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It is now 50 years since diplomatic relations were formally established between the Commonwealth of Australia and the Kingdom of Afghanistan. Superficially, the two countries might seem to have little in common. While each has a population of less than 40 million, mainland Australia is at least ten times larger in area than Afghanistan, and is a relatively flat island-continent, while Afghanistan is a landlocked country bisected by a huge mountain range, the Hindu Kush, which is an offshoot of the Himalayas and a product of the confluence of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Australian population, although now distinctly multiethnic, still substantially reflects the effects of two centuries of predominantly European migration, while the population of Afghanistan remains dominated by its historical position as a crossroads between Asia and the Middle East.1 Furthermore, Australia is a stable, secure and prosperous democracy, whereas Afghanistan in the past four decades has endured invasion, population displacement and severe economic dislocation.
Nonetheless, there is more to unite Australians and Afghans than one might think at first glance. Even before the Australian colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia from 1901, Afghans had made their way to Australia to provide transport by camel in parts of Australia’s hot and harsh inland, and the 1901 Census recorded the presence of 394 Afghanistan-born people in Australia. By the time of the 2016 Census, that had risen to 46,800. Furthermore, in the period following the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, more than 25,000 members of the ADF served in Afghanistan, building on earlier deployments of ADF demining specialists who did much to establish a positive reputation for Australians even before the post9/11 era. For more than a decade, Australia has had a resident embassy in Kabul, and Afghanistan a resident embassy in Canberra. Recent years have brought Australia and Afghanistan far closer to each other than ever before in their history.
This study explores some of the key dimensions of the development of that relationship. It examines the early history of Australia’s encounters with Afghans before outlining how the diplomatic relationship came to be established, and shows how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, by reason of its global geopolitical significance, elevated Afghanistan significantly in Australia’s thinking about the world. It demonstrates that, paradoxically, one of the consequences was a freeze in the development of the bilateral political relationship between Afghanistan and Australia, although Australia was involved in supporting ordinary Afghans in other ways. But with the collapse of the Communist regime in April 1992, fresh opportunities emerged for engagement; and the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001 opened new vistas for the relationship between Canberra and Kabul.