Highlights of Relations between Afghanistan, Australia & the Pacific in 2020
2020 has been a tumultuous, challenging, yet a rewarding year for all. The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, despite the limitations imposed by COVID-19, has been hard at work in supporting Afghans in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, growing partnerships and friendships and advancing the causes of peace and mutual prosperity.
The Afghan-Australian relations have deepened considerably in 2020 over various areas of cooperation and shared history. Various events and visits were held, both in-person and virtually to commemorate several occasions, most notably the 160thanniversary of the arrival of the famous Afghan cameleers in Australia. Cultural, people-to-people, political, trade and security ties have all had the opportunity to grow. We invite you to reflect on this year in Afghan-Australian relations and on what the future holds for the two countries and their friendship.
The steadfast political friendship between Afghanistan and Australia has only grown stronger in 2020. Organised by the Embassy, The Australia-Afghanistan Parliamentary Friendship Group met, alongside Ambassador Wahidullah Waissi and other diplomats, at the Hyatt Hotel in Canberra on the 25th of August. Inaugurated in 2017, the group is chaired by Andrew Wallace MP. The reception this year touched upon the topics of the Afghan peace process, the impacts of COVID-19 on Afghan society and its economy, the future of Australian assistance and engagement with Afghanistan and people to people bonds. Ambassador Waissi on the 29th of August also made a visit to the DFAT Diplomatic Academy, discussing diplomatic studies and areas where Afghan-Australian collaboration can be enhanced with its Executive Director Paula Ganly.
Across the Tasman, the Embassy was also hard at work in promoting an expanding relationship with New Zealand. During Ambassador Waissi’s visit to Wellington, he inaugurated a similar group, the Australia-Afghanistan Parliamentary Friendship Group, including Members of Parliament from most major parties. This Friendship Group will, in the years to come, help in developing the bilateral relationship between Afghanistan and New Zealand, especially in trade and support of the nearly 15,000 Afghans living in New Zealand
High-level talks also occurred in 2020, with Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister, Mohammed Haneef Atmar in discussion with Australian Foreign Minister, Marise Payne. The two Ministers discussed the ongoing Afghan peace process, and the much-appreciated Australian aid to Afghanistan, helping its economic and social development.
2020, of course, was marked by a new start to the Afghan peace process, with negotiations beginning in Qatar between the government and the Taliban. Australia has been vocal in its strong support for peace in Afghanistan, urging for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to be implemented.
Following the horrendous attack on Kabul University on the 2nd of November, the Australian government, academia and public were also quick to condemn the perpetrators and to voice their strong support for the Afghan people and the attack’s victims. Diplomats, professors and all areas of Australian society wrote their much-appreciated condolences to the Embassy.
2020 was another significant milestone in the shared cultural history of Afghanistan and Australia. While 2019 saw the 50th anniversary of Afghan-Australian diplomatic relations, 2020 brought about the 160th anniversary of the arrival of the first Afghan cameleers in Australia. The Afghan cameleers were instrumental in exploring, charting and settling the arid interior of Australia, allowing trade routes to flourish and communities to grow in the outback. Their seldom mentioned stories were brought to light by the celebrations and commemorations organised by the Embassy.
On the Embassy’s social media and website, exclusive interviews were aired featuring historians, academics, and the descendants of Afghan cameleers, who often married European and Aboriginal women. Afghans’ impacts on the spread of Islam in Australia was also revealed, with an article published on the Embassy website, written by historian and Afghan cameleer expert Pamela Rajkowski OAM.
The Australian government also celebrated this anniversary. The Royal Mint announced the production of special commemorative 50 cent coins, depicting an Afghan cameleer and his mount. Furthermore, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt MP, also a descendant of cameleers, met with Ambassador Waissi to discuss their history and the impact they had on the outback and indigenous communities.
The President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, also made a statement on the importance of the cameleers on the friendship between Afghanistan and Australia. In his words: “We began our relationship with Australia with our cameleers who crossed the desert, now the proud Australians are here to cross our mountains and rivers with us and create history together”.
2020 was also the 101st Anniversary of Afghan independence. Despite the stringent restrictions in place, the Embassy was still able to organise commemorations of this event. The iconic Telstra tower in Canberra, was lit up in the national colours of Afghanistan: black, red and green. Ambassador Waissi also gave an official recorded message to the public and members of the Afghan Australian community. Furthermore, even with the second wave forcing Victorians back into lockdown, the Afghan flag was raised in the City of Dandenong, in Greater Melbourne, impressive achievements given the difficult circumstances.
Earlier in the year, before the outbreak of the pandemic, the Embassy participated in the National Multicultural Festival in Canberra, with its official stall “A Journey to Afghanistan”. This gave a chance to display Afghan culture and heritage to Australia, through a live performance of traditional music, displays of art and jewellery, calligraphy and samples of food and drink. The Embassy’s contribution was very received by the community attracting many visitors throughout the course Festival.
Additionally, Ambassador Waissi paid a visit to the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Matthew Anderson, to submit traditional Afghan clothing and handicrafts to the national collection, and to discuss the future expansion of the War Memorial’s Afghanistan exhibition and joint activities in the spirit of Afghan-Australian friendship.
The Embassy also organised recollections and celebrations of the first anniversary of the performance of the Zohra Orchestra, Afghanistan’s first all-female musical ensemble, at the Sydney Opera House. Members of the Afghan Australian community, politicians and prominent Australians all voiced their fond memories of the event through many statements, and the entire concert was posted on Embassy social media.
Trade and Investment:
The Australian company Fortescue Metals Group, the world’s fourth largest iron ore producer, signed 5 memoranda of understanding in Kabul with the Ministries of Public Health, Higher Education, Mines and Petroleum, the Afghanistan National Water Affairs Regulation Authority, and the Afghan Red Crescent Society. Fortescue’s Chairman, Dr Andrew Forrest, remarked that “we hope wherever and whenever we can, Fortescue and Minderoo will help you lead a country where we dramatically increase the survival for cancer, increase the wisdom of your academic research leaders and ensure equality of women”. The signing ceremony was undertaken in the presence of President Ashraf Ghani and First Vice-President Amrullah Saleh. The previously untapped natural resources of Afghanistan, with the help of Australian companies such as Fortescue, are bound to create many opportunities for Afghans to prosper and for the country to develop further.
Also, this year, Ambassador Waissi engaged in a teleconference call with the Deputy CEO of Austrade, Sally-Ann Watts to discuss potential areas of trade and business cooperation between Australia and Afghanistan.
Afghan National Army cadets continue to train at Australia’s defence academies. In April, two Afghan cadets, Bazmohammad Watandost and Siavash Saduqi graduated from the prestigious Royal Military College Duntroon after an 18-month training programme. 2021 is set to bring two more Afghan cadets to train in Australia, including the first female Afghan cadet to do so.
Engagement continued at the higher levels of government as well, with Afghan National Security Advisor Dr Hamdullah Mohib and Acting Defence Minister Asadullah Khaled meeting with Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds during the February Munich Security Conference. They discussed Australia’s ongoing military support to Afghanistan in its fight against terrorism and the importance of the Afghan Peace Process.
The Embassy of Afghanistan has also been committed to ensuring compliance with the rule of law in security-related matters. With the Australian investigation into alleged war crimes committed by its special forces in Afghanistan, the Embassy has been vocal in its urging for a thorough investigation and prosecution of war criminals. This was accompanied by the release of a similar inquiry in New Zealand, into the NZSAS’ Operation Burnham, which led to the death of several civilians in Bamiyan Province in 2010. However, the official inquiry held that the operation was justified.
The sporting friendship between Afghanistan and Australia continues to grow, especially in the field of cricket. Afghan cricketers continue to excel in Australia’s Big Bash League, with Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi, Zahir Khan and Mujeeb Zadran performing exceptionally for their teams in Australia. Furthermore, in October, the Melbourne Renegades signed 15-year-old Afghan Noor Ahmad for the coming Big Bash season, an exceptional accomplishment for the next generation of Afghan sportsmen.
2020 also brought very sad news, with the passing of Australian cricketing legend Dean Jones. Jones was a true friend of Afghanistan, visiting Kabul in 2017 to commentate and act as the interim coach of Afghanistan’s national cricket team. His legacy of promoting friendship and peace through sport will be sorely missed by all.
Development and Humanitarian Assistance:
The quadrennial Afghanistan Conference was held on the 23rd and 24th of November 2020, hosted remotely in Geneva by the UN, the Afghan and the Finnish governments. It discussed sustainable peace building, such as human and women’s rights and reintegrating returning refugees, methods for fighting corruption and economic and foreign aid matters. Australia was one of the 70 participants from around the world that contribute to this year’s Conference.
Australia has also been generous in responding to the extent and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan. In the latest Australian budget, over $11.5 million was allocated in additional funding for humanitarian assistance provided by Australia to Afghanistan. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in October released a two-year plan on aiding the development of Afghanistan. Australia will, with renewed focus, support Afghanistan’s health security, security and economic recovery, focalising on the participation and empowerment of women.
Relations between Afghan and Australia in higher education have also grown substantially in 2020. In October, a collaboration agreement between Kabul Polytechnic University, Australia’s Griffith University and the Brisbane-based International Water Centre was signed in a virtual ceremony attended by Ambassador Waissi. This has inaugurated a new course at Kabul Polytechnic University, the Master Programme on Integrated Water Resource Management, convened jointly with its Australian partners and funded by the Asian Development Bank.
Furthermore, a round of virtual debates was hosted between the Monash International Affairs Society and Afghans for Progressive Thinking to debate several topics about gender equality and peace in Afghanistan. This exceptional opportunity for increased people-to-people and academic links was welcomed by all, especially considering the disruptive COVID pandemic and the ongoing peace talks in Qatar. The fifth round of debate, which took place in September, was adjudicated by Ambassador Waissi.
Throughout 2020, The Embassy’s staff has been hard at work providing consular support to Afghan citizens in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. This was much-needed, especially during the lockdowns that struck cities across these countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The ordeal was exacerbated by the second wave in Victoria, where one of Australia’s largest Afghan communities resides. Hence, while in-person consular services were impossible, the Embassy undertook innovative virtual consular services to Afghans, as well as frequently liaising with community leaders across the country.
The start of the new decade has brought about challenges and opportunities for Afghanistan, Australia and their bilateral relationship. New engagement opportunities in trade, security, culture, education and politics will deepen our friendship for the years to come. Through our two countries’ shared history of the cameleers, Afghanistan and Australia are expanding their understanding of each other's culture and people. 2021 is bound to be another fruitful year for our friendship, with more in-person events and people-to-people exchanges possible. The Embassy would like to thank all who have supported it and Afghanistan throughout this difficult yet productive year and those who make the bright future of Afghan-Australian relations, focussed on our shared values, possible.