted at the point of a foreign gun without considerable organic demand. This demand existed when democratic transitions successfully occurred in places such as Indonesia. An organic struggle for democracy is now happening in Myanmar.

This is tragic for the Afghans who rightly drew hope from the Western deployment, and there will be considerable debate about how long the United States needed to stay to foster the necessary local demand for democracy.

Meanwhile, as Donald Trump’s forces align with their liberal opponents to attack Biden’s management of the evacuation that Trump started, US allies such as Australia must hope for two things from this now-tarnished moderate and realist administration.

The first is that Biden has judged the mood of American voters correctly. The second is that this disastrous departure will strengthen the United States vis-a-vis China rather than diminish it.

Students abroad

The Morrison government has rejected demands from universities for more assistance to offset the decline in international student enrolments.

Education minister Alan Tudge said on Monday that universities had actually suffered more last year from a downturn in their investments, and that for the most part, they were still in a good financial position.

Tudge said that when borders reopen, he is confident “students will return in significant numbers”.

International education was once Australia’s fourth-largest export industry, but revenue is down 26 per cent on the record high of A$37.7 billion that it yielded in 2019, and it is expected to trend lower.

Educating international students has also been a key strategy for improving Australia’s regional outreach since the 1950s, when the Colombo Plan was introduced to foster intergovernmental cooperation in Asia and the Pacific, with graduates going on to become government and business leaders in their home countries.

While many international students are now studying remotely, a survey released last week suggested they are not content with this as a long-term option.

Pilot projects in New South Wales and South Australia to bring students back onshore have been put on hold due to the latest lockdowns.

Notwithstanding this delay, it is time for the government and universities to end their culture war and offer a more optimistic outlook to international students who are being wooed by other countries but want to come to Australia.

Malaysia’s PM quits

Malaysia’s government collapsed on Monday after Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin conceded he no longer had a majority in parliament.

He will stay on as caretaker leader while King Abdullah considers an acceptable alternative prime minister to avoid holding an early election amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the second collapse of government in less than two years in a country where the once all-powerful United Malays National Organisation ruled from 1957 to 2018.

The election of a reform government in 2018 had the potential to make Malaysia the most democratic country in South-East Asia, a region in which democracy has been under threat. Australia’s relationship with Malaysia is one of its oldest and closest in Asia, and this relationship was strengthened when the 2018 government sought advice from Australia on governance reforms.

Now UMNO has fractured into several parties and factions – just as the pandemic, the economic downturn and the rise of China demand strong government.

While there is some risk of a corrupt old guard regaining influence, this fracturing of UMNO could make Malaysian politics more transparent and contestable.


UK’s Indo-Pacific tilt – not just for the good times

“Securing an independent, high-level relationship with ASEAN was one way of showing the naysayers that Brexit would not mean the United Kingdom shrinking from the world stage … From Washington to Canberra, Western officials have a history of rediscovering South-East Asia only to lose interest when the going gets tough.” Ben Bland, The Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

Chinese investment in South-East Asia, 2005–2019 – patterns and significance

“For South-East Asia as a whole, China is not yet a dominant investor … Indonesia is the top South-East Asian destination for Chinese investments, which more than quadrupled to US$8.5 billion in 2015.” Evelyn Goh & Nan Liu, New Mandala

The personal cost of protest in Hong Kong

“Public gatherings and demonstrations are even less tolerated in Hong Kong now, partly due to Covid-19. David still doesn’t know how best to help his home, or how far Beijing will go in limiting citizens’ rights under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy.” Elena Yi-Ching Ho, The Strategist (ASPI)


China’s quiet diplomacy behind the “wolf warriors”

“While often neglected by Western media, the International Liaison Department is a critical Chinese foreign policy institution that needs to be understood and studied.” Connor Fiddler, East Asia Forum

What if it doesn’t end quickly? Reconsidering US preparedness for protracted conventional war

“During a protracted conventional conflict, where getting supplies to their destination will be buffeted by shocks and disruptions, ‘just in time’ could end in disaster. However efficient this method may be for companies during peacetime, cutting costs and healthy profit margins do not win wars.” Patrick Savage, Modern War Institute


Correspondence on “Enter the Dragon” by John Keane

“What Keane misses is that many of the features of his imagined ‘phantom democracy’ in China are either relics of the ‘semi-liberal’ era under General Secretary Hu Jintao ... or have long been mirages that are dissipating as the country grows.” Fergus Ryan,HERE

“Keane aptly shows that the Chinese leadership embraces a ‘phantom democracy’ governing style that is entirely superficial and entirely geared to maintain the control of the CCP. His discussion of the mechanisms of control ... is illuminating.” Kevin Boreham,HERE

Read John Keane's response,HERE


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