On 4 December I went to Canberra to give testimony at the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee on Australia’s overseas development programs in Afghanistan (here’s my opening statement with links).
The following transcript is the Hansard record of my statement and questions from the Senators… (they were Greens MP Lee Rhiannon, Liberal MP Helen Kroger, Liberal MP Alan Eggleston, Labor MP Ursula Stephens and Liberal MP David Fawcett):
LOEWENSTEIN, Mr Antony David, Private capacity
CHAIR:… I welcome Mr Antony Loewenstein to the hearing. The committee has received your submission as submission No. 8. We note you are an independent journalist and author, and you spent time in Afghanistan in 2012. Do you wish to make any alterations or amendments to your submission?
Mr Loewenstein… :… That statement is fine. I have actually written a longer one. When I was asked to do it I was overseas, so it was short and sweet. But I have a slightly longer statement to read this morning.
CHAIR:… Okay. Well, we do have this statement here, so if you would like to add to what was in this.
Mr Loewenstein… :… It is a little bit longer, just to add a few details.
CHAIR:… If you would, and then we can ask you questions. Please proceed.
Mr Loewenstein… :… Thank you. I would like to thank the committee for inviting me to give evidence today. As an independent journalist and author who visited Afghanistan this year to investigate privatised military and intelligence, and the role of aid and NGOs in helping or hindering the people, I appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts on how Australia could improve its standing in Afghanistan after the bulk of Western forces leave in 2014.
Afghanistan has been broken and exploited for more than 30 years, and the decade since 2001 has been no different. When America and its allies, including Australia, invaded in October 2001, there was no concrete plan to improve the lives of Afghanistan’s citizens. Almost immediately, the West empowered, funded and trained the worst warlords who had caused the chaos in the last decades. We backed President Hamid Karzai, a corrupt leader with no legitimacy who runs, today, a thugocracy.
This should not disguise the fact, however, that many Taliban are equally brutish, attacking civilians and NGOs. They are currently self-financing through taxes on poppy farming, kidnappings and extortion. Notwithstanding this, they may be the only reliable force after 2014 capable of expelling foreign jihadis.
Australia’s record in Afghanistan, still largely untold, is not a pretty one: endorsing extreme violence, some undertaken by our own special forces; brutal night raids; and partnering with warlord Matiullah Khan, a man with a shocking record of criminality and of running the drug trade in southern Afghanistan. WikiLeaks documents confirm this.
We ignored history in our collusion with rogue regimes and elements in Latin America in the eighties and Vietnam in the sixties and seventies; that leads us once again to partner with individuals and groups that guarantee blowback, increased terrorism in the West, and resistance. The reality on the ground, which is away from embedded journalism—how, sadly, most reporters go when they are there—is a dirty war that involves Afghan militias and mercenaries working with US special forces and our own to rout the Taliban in a futile effort to eradicate an indigenous part of Afghanistan. This is the reality I saw when I was there.
The people, according to recently released polling by Democracy International for USAID, remained ‘broadly dissatisfied with the way formal democracy works and expressed a lack of confidence in formal elected institutions, including the National Assembly and the President’. Just nine per cent said they were very satisfied with the way democracy works. This is our legacy in Afghanistan, and aid delivery is intimately tied up with these dismal results.
The American and Australian project in Afghanistan has failed, and accepting this is vital before prescribing a solution. Pakistan, an unreliable ally for years, will be central to brokering any peace treaty between the Americans and the Taliban. We can no longer heed the delusions of people like Karl Eikenberry, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan, who wrote in the… Financial Times… recently that progress was ‘tangible’.
What is needed now is a focus on the Afghan people. One country that has heavily invested in the future is Norway. It is currently discussing how to contribute in a non-military way while continuing to provide aid. A recent report by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre noted that since 2005 Norway has taken ‘a principled approach to separating military and development activities’. I would encourage Australia to move in the same direction, reducing the Afghan perception that we are little more than defenders of the Karzai clique.
One of the key justifications for the NATO war in Afghanistan was helping women. This was always based on a deception, because the West, according to another report by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre in 2012 talked about empowering women but:
High-profile declarations of commitments to and funding for women’s rights have been occurring in parallel with other policies that have undermined the very institutions and conditions on which such gains depend, such as a formal justice system, a functioning parliament and a non-militarised political landscape.
Australia has, sadly, fallen into the same trap, blindly following an American strategy that prioritises counterinsurgency at the expense of building Afghan-run civil groups.
Independent aid delivery is the only way Afghans will respect the donor and the aid. Instead, we have seen the West far too often utilise for-profit and armed groups to damage the process. The exact number of foreign troops that will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 is unclear, though the Obama administration is keen for a residual force to continue counterterrorism activity. The number could be anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000, with a host of private contractors and mercenaries who are largely unaccountable. Washington is keen to avoid the situation in Iraq today where a newly independent nation largely ignores the demands of America and pursues its own path despite the daily violence that still plagues that state.
A key demand of the government in Baghdad—and Australia in my view should offer this to both Iraq and Afghanistan—is reparations for the destruction caused by our presence and occupation. It is the least in my view and in the view of many Afghans that we can do. Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s to parliament in October this year mentioned none of this and instead offered platitudes, dishonestly stating that Australian troops have ‘kept us safe from terrorism’. The opposite is in fact true and officials and elected politicians should be honest enough to admit the long-term effect of occupying a Muslim nation.
As a journalist who has visited some of the most troubled places in the world, including Papua New Guinea, Haiti and Palestine, a key lesson for governments and aid groups is avoiding the NGOisation of a troubled land. One organisation that has attempted to navigate the tough line between aid and independence is Medicines Sans Frontiers, MSF. They refuse to play the game set by foreign forces—namely, implementing nation-building projects demanded by Afghans and the US. It is unavoidable to deal with the Taliban in some parts of the country and it is our responsibility to institute policies that accept this reality and find the least compromised way to do it.
Michiel Hofman, a former MSF country representative in Afghanistan, has reasoned that NGOs have a choice when delivering aid. He argues:
MSF has been able to carve out operational space in Afghanistan through regular, direct, and transparent negotiations with all the warring parties and though complete financial independence from Western- and Afghan-government sources. We also enforce a strict no-weapons policy in its medical facilities. Our independence and purely needs-based approach to providing aid is enabling the possible expansion of operations into other war-wracked parts of the country, such as Kunduz province in Afghanistan’s troubled north. While other groups lament the lack of “humanitarian space,” we see it opening by maintaining our independence and dedication to helping Afghans, without an agenda.
Australia and the West cannot blame the Afghans for failing to nation build when they have been working with a corrupt and inefficient central government. Far less money from us and others should be funnelled through Kabul officials. Our mandate has been to build local forces and infrastructure, but the gains have been minimal and fleeting. The West is doing harm with its current policies. We are not neutral and are therefore paying the price for siding with a bankrupt Karzai regime.
Even when Australia commissioned an independent assessment of its mission in Uruzgan province, an assessment undertaken by the respected NGO The Liaison Office, which is based in Kabul, AusAID dismissed the findings this year because they were too pessimistic.
In conclusion, undoing the mess that Australia and its Western allies have created in Afghanistan will take time. But acknowledging past mistakes and crimes is an important start. Afghans will need aid after 2014 but not in my view if it is delivered alongside the barrel of a gun.
Senator STEPHENS:… I have a couple of questions. You were in Afghanistan in 2012.
Mr Loewenstein… :… I was.
Senator STEPHENS:… Whereabouts did you manage to get to?
Mr Loewenstein… :… I was there in May for three weeks. I was in Kabul and the area nears there in Surobi and near Kandahar. I was there independently. I was not embedded with the Australians, the Americans or anyone else. I was there working on a book and a film. I was investigating the role of private security and private intelligence post 911, particularly in Afghanistan but also elsewhere, and how that has in many people’s view corrupted the ability of Afghanistan to grow, because often foreign companies—including those from Australia—have a profit motive to continue conflict. I am not saying that an NGO based in Sydney, for example, is the cause of the war. But I am saying that the fact that the Australian government, the American government and others hire for-profit companies to deliver aid is an issue. In virtually every case in Afghanistan and Iraq has not delivered any positive results for the Afghan or Iraqi people.
Senator STEPHENS:… How did you get around?
Mr Loewenstein… :… Independently. I had a local fixer—a guide, you might say. I had no security. It is possible to do that, despite what one might read. The country is clearly dangerous in parts, but it is possible to get around independently.
Senator STEPHENS:… Who was your local fixer?
Mr Loewenstein… :… I would rather not say his name.
Senator STEPHENS:… That is fine.
Mr Loewenstein… :… He is an Afghan who has worked with other Western journalists.
Senator STEPHENS:… Did he provide private security?
Mr Loewenstein… :… No.
Senator STEPHENS:… Just interpretation services.
Mr Loewenstein… :… Yes. Often when journalists go to conflict zones or troubled spots they get someone who is called a fixer. They are usually men—they can be women, but usually it is a man. They are fluent in the language and can be a guide. There are no weapons. You travel in unarmed vehicles.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of journalists from Australia who go to Afghanistan do not do it that way. They go embedded with the Australian troops and the result is that they get a very myopic view.
Senator STEPHENS:… You said you went to Kabul and where else?
Mr Loewenstein… :… To Sarobi, near Kandahar, and Jalalabad as well.
Senator STEPHENS:… So, you got down to the south.
Mr Loewenstein… :… I did not actually go to Kandahar, but I went nearby. There are certain parts of the country which would be inaccessible any other way apart from being embedded, this is true, and I would not have gone there for security reasons.
Senator STEPHENS:… I was interested in your commentary that you have a very particular view about the Afghanistan war. Having said that, can we put that aside and think about the terms of reference for this inquiry which is Australia’s overseas development programs in Afghanistan. Your argument is definitely not that Australia has not got a role to play; Australia definitely has a role to play. In terms of where you see things playing out after 2014, what would be your biggest fear?
Mr Loewenstein… :… Many of the speakers—I heard some of them this morning and yesterday—will say, as everyone will say, ‘No-one knows what is going to happen when there is a transition of sorts.’ In other words, what kind of government is left standing when the vast bulk of Western troops leave? President Karzai is unlikely to stay in that role, so there will be some kind of election.
Senator STEPHENS:… On that point, he is not eligible to stay in that role.
Mr Loewenstein… :… He is not, but like in many countries he could change the constitution, which has happened in other countries before. No, he is not eligible at this stage.
Senator STEPHENS:… It is hardly likely to happen in this situation, is it, given the extent to which he is reliant upon foreign aid and the conditions of all of the agreements that have been signed?
Mr Loewenstein… :… True. It is quite likely that he will not be there, but I would not say that it is impossible. The fear of many people is that the country, clearly, is not ready in a quasi-civil situation that descends far worse. The ability for independent aid groups and others to operate there becomes close to impossible and they all pull out. The country is run in an increasing brutal way from Kabul or elsewhere by a Taliban-style government. That would be very regrettable. I think the reasons for that would be complex. I would say that the Western involvement would be a part of a reason, but not the only one.
Senator STEPHENS:… Thank you.
CHAIR:… You talked about Norway being a model to follow. Do you want to expand on that? What is the difference between Norway and the Australian approach?
Mr Loewenstein… :… Not everything that Norway would do; I am not putting them up as a utopian option. I am saying that there has been a lot of discussion within the Norwegian government since 2015 around the potential dangers of militarising aid. That conversation has not happened to the same extent either in the US government or in elements of the Australian government. I spent some time with both Norwegian representatives in Afghanistan and also people who have spent more time in Afghanistan than me. They are aware—and this is something that Australia, publicly at least, has not been—of the danger of the aid militarising. One of the programs that they are talking about continuing after 2014 is still, as much as possible, to contribute to the sense of supporting women, which is something that many Westerners and Afghans are concerned about.
Also I think we have to understand that there is a desire of some in the Norwegian establishment to reverse the narrative. The narrative and the fear we often hear is that, if the West pulls out, the country descends into chaos. The reality is that the West has been there for over 10 years and the country has been in chaos. So, what many people in the government in Norway are saying is that the Western presence is not making stability more likely; it is actually making it less likely. I am talking about a military force. Norway, in many parts of the Norwegian establishment, is acknowledging—and they have had a military presence there too—and is aware of the fact that it is doing more harm than good.
CHAIR:… What is the alternative? You said, ‘avoid NGO-isation’. Who delivers programs if you do not want the government or the military to do it? NGOs are perhaps the last groups out.
Mr Loewenstein… :… NGO-isation is not to suggest that NGOs should not be involved; it is a term that has been coined that suggests that there is often an overreliance on foreign NGO workers at the expense of local interests. In other words, having recently been in Haiti, Papua New Guinea, Afghanistan and other places you do not necessarily see a request that no NGOs be there. You simply see the fact that, when contracts are given to many NGOs from the local governments, often the vast bulk of that money does not go to the local people. It is going to foreign contractors who are taking the money out of the country. In other words, local groups are not being empowered.
I am not arguing that NGOs should not be there. Medecins Sans Frontieres, which is not a perfect organisation—no organisation is—has tried with profound difficulty to navigate that line of having no military aspect to their aid. There have been times when it has had to pull out. There have been dangers and, undoubtedly, it has had losses. But I think too often there is a problem in that when western states are involved in Afghanistan they can see no alternative, apart from having a soldier with a gun next to the person who is delivering aid. That, I think, is creating in the Afghanis’ minds—and the studies bear this out—a great deal of distrust about that. That is one example.
NATO has set up many basic hospitals around the country. The problem with that has been that a great deal of Afghans will not go to those hospitals because they fear if they do they are seen as siding with the occupation forces and that could mean problems for their family. That is a pragmatic reality on the ground.
CHAIR:… What about other organisations like the Red Cross? Are they in Afghanistan?
Mr Loewenstein… :… They are and they are doing some good work.
CHAIR:… Are there any others that you can mention?
Mr Loewenstein… :… There are certainly some Afghan organisations that are doing good work. As I said, my position is not to say that the west and Australia should throw up their hands, and say: ‘That was a fun 10 years; we’re out of here’—not at all. I guess what I am saying is that often a delivery of that aid in the last decade and the results in the areas have been problematic. The liaison office report, which was an Australian-commissioned report and which AusAID, for reasons best asked of them, dismissed its findings—found that in Uruzgan province, where Australian troops have been for a long time, there have been some minor benefits. But those are profoundly fleeting and unlikely to survive once Australia pulls out. So there are groups doing fine work on the ground there, but I fear that often AusAID is not listening to that advice.
Senator KROGER:… Can I just follow up on a couple of points that you have raised, Chair. Firstly, given that you were there for three weeks and you were there independently and that the communications you had on the ground would have been very different to those communications had you been embedded, as you suggested, did you come across evidence of the locals not supporting, for instance, hospitals because they were seen to be supporting a military-funded, organised thing, whether it was a hospital or something? Did you come across hardcore evidence to suggest that was the case?
Mr Loewenstein… :… I met a few people who did. I am not going to say that in three weeks I was obviously the expert on every issue in Afghanistan but, as I said, a lot of the evidence is twofold. Firstly, some of the people I spoke to in some villages—for example, in Sarobi, which is about three hours from Kabul—were saying that through a translator. The picture of how locals in different areas see western troops is complex. I would not for a second suggest that every Afghan sees a foreign troop as an occupier. They might see that fact—’Yes, they are literally occupying our country,’ but undoubtedly in some areas some western forces have provided positive outcomes. That is for sure. But what I also read and from speaking to many people who are both Afghan, NGO workers and foreign NGO workers is that a lot of the established health centres, for example, in many parts of the country, were not very well frequented because of the sense that if someone sees you going into that centre, whether or not you support the occupation, the fear is that it is a very tribal culture and that people are worried that they would suffer a consequence of doing so.
Senator KROGER:… Thank you. I will follow up on this if there is time, Chair.
Senator RHIANNON:… You stated in your submission that you would encourage Australia to:
”¦ cease funding warlords in provinces and engage Afghan civil society to establish a more just and democratic future.
You have touched on this, and it was useful to hear about the experience with Norway, but can you expand on that to a greater degree?
Mr Loewenstein… :… One of the issues in the way that many Western states have chosen to behave in in the last decade or 20 years, as we know, is partnering with elements—war lords—whose records were very clear. I am not suggesting for a second that the options that NGOs and others have are perfect ones: they are not. Groups like MSF talk about the individuals that they need to engage with, and there is no doubt that sometimes you are dealing with people who you do not particularly like. You do not like their records, but they are the people who are in charge.
The difference is that what Australia has chosen to do—and America as well, and many Western powers—is not just dealing with who is there but empowering, funding and arming them. As a result, as the liaison office showed very clearly, many people in local areas—not least, in Uruzgan province—do not trust the Australian presence there because of who they are partnering with. In other words, Australia has a choice. If you choose to work with, arm, train and fund a war lord, you know they are a war lord. It is not like it is a secret whether they are or they are not.
Again, I am not saying that everyone is going to believe in utopia in Afghanistan; I do not expect that. But I think that Australia and other countries have a choice about whether they continue to fund those groups. The problem has been that the vast bulk of the money we are giving to Afghanistan, and that the West is giving to Afghanistan, is going through the Kabul government—through the Karzai regime—and the result of that is that they are themselves subcontracting, you might say, to various war lords around the country. That has failed, because in various parts of the country the Taliban’s power has never been as strong.
I think that Australia has a choice to support, particularly, local Afghan NGOs who are there. They exist. Some of them are doing wonderful work. It is not hard to find out who they are. They work in areas and get access to areas that foreign troops often cannot or, more importantly, into areas where we actually do not want the military presence in the first place.
It seems to me that in many cases elements of the Australian government and AusAID actually do not really want to think of that as an option. There is a certain mindset which says that the military comes far before hearts and minds.
Senator RHIANNON:… We probably have less than two years to go before the bulk of the troops are to be withdrawn. Picking up on the points that you have just made about who the military associates with and the message that sends to the locals, would there be benefits from reassessing who those relationships are with in that period? This Kahn, often described as a warlord: if we reassess those relationships and changed who we were working with, could that make it more beneficial in this very challenging transition period?
Mr Loewenstein… :… Yes. If AusAID and the Australian government actually wanted to assess the benefits of the aid that they have given in the last 10 years, the results on the ground and what that has achieved or not, they will find that in the vast bulk of cases the results are poor at best. The idea of continuing what has failed for over 10 years would seem to be absurd, on its face.
As I said, what needs to happen—and Norway and other countries are starting to have this conversation—is with the kinds of groups in Kabul and elsewhere that you could partner with to provide aid. The question of aid is not simply to assist the Afghan people because the Australian government cares about the Afghan people. We are doing it, frankly, for pretty pragmatic reasons. I think there needs to be a sense that the damage that our support for the worst elements of Afghan society has had in the last 10 years means that we have a responsibility to partner with local groups.
There are foreign groups who are doing good work in Afghanistan, but they are not tied to the military at all. The fear is that when the vast bulk of our troops leave next year, which is what is being suggested by the Gillard government, we will still maintain a military presence there. The occupation will be rebranded—troops will be rebranded as ‘trainers’. That is what we have seen in Iraq with the Americans when they left under President Obama.
The danger is that if the same framework of counterinsurgency, which has not worked for 10 years, continues then the ability for Australia to contribute positively will be seriously jeopardised.
Senator STEPHENS:… Just on that point, did you listen to the evidence of the previous witness?
Mr Loewenstein… :… Yes.
Senator STEPHENS:… This was exactly the point he was making, that after 2014 the presence of Australian support needed to be exactly that: training the trainers and supporting the infrastructure. I do not quite understand why you dismiss that out of hand.
Mr Loewenstein… :… No, what I am saying is that what the Americans and Australians are wanting to do in Afghanistan they have not achieved in Iraq. In other words, the closure of the Iraq war, from the Western presence perspective, was to sign a deal with the Iraqi government to have a small, long-term military presence—call it troops, call it trainers. We should not ignore the fact that there are now up to 100,000 private contractors, not all military, operating in Afghanistan today. Many of those individuals will stay; many of them are foreign; many of them are not accountable.
My point is that, in many parts of Afghanistan, many Afghans know and see those individuals and forces operating. We can dress it up any way that we want, but the reality is that they are seen as contributing to the problem. If we believe that training the Afghan security force is important and in our national security interests or because it is what America wants us to do, we have to ask ourselves: has what we have been doing for the last years in training actually worked? Is the Afghan security force now in any shape to defend the country? You could argue we should therefore stay there longer. Some Afghans will say yes. I heard the gentleman here say yes. I respectfully disagree and that is principally because our role in training is not as benign, possibly, as he would suggest. It is not benign.
Senator RHIANNON:… There was some discussion yesterday about the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund as a means to avoid the pitfalls of corruption. I wonder if that is an issue that came up when you were in Afghanistan and what your views are about the ARTF and about generally addressing corruption. I know it is a huge issue but I would like to hear your thoughts.
CHAIR:… It will have to be the last question.
Mr Loewenstein… :… I will make this very brief. The issue of corruption clearly is central. One of the questions that Australia and AusAID need to ask themselves is: where is our money being invested? The idea, after occupying Afghanistan for so many years, that in 2012 we can hope to rely on or invest in the Karzai government—which is what we are principally doing—is a fundamental error. If we keep on doing that until Karzai stands down or is replaced, which I suspect is likely, then that is a profound problem. We have created, after what will be 12 or 13 years on the ground, an environment that says that we are not serious about addressing corruption.
Australia cannot be serious in talking about addressing corruption when the vast bulk of the money that we have given to Afghanistan has gone to corrupt officials and the government. The argument that often comes back is: we have to deal with the government that we have. That, to me, is a fundamentally flawed way to see it because, ultimately, we have created the Karzai government how we wanted it to be. There was an election a few years ago and, on any judgement, Karzai did not win. It was a fundamentally flawed and corrupt election.
The challenge that we have, which I keep coming back to, is that Australia and AusAID need to provide support for local organisations that are doing work on the ground. There is a list of names that I can give you of local groups who are doing good work, who need support and who are not tied to the Karzai government or others. That is the challenge. Unfortunately, very few of those groups are getting support from Australia or the US.
Senator RHIANNON:… You spoke earlier about Norway and how they are conducting their work. Are they reducing their work directly with the Karzai government? Are they taking a different path?
Mr Loewenstein… :… They have. Certainly there is still an association. It is the government of the country and to some extent it is impossible to completely disconnect from the government that runs the country.
There are a few quick points. We should not ignore the fact that, outside of Kabul, the Karzai government’s ability to operate is minimal. At least one-third of the country, if not more, is not controlled by the Afghan security forces anyway but by insurgents, the Taliban et cetera. Norway, I think, have said that they are aware of the challenge—that, as the security situation has the potential to deteriorate, we just do not know what will happen between now and 2014. A lot of Afghans I speak to say they are upset by the fact that too many in the West paint an apocalyptic picture. While things may not be great, they might not be appalling. Obviously, I hope they are right and I am not for a moment suggesting that it is going to be an apocalypse there. I hope it is not. But the point is that we need to be alive to the fact that there are local groups who are not necessarily desperate for support but who are saying there is a different way of delivering aid. Norway, I think, is showing one way, amongst others, of how that can be done.
Senator RHIANNON:… Thank you.
CHAIR:… We have another five minutes. Senator Fawcett.
Senator FAWCETT:… In your remarks at the start, you mentioned the concept of reparations.
Mr Loewenstein… :… Yes.
Senator FAWCETT:… Can you define for me what reparations would look like, as opposed to the money that is being poured in by donor nations under the title of ‘aid’?
Mr Loewenstein… :… One of the aspects of reparation which do not often get talked about in a practical sense in much of the West is reparation for lost lives. This came up also with Iraq, as I mentioned in my introductory statements, and the Iraqi government has asked—thus far unsuccessfully—America for reparations for the individuals who have been killed by the Americans in that war zone. There is no doubt that, since 9-11, there are examples of the US paying families who have lost loved ones for certain incidents, but it has not been a policy. It is not for me to say what a life is worth. I am obviously not going to say that. But I do think that there is a consistent failure by Western governments to account for the damage they have done not only in an infrastructure sense but also in a human life sense.
I do think it is separate from supporting aid groups and aid development, and I would like that to even be on the table. What that means in a practical sense, how much we are talking about, who makes that decision: I have my own views about that, but, again, I think that even for an Australian government to put that forward, to say what we think would be a reasonable amount, or to begin a conversation with the Afghan government—or, for that matter, an Iraqi government—would show a great deal of leadership, which most other countries have not shown.
Senator FAWCETT:… Thanks.
Senator RHIANNON:… Can I just ask about the mining sector. AusAID have spoken about this in terms of Afghanistan as well as in a wider context. Do you see a way in which mining in Afghanistan could support the people of Afghanistan, rather than multinational or Australian mining companies supporting them?
Mr Loewenstein… :… The short answer is: I wish I could say yes. But there is virtually no country on earth that is a post-conflict zone or a current conflict zone with the massive natural resources that Afghanistan apparently does—the evidence of that is clear—that have managed this well. When I was there, I spent time with individuals in the Afghan parliament, not in the government but in the parliament, who are involved in this. They were actually coming to Australia to get advice from the Australian government on how to, in their words, manage the mining sector well. I gave them perhaps a different perspective on how I think Australia is managing its mining boom.
I think the issue here is really that there are elements in the Afghan government who are very keen to start the mining industry. At the moment, the industry is almost in limbo because the country is unsafe. The irony is that many of the natural resources in that country are now owned by India and China. In a geopolitical sense, they have been rather clever. They have had no troops on the ground at all and, in the last few years, they have found a way with the Afghan government to get ownership of resources. They are not actually mining it yet; it is on hold. And there are various Western multinationals who are keen to be involved if the security situation improves.
But, unfortunately, I would be concerned if AusAID and others are advising the Afghan government to ‘manage mining’ ethically or efficiently when the advice that AusAID is giving to various countries, including Papua New Guinea—having seen what that actually means in practice—has been a disaster for the PNG people and has not actually benefited them much at all; if anything it has done the opposite. So, if that is the advice AusAID is giving to the Afghan government in talking about efficient, ethical or sustainable mining, I would question that program.
Senator RHIANNON:… With regard to the ARTF, do you think that that is a worthwhile channel for Australian aid money or will you give greater emphasis to going through NGOs?
Mr Loewenstein… :… I think the issue of local NGOs has been largely ignored for a long time. This is not just my view; it is the view of many Afghans that I spoke to. There is such disillusionment with the Afghan government, full stop. The idea some have that the Afghan Karzai government, which essentially is a Kabul government which does not have much influence in vast parts of the country, will manage a fund well is laughed at by most Afghans. As I said, there is a way to speak to local NGOs. I am not just talking about an NGO with one or two people. I am talking about local NGOs who would welcome support but with the important caveat that it not be tied to any kind of military or occupying force.
Senator RHIANNON:… You said you had a list of groups that you could supply us with. Could you take that on notice.
Mr Loewenstein… :… I can.
Senator RHIANNON:… Thank you.
CHAIR:… Thank you. I think we will have to stop at that point, Mr Loewenstein. Thank you very much for your interesting evidence.
Mr Loewenstein… :… Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Proceedings suspended from… 12:41 to 13:37