House debates

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Ministerial Statements


10:01 am

Photo of Mike KellyMike Kelly (Eden-Monaro, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a pleasure to expand upon the Prime Minister's comments and the further information that was provided by the Minister for Defence in relation to our deployment and our mission in Afghanistan. We understand that this has been a long haul for the Australian people, who always remain curious—as they should be—and interrogative about our mission, our objectives, and the likelihood of success of our investment of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. I know of course that you, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, will be very interested in these issues because of your commitment to the Australian Defence Force and your proud record of supporting and serving our men and women in uniform during your time in government.

It is wonderful to be able to relate the progress that has been made by our people in Afghanistan. I have talked before about some aspects of that, but I want to emphasise today that people should not misunderstand what this process involves at the moment. Although it is called transition, people should not assume that it is a retreat or that we are running for the exit and abandoning Afghanistan, and there will therefore be the risk that all of the good work that our people, and indeed many other colleagues in uniform from around the world, have done will be undone. That is not the case. We have certainly learned a lot of lessons in this country over a history of quite often being given responsibility in provinces such as Phuoc Tuy and in the Bai province where I was in Somalia, in Al Muthanna in Iraq and of course now in Uruzgan in Afghanistan.

We are seeing an overall international or national situation deteriorate around us after all our good effort but we are determined—and I am very proud and pleased to say of course that the coalition is also determined—to make sure that that effort does not fall into the same category. We are committed. This transition is about the mission objectives in the first place. The mission for Australian security forces—whether it be the AFP or the ADF—in Afghanistan is to make ourselves redundant. We do not want to build dependency. The mission is entirely about ensuring that the Afghans could take control and take responsibility for their own destiny. That is what we have been aiming for.

In my various trips to Afghanistan and the briefings that I have had both in Australia and in Washington recently I have been pleased at the progress that certainly we have made in relation to 4th Brigade in Uruzgan, but I have also been very pleased to see the progress that has been made by the Afghan National Army in general throughout Afghanistan. One of the most important things to understand about our mission is that we must build an attitude within the Afghan people themselves about taking control of their destiny and the confidence that they will have in their own security forces and institutions. A very detailed study by the Asia Foundation—the most detailed analysis yet done in Afghanistan—has been produced recently. I was fortunate to receive a briefing by David Arnold, President of the Asia Foundation, in Washington recently at the Pentagon. The statistics were extremely revealing. The overwhelming majority now of Afghans do not support armed resistance to the Afghan government. There is very strong support of course—around 83 per cent—for continuing efforts in reconciliation for those elements that are opposed to us or who engage in conflict with us who are not of the extreme ideological variety with whom there is an unlikely negotiated outcome. Effectively, the challenge there will morph into a counter-terrorism type of regime and response requirement. We have greatly degraded over time the ability of the forces we oppose to conduct subunit level attacks and assaults, and so the ability of the Afghan security sector in the future will mostly be reacting and responding to terrorist-like incidents.

The progress of the Afghan National Army has been recognised by the Afghans themselves in the study that I mentioned—93 per cent of Afghans said that they felt the Afghan National Army was honest, fair and improving in its competency, although they acknowledged that some level of international support was still required, which was also a good thing. But their attitudes to confidence in the delivery of services by the government was increasing dramatically in relation to education and water. Improvement in their faith in the rule of law is pleasing to see. There is still great concern in relation to issues of corruption, unemployment and some aspects of the delivery of electricity, but their confidence in the central government and at provincial level was high, although there are still some concerns at the municipal level.

It was also pleasing to see what the study revealed about their attitudes to gender issues and the status of women in Afghanistan, which I know we are all greatly concerned about. In that respect, they indicated that they were overwhelmingly in favour of women getting educated, participate in the political process and being able to vote. The one area where there is obviously room for improvement is their attitudes to women in employment, and that can partly be seen as a factor of the high levels of unemployment in Afghanistan, which is still an issue. Overall, the attitudes are along the right track and greatly improved and a good outcome of the investment of all of our efforts in Afghanistan.

In particular, I know a lot of people are focused on women's issues, and our effort has been unstinting in that respect. We will recall that women suffered greatly under the Taliban—thousands of sex slaves, 70 per cent of the teachers in the education system were women and were all thrown out of the system, which effectively destroyed it. They were not able to be educated. They were not able to be employed. They were subject to brutal punishments such as stonings where a hole would be dug and filled up to restrain them to the shoulder and head level. It was very prescriptive in the way they would be dispatched in that they could not be executed quickly. The stoning had to be drawn out so that a maximum amount of suffering would be imposed before a coup de grace was delivered. We have also seen that attitude illustrated in the recent horrific incident of the attempt to kill Malala Yousafzai, an incredibly brave young schoolgirl, which has focused our attention on exactly what this is all about. It is great to see the moderate Muslim world uniting in one voice against these medieval attitudes, which are quite often based on traditional attitudes and completely fly in the face of the Koran. I think it is going to galvanise the international effort to continue to oppose these extreme ideologies.

In Uruzgan province, Australia has helped construct 227 schools, including 39 girls' schools, and I was privileged to visit the Mala Lia Girls School, which is doing great things—320 girls have been engaged in community education. We have helped 500 women participate in literacy groups. We have helped 80 per cent of women in Uruzgan receive at least one antenatal visit—and this is really important in the context of the high level of deaths in childbirth. We have trained 30 female master teachers, and these trainers are training a new generation of Afghan women teachers who will be vital role models and mentors for girls in the future. We have committed $17.7 million to tackle violence against women and invested heavily in training midwives, including 44 female health workers in Uruzgan and 25 women who have been involved in new midwifery schools as well. This is really pleasing to see. I know this is an issue of great concern to Australians. In relation to the completion of our security task in Afghanistan, the reorientation now is—as those who understand the military environment will know and the member for Fadden, who is here with us today, will appreciate this—we have been through a phase where we had an urgent security, on-the-ground threat that needed to be tackled, getting boots and guns out there to tackle a high-level threat. But the ultimate objective is to build the structures that sustain a security force: the key enablers, the key command and control, the logistics and support environment and the training regimes that will support the growth of an effective and professional security force into the future.

Our focus now reorients to build that regime, that structure and those enablers. We will be putting a lot of effort into the training of the command and control capacities of the 4th Brigade, the 205 Corps, and we will also be looking to assist in the continual improvement of the two Kandaks that relate to combat support and combat services support. For those who are uninitiated in those, the combat support area will deliver intelligence, communications and combat engineering capabilities; and combat services support will be the key logistics enablers of transport, maintenance, servicing, health services and the like. These are the things that give a force capability and confidence, and enhance and amplify their ability to operate and grow into a professional force.

That will be our focus from this point forward, which means that our people will be less exposed as they pull in from patrol bases and forward operating bases back to the more secure and safe facilities of Tarin Kot. That does not mean that they will be completely free from threat—unfortunately, Private Sher was one of those victims of indirect fire. There will always be that risk, and any movement always comes under threat of improvised explosive device activities and actions. They will not be completely free from threat, but the threat will be slightly diminished.

We have flagged that we will be pursuing engagement with Afghanistan in relation to their special force needs. It is reassuring to see the professionalism that their own special forces are achieving—the Wakunesh,the NDS. We had very good reports on their capabilities when I was last in Afghanistan so that is encouraging. The international community has been willing and enthusiastic to provide ongoing special forces support, notwithstanding that conventional support is being withdrawn or is transitioning. The capability and the support will be there to provide our Afghan partners with the confidence that we are not abandoning them.

In addition to that, as people who understand counterinsurgency know—and I have spent my entire military career immersed in counterinsurgency, written much about it, and one of the reasons I got into politics in the first place was the establish the Australian Civil Military Centre to enhance our approach to counterinsurgency—the equation is usually a 20 per cent security challenge and an 80 per cent social-political-economic challenge. As we move forward, with the Afghan forces taking the lead role, our investment and engagement will reflect that. So $100 million for three years for the security sector, but we are building to a $250 million a year commitment in that social-economic-political space.

It is absolutely critical that the 2014 elections go well, but we also want to make sure that we are investing in governance, rule of law, education and the economy. One of the best areas you can invest in, in that respect, is in the building of roads, because this enhances people's ability to get to health services, their economic activity and security response times. It generates employment and it is harder to disguise and embed IEDs and the like—that is obviously going to be a valuable area. We will have to put a lot of work into making sure that our road dollars are landing effectively and well—there is no doubt about that—and there remain ongoing risks and threats to success through levels of corruption, bedding down better governance and getting the political infrastructure and regime ethos to grow and mature properly in the way that we would like.

As has often been said, we are not looking to transplant a Westminster or Jeffersonian democracy. What we want is a stable government that is on a maturing track towards a better and more acceptable political polity and social and economic environment. Our engagement in that sphere will be for decades to come but, hopefully, our security task is nearing the end of its most intense involvement. Also, of course, from my personal point of view, now that we have equipped them to conduct straight military operations and exercise military skills, I am now looking, as we are moving into more of a Defence Cooperation Program type relationship, to also start addressing issues to do with their ethos and levels of own conflict—their human rights training—across the security sector spectrum. We cannot just relax in that respect as they conduct independent operations. It will be important for us to have confidence, for the Australian people to have confidence, that we are engaging with security forces that respect the rule of law, that respect the code-of-ethics approach that modern professional warriors must always have when they take to the field. That is to sustain both domestic support to win that hearts and minds battle on the ground in Afghanistan and to give the international community confidence that they can support these security sector forces.

I am very confident that we are on the right track, but there are no guarantees. For a success it means we must stay committed and engaged, and I welcome the fact that we have that unity across the parliament in respect of this great challenge. It is in our national interest but it is also just the right thing to do.

10:16 am

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Science, Technology and Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

It is my great pleasure to follow my friend and colleague, the member for Eden-Monaro, Mike Kelly, in providing a response to the Prime Minister's statement on Afghanistan. Having just returned from my fourth time into the Middle East and my fourth operations brief in the J3 at Al Minhad, it is a great pleasure to provide comments on this.

We are now in what I call phase 7 of combat operations in Afghanistan. For the sake of history, it is important. The post 9-11 phase 1 of our operations commenced in October 2001, when we sent a combat operations group to defeat the Taliban and government, ending in 2002. Phase 2 was what I call 'the hiatus', from January 2003 to July 2005, where literally we had two uniformed officers in Afghanistan—two men—rotating through the United Nations and land mine clearing operations.

Phase 3 was a Special Operations Task Group phase from August 2005 to June 2006. Australia re-entered the conflict. The government announced that, at the request of the Afghan government, the US and allies, we would deploy a force of approximately 150 personnel for 12 months to undertake security tasks similar to what we did from October 2001 to the end of 2002. Special Operations Task Group, based primarily around the Special Air Service Regiment, was deployed on 24 August 2005 and, of course, in March 2006 an Army CH-47 was deployed.

From July 2006 the task would change again—mission phase 4, the Reconstruction Task Force, the RTF. On 8 May 2006 the 1st Australian RTF for Afghanistan was announced—about 240 personnel. On 9 August the government announced an additional 150 people would be deployed to augment the 1st RTF. It quickly began a whole range of 'backyard blitz' projects to build faith and demonstrate effectiveness. A major redevelopment of the Tarin Kot hospital occurred, as did an all-weather causeway. Trade training schools were put in place, likewise airstrips at Tarin Kot were built. On 10 April 2007 Prime Minister Howard announced further special force troop rotations, and by mid-2007 to the end of 2007, phase 4 with the Reconstruction Task Force numbered about 1,000 personnel. At the end of 2007, of course, the Rudd government came and we entered phase 5. The Reconstruction Task Force mission changed to the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force. On 19 February 2008 the new defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon—that is three defence ministers ago—announced the government would maintain its current commitment but would place a new emphasis on training the Afghan National Army. US President Obama's election victory further reinforced that mission change from an open-ended US commitment of troops to a mission of training Afghan forces and leaving the country when they were ready. On 29 April 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that MRTF1, Mentoring Reconstruction Task Force 1, would increase from 1,100 to 1,550. Incidentally, though, that increase included no extra bayonets—no combat troops on the ground.

Phase 6 of our mission began when the Dutch withdrew after the collapse of their parliament regarding their Afghanistan involvement. On 23 June 2010 the then new defence minister announced that there would be a new structure for the US-led mission in Uruzgan province, which was the Combined Team-Uruzgan approach.

Now we enter phase 7. Not only are we commanding the Combined Team-Uruzgan, but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, our task of mentoring has now changed to advising. Lieutenant-Colonel Trent 'Wobbler' Scott, who is the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment will soon take his men and women out of combat operations in the coming weeks and hand over to the 7th Battalion. 'Wobbler' took in 750 men as part of the 3RAR Task Group which was to mentor the Afghan forces. His job was to ensure that their mentoring was complete and they were ready for independent combat operations. Accordingly, yesterday, 'Wobbler' handed over the third-last forward operating base and by the end of November he will have handed over the last two operating bases.

7RAR will have 300-odd fewer soldiers—about 450 in total—and their job is to advise. They will not be living out in the badlands outside the wire of TK in forward operating bases. Within the next three weeks we will have abandoned every one of our forward operating bases. Only the Afghan forces will man those 30-odd forward patrol bases, forward operating bases, out in the various valleys of Chura, Mirabad, Baluchi and so on in Uruzgan province. Those 450-odd men of the advising force of the 7RAR Task Group will be behind the wire in Tarin Kot, advising the Afghan 4th Brigade on the conduct of independent operations.

It is interesting to reflect that since June 2010 government ministers have made 54 statements, including yesterday, dealing with the time line for withdrawal from Afghanistan. The past and the current Chief of Defence Force have made eight statements. From 2010 to early 2012 all of these statements set out a path to 2014 as the eventual withdrawal date. This changed in February this year, when Minister Smith spoke of a withdrawal date of 2013. He backed this up with his comments on 9 February, 24 May, 31 May, 17 July, 16 August, 9 October, 11 October and yesterday. Of the current Prime Minister's 15 statements on a withdrawal date, they all framed 2014, except for her comments on 23 May, when 2013 was set as the date—backed up yesterday. Likewise, the current CDF, General Hurley, has made four comments that have all set 2014 as the withdrawal date, except for his comments on 28 May, where he used the same time line as the Prime Minister had used five days earlier of 12 to 18 months, representing a drawdown of our forces on May-November 2013.

That drawdown has commenced because, by the end of November, the 7RAR Task Group, whose mission is to advise, will not be engaging in sustained combat operations in partnership with Afghan forces as the 3rd Battalion or the 3RAR Task Group, which leaves in a few weeks time, was. The only force disposition outside the wire effecting a kinetic impact upon our enemy will be the men of the Special Operations Task Group. This change in time line to a withdrawal date of May-November 2013 is now being reflected by that force disposition on the ground.

We will also see, of course, a further up tempo logistics effort. As we wind down now from combat operations and partnering with Afghan forces in the badlands and move towards an advisory role for independent operations, we will ramp up our logistics effort as we seek to bring home something like $3 billion worth of equipment from a country that is literally landlocked. This will require extensive movements by air and extensive movements by land, which will of course necessitate the opening of the Pakistan-Afghan border to effect that quickly. This will be one of the greatest logistics exercises we have done since Vietnam or, indeed, since World War II. We are entering the time now of the 'loggies'.

The Special Operations Task Group, made up of men and women of the SAS regiment and the 2nd Commando Regiment, with augmentation from the 1st Commando Regiment, will be the prime force disposition to engage kinetically with the insurgent forces we face, to disrupt and dismantle their enemy command, control, communications and IED networks. This number will generally reduce over the non-fighting season but will increase again across the fighting season. On a separate note, 60 to 70 RAAF Air Defence Guards are being sent to Tarin Kot as we speak to bolster the security of Tarin Kot and replace the existing Slovak forces that have been providing this capability. The government has indicated that, from the withdrawal of our combat troops in 2013, there will be a fourth disposition that will remain, of which it enjoys the full support of the opposition. An SOTG element will establish or remain until 2014 and depend upon the command structures being envisaged under NATO has the propensity for longer engagement.

The government has agreed to assist the Brits in the Afghan officer training institution that the Brits call 'Sandhurst in the Sand'—which I think is a misnomer: it should be 'Duntroon in the Desert'—which we think is a fabulous idea in terms of continually supporting and training their officers.

I would encourage the government to continue to keep the command of the Afghan National Army Artillery School in Kabul under Australian command. We currently have something like 200 embedded officers at US command levels at either the ISAF joint command level or the ISAF level. The coalition's view is that a range of those embedded officers should continue until such time as those US headquarters draw down, and post 2014, if there is a NATO headquarter replacement, we should continue to engage strongly in that headquarters as well as keep a current two-star level J5 appointment, which is a Plans appointments, where we currently have a two-star as the J5 on the ISAF IJC. For those reading this, if you are not up on your military acronyms, that is the Head of Plans for the three-star corps level headquarters, which is actually running the operation, which is the ISAF Joint Command Headquarters.

I would also encourage the government to maintain our air liaison officers for the US in Qatar. We have a ship in the frigate on its 29th rotation. We have had that ship there since 1991. I would encourage the government to maintain that ship as part of the counterpiracy work that is being done there, working in concert with our allied forces. Of course, we have logistics and headquarters staff in Dubai at our forward mounting base at Al Minhad. Again, I would say to the government that it is our strong contention that we do not—now or ever in the foreseeable future—abandon our forward mounting base in Dubai, Al Minhad.

We need an administrative footprint on the ground from which to sustain and maintain our operations in Afghanistan and the littoral region. Our relationship with the government of the UAE, and especially with Dubai, is exceptional. It is a strong working relationship. We exist on that base in concert with other nations as part of the coalition of the willing, and the government should do everything that it can to ensure that we retain that footprint as our forward mounting base.

As always, the government enjoys a very strong bipartisan support from the coalition—a support we have been very strongly committed to ever since the government changed in 2007. The government can expect a very strong bipartisan commitment from the coalition. I thank the government for its continual support. The point I have made continually as the senior shadow for Defence in the House of Representatives is that bipartisanship is not a blank cheque. It requires strong engagement by the government, high levels of trust, and high levels of access—all of which the government has provided—signified by the joint visit to the Middle East last week by the Minister for Defence Personnel and me, where all of the briefings were joint, including the current ops brief at a classified level, and I thank the government for that.

10:28 am

Photo of Greg HuntGreg Hunt (Flinders, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Climate Action, Environment and Heritage) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to begin this reflection on the Australian contribution to the mission in Afghanistan in a different place. I want to begin in East Timor on 29 August of this year. Along with Senator David Bushby, I was in East Timor as part of the parliamentary engagement with Australia's military forces. We were posted as part of the Australian mission for a period of days. On 29 August, we were at the forward operating training facility where Australian forces, along with New Zealand and American forces, were training the East Timorese military. They were teaching young Timorese soldiers critical physical skills in terms of engineering, road works, maintenance works, machinery works. They were also teaching young Timorese soldiers and the officer corps about broader soldiering skills relating to peacekeeping, interaction with civilian communities, the laws of war. During the course of that morning, a Kiwi officer came in and gave his commiserations. He was the first to pass on the message that three Australian soldiers had been killed due to an insider attack in Afghanistan. The deaths of Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Private Robert Poate and Sapper James Martin were sadly added to on the same day when subsequent news came through of the deaths of Private Nathanael Galagher and Lance Corporal Mervyn McDonald, who were killed in a helicopter crash.

That day turned out to be a very bleak day for Australia, for the Australian forces and, most particularly, of course, for the friends and family of these five magnificent young Australian soldiers. When this news came through, the room I was in contained a number of Australian enlisted soldiers and officer corps members. Many of them had served in Afghanistan. One was an extraordinary warrant officer who had recently been cross-posted back from forward operations in Afghanistan to East Timor. This gentleman was not only one of the most impressive Australian soldiers I have ever met but one of the most impressive Australians I have ever met. He had served in many of the most difficult front-line operations in Afghanistan. We did not know the names of those who were lost at that time, but, because they had been doing exactly what he had been doing in Afghanistan, he knew that it was highly likely that at least one, if not all of the three, would have been known to him.

This warrant officer, who was described by a senior officer as one of the 'princes' of the Army, looked at Senator Bushby and me, and said: 'Gentlemen, we know the risks of what we do. We understand the dangers, but we believe in the mission intensely, passionately and deeply and it is our choice to do these things. Please take back the message to the Australian parliament that this terrible loss should not be the basis for retreat.' At this moment, I am in small measure giving honour to his words. He was speaking on behalf of the Australian enlisted soldiers not just in East Timor but also in Afghanistan. It was a profoundly important moment, because, at that moment of tragedy, one of those who had been at the absolute front line still expressed his deep, profound belief in the mission. I have no doubt that that warrant officer was speaking on behalf of the overwhelming majority—I presume virtually all—of the Australian soldiers posted abroad at this moment. He had a sense of deep, personal commitment to the mission on the basis of having been part of the mission, having seen what is being achieved and understanding the deep strategic context.

I now want to turn to a second experience. That was five years ago, on 12 October 2007, in the lead-up to the election. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, I had the sad but extremely profound honour of representing the Australian government at the fifth anniversary of the Bali tragedy. I was in Bali with the Australian families. Five years on, the grief of those families—and my understanding is that 202 people died, including 88 Australians, as a consequence of the first Bali bombing—was still raw, their emotion was still high and their resolution to attempt, to the limits of human endeavour, to ensure that the events of Bali were never repeated remained firm. The commitment I made and the commitment the Australian government made—and it did not, and I mean this in the best sense, matter whether it was a Liberal or Labor government; the commitment was made on behalf of both sides—was to continue the push to ensure, to the extent of our ability, that Australian citizens are safe no matter where they are.

That brings me to the three points I want to make about the Afghanistan mission. I want to speak at the strategic level, I want to speak about the progress which has been made and then I want to speak about the future. I have referred to my recollections from five years ago of the event I attended marking the Bali bombings 10 years ago. We also recently marked the 11th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York. The strategic context of these events is a push by al-Qaeda and its affiliates and those within the Wahhabist movement for an Islamic caliphate. They are deeply unrepresentative of the great Islamic faith around the world. Indeed, many would argue that they are antipathetic to the broader movement—even heretical. It is offensive for anyone to presume that theirs is a representative view. Nevertheless, from that sliver, the push is for a caliphate. That means the political goal is to take, in the medium term, one of the great Islamic states—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan or Indonesia. The mechanism for doing that is to destabilise and to assume control of part or all of Afghanistan. That was the status of the Taliban and its relationship with al-Qaeda prior to 11 September 2001 and subsequent coalition operations.

Since that time, the strategic underpinning of al-Qaeda has been progressively undermined. It has been eroded both through public activities and through the close quarters work undertaken in Afghanistan. It is has come at a terrible price to the coalition as a whole and to Australia in particular. The 39 Australian soldiers who have lost their lives, five of whom I have referred to in particular today, have paid the ultimate price and their families are the true victims of this defence of Australia. But, 10 years ago, who would have imagined that the US homeland would have remained effectively free of any further attacks? In the context of September 11, you would have thought that the United States was almost certain, over the following 10 years, to have suffered other major terrorist attacks or a dirty bomb. The same could have been presumed for Australia. We did see Madrid and London. They were early additional activities by al-Qaeda and they were indicators of a much grander design.

But the constant activity in Afghanistan, in Iraq and through homeland security in Australia, the United States and across the Western world—as well as activities in states such as Indonesia, where there has been tremendous co-operation—has largely undermined the capacity of al-Qaeda for forward operations. It is not gone; the threat remains. But the threat is significantly less than it was and it is certainly dramatically less than it might have been had we not engaged in these activities. That is the grand strategic context.

The human side of this, which is the progress, is that in Afghanistan today what we see, to quote the Prime Minister, is that 'all of the provincial capitals and 75 per cent of the country's population are in areas now where the Afghan National Security Forces lead on security'. So they lead on more than 80 per cent of security operations and make up more than three-quarters of all uniformed personnel in the country. That transition is what we are engaged in now. That is the security success, and the security success has led to human success.

In Uruzgan province, where the Australians have primary responsibility, we have seen a six-fold increase in the number of schools operating—again, to use the Prime Minister's facts—and a tripling in the number of active health facilities. That is real. Health and education and security are dramatically better. There will be difficult days in Afghanistan once the coalition draws down and there will be a continuing role over many years, but our primary security operation will pass over the next 18 months and we will have small support operation but we will have effectively drawn down. That is the right thing to do. But it is this process of transitioning the whole of the country and then knowing it will be an imperfect time. That then takes me to the forward side of things.

Over the coming five years, it will be the progressive draw down. Firstly, in the next 18 months, will be the maintenance of backup in terms of a special operations provision to assist with particular crises. No group of Australians has done more on the front line than our special operations forces, who have literally been the best of Australia that we could hope to present. Then we will have the development role of encouraging and supporting the Afghan National Army and the police force. There will be internal difficulties, but those difficulties are part of the process of giving them the best chance of being the most independent and the most stable and secure that they can be. It will be a long and imperfect process over 20 and 30 years. But, going forwards, that is the only way that the country can aspire to a degree of internal stability, which will allow the health, the education and the personal opportunities resulting from the dramatic and radical transformation of much of the country, which was under the thrall of almost medieval leadership in the Taliban, into a modern state which will be going through a long period of development.

We look to the way in which Indonesia has been a beacon to the world in managing democracy and a range of religions but in a situation where it is, essentially, a successful Islamic state. I praise Indonesia for their cooperation. I set that out as a model in terms of the long-term direction for Afghanistan. Above all else, I thank our soldiers for the extraordinary commitment that they and their families have made and I extend my bipartisan support to the mission and those views as to the long term.

10:43 am

Photo of Jane PrenticeJane Prentice (Ryan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Prime Minister's statement on Afghanistan. I welcome the opportunity to acknowledge another year of military operations in Afghanistan and to honour the difficult and dangerous job that Australian forces are undertaking there. I thank the Prime Minister for updating the House on the many aspects of Australia's successful contribution to Afghanistan's progress to transition, particularly in the Uruzgan province, where transition began this year on 17 July. Australia's 4th Brigade has been taking the lead on security operations in that area, and more recently Australia assumed command, on 18 October, of Combined Team—Uruzgan.

In 2010, the countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the International Security Assistance Force, in conjunction with the government of Afghanistan, came to the agreement for Afghanistan to become solely responsible for its security by the end of 2014. In terms of Australia's withdrawal from the region, I understand that the Prime Minister expects that transition should take between 12 to 18 months to occur, after which the vast majority of Australian troops will return home. Now after three months since the commencement of the transition period this expectation remains the case.

I echo the comments of the Leader of the Opposition, who noted that:

Australia went to Afghanistan with our allies and we will leave with our allies.

By committing to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, we are not abandoning them but we will leave knowing that our training, anti-terror role and capacity-building projects made a difference for Afghanistan and its people. A worrying development is the continuing increase in green-on-blue attacks by Afghan soldiers and police when conducting joint operations. Regretfully, Australians have been the victims of this ruthless tactic by the Taliban which aims to reduce the effectiveness of Australia's relationship with the Afghan military. As a result, NATO has suspended joint operations with Afghan military personnel, and I understand that NATO is continuing to vet personnel and monitor the situation more broadly. These attacks do not, however, affect Australia's commitment to a safe and secure Afghanistan.

In August, I was fortunate to be involved with the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program to visit Afghanistan and experience the conditions firsthand. When Australia does leave Afghanistan, our Defence forces will leave with their heads held high. I point to the many key contributions Australia is undertaking in Oruzgan province, including the construction and opening of many infrastructure projects: roads, schools, health and education facilities, and river crossings. These projects greatly improve the lives of, and capability for, the local people and assist in the delivery of the Afghanistan International Security Assistance Force's counterinsurgency strategy.

I have spoken on many occasions in this place about the enormous contribution our servicemen and women make, from my maiden speech to the many condolence motions—sadly, far too many—to the simple recognition of the debt and obligation that we as a nation owe to so many brave Australians. I speak as someone with strong personal connections and commitment to our Defence forces. Most importantly, I speak as the federal member for the electorate of Ryan, which includes Gallipoli Barracks at Enoggera which recently welcomed home another 300 soldiers from the 7th Brigade on 24 October and previously welcomed home around 1,000 soldiers from Afghanistan, including the 7th Brigade. I was honoured to acknowledge our troops at both of these welcome home parades, most recently with the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison AO, and Brigadier Greg Bilton CSC ADC, Commander of the 7th Brigade.

On 25 September, I was also honoured to represent the shadow minister for defence, Senator the Hon. David Johnston, at the farewell parade hosted by the 1st Brigade at Robertson Barracks in Darwin. On that day, we farewelled 400 personnel from 1st Brigade, including my son, who were deployed to Afghanistan on Operation Slipper. This marked an important opportunity for family, friends and the wider community to formally farewell their troops.

We welcome those days when our troops return to Australia alive and well. However, we have also observed in this place the deaths of the 39 Australians who have lost their lives during Australia's fight in Afghanistan and, importantly, the many who have suffered physical and mental injuries. An obligation to these fine Australians and their families is an enduring one. They must know that when they go into battle on behalf of our nation we are with them, and our support thereafter will be steadfast and strong. It is the least our nation can do.

Most recently, fallen combat engineer Corporal Scott James Smith returned home to his family and comrades in Australia—another proud Australian who the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, recognised as, 'a fine young man and a great soldier' and who recognised his sacrifice in serving his country.

If we take a step back from Afghanistan, as we look both to the present and future of the Defence Force, and particularly the domestic Defence Force industry, we see many worrying signs. Over the weekend, the Australian government released the Asia white paper, which stated that:

The effective management of a number of regional flashpoints will become increasingly urgent …


Managing competing maritime and territorial claims will be particularly important

In that context, I worry that we are not funding the Defence Force appropriately to deal with future security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. This year alone the government cut $5.5 billion and, since coming to government, has cut $25 billion from the Defence budget. The government's cuts mean that Defence spending is at its lowest level since 1938—at 1.56 per cent of gross domestic product—and next year it will drop even further to 1.49 per cent. These are shameful figures from this government. If we look at the present situation, those in the military have taken the very rare move of speaking directly to the public about what those defence cuts mean. Recently, the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison AO said:

We are approaching a point where doing more with less risks becoming a cavalier disregard for the ability of forces to survive against credible peer competition.

We do not want to send our troops on operations if they are not properly equipped and supported by the Australian government to do the job. I remind the House that these cuts will have an impact not just today but in 30 years time. Prior to the 1999 East Timor crisis, Australia realised that Defence had been seriously neglected and required a substantial increase in investment. Today, however, there is no doubt that recent cuts will have serious ramifications for the future readiness of our military forces and that the cuts are creating a growing capability gap.

One of the primary reasons why we must look long term is because procurement projects can take decades from first consideration to final delivery. As Lieutenant General Morrison noted, the capability of the army:

… can be relinquished disturbingly rapidly if it is not carefully developed and sustained …

At the same time, when we discuss the cost of procurement for submarines to the tune of $40 billion—or $16 billion for the Joint Strike Fighter—we are only talking in terms of delivery, not including the ongoing costs of maintenance. In many instances, the initial outlay might cover only one third of a project's cost over its lifetime.

When I talk to those within the Defence industry, they tell me that they are extremely worried about what the future might hold. Already 5,000 Australian jobs have been lost in the Defence industry. They are fully aware that during recent Senate estimates the Defence minister admitted that out of $230 billion outlined in the 2009 Defence White Paper, $200 billion of that total is still unfunded. As a result, in three years time, there could be a complete shutdown of naval ship building to name just one area of Defence industry. There is no surprise at the anxiety that exists within the industry as a result of this government's lack of commitment to Defence. It is therefore incumbent upon any future Australian government to recommit to Defence, and I continue to make that commitment.

To conclude, I say to the families and friends of Defence personnel serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the world that they have every reason to be incredibly proud of the outstanding commitment to their mission of defending the security of Australia and the globe. Afghanistan has a complicated past, but I know that all Australians hope for a successful future in that nation and I commend Australia's ongoing contribution to that goal.

Finally, let me say this: any cabinet that fails to properly equip our troops at war must accept, as a cabinet and individually, the cost of that failure. I do not say that is the situation today, but the failure to properly fund our Defence forces today must resonate in the immediate future and must inevitably increase the risks and challenges that our troops will then face.

10:53 am

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Under Taliban rule, terrorists once—not that many years ago—trained freely in Afghanistan. As we tragically found out, the objective of that training was to kill Australians; and to unleash its worst against our allies, the United States of America. The transition has begun, thankfully, and by the end of 2014 we are told that the transition plan is for Afghanistan to take charge of its own security.

The process of transition is on course: it began on 17 July 2012. Our Special Operations Task Group will continue to operate and do its work well against the insurgency. Our advisory taskforce will retain a combat-ready capability, and this is the course that is taking place in Oruzgan.

The Australian Federal Police has undertaken extremely important work training the Afghan National Police at the police training centre in Tarin Kot. As the transition continues, our future efforts will focus on leadership training and strategic advisory support at a national level. This will help the Afghan National Police manage its own transition from paramilitary activity as part of the important counterinsurgency to a constabulary force performing what police are supposed to do—that is, regular police work, civilian policing roles.

We heard our Prime Minister yesterday say that our development aid effort will continue. Australian aid, the Prime Minister said, is making a real difference to the lives of Afghan people. That is certainly so. It is helping the Afghan nation on the path to development and peace which is of course so important. We heard the Prime Minister say that in Uruzgan, the Australian-led provincial reconstruction team does great work, contributing to a six-fold increase in the number of schools operating, tripling the number of active health facilities and enabling a stronger provincial administration. As transition proceeds in Uruzgan, the Prime Minister said that our aid workers and diplomats will continue their important task. Of course, her words were backed up by the opposition leader, Tony Abbott. Across the political divide, this has bipartisan support. Our important work, our ongoing efforts in Afghanistan, which began in 2001, have cross-party political support, as they should have. Our troops on the ground, our Navy, and our air men and women need all the support they can get. They need to know that we, as parliamentarians, who have the responsibility for sending them there, are right behind them—and we are.

Yet there are challenges. There are huge challenges to our ongoing efforts in Afghanistan. The Iraq war became known as the conflict which bought the horror of improvised explosive devices to global infamy, and, sadly, the Afghanistan conflict is becoming the face of a new and even more hideous form of deadly violence—the insider attack. The Prime Minister referred to that yesterday. Known in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as 'green on blue'—green representing friendly national forces and blue representing international forces—these attacks have increased dramatically in 2012. Last year, 31 troops died in these insider attacks, and that figure is significantly and dramatically and tragically higher this year. The numbers are so high that some military analysts have claimed that they may represent the highest incidence of intentional friendly-fire attacks in recorded military history.

In response, the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, United States General John Allen, ordered that all coalition soldiers carry loaded weapons, even at the larger secure bases, inside buildings and even at meetings. The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, blamed the recent surge of green on blue attacks on foreign countries—a reference to Pakistan and Iran—infiltrating the Afghan National Army and brain-washing vulnerable or disenchanted soldiers. The Pakistan based spiritual leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, said that his fighters had been instructed to infiltrate the Afghan National Army and coerce Afghan soldiers to assist attacking coalition troops. He said: 'Thanks to the infiltration of the mujaheddin, they are able to safely enter bases, offices and intelligence centres of the enemy. Then, they easily carry out decisive and coordinated attacks, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy both in life and support.' Terrorism knows no bounds. It is gutless. That is another reason why we need to continue every effort to keep our soldiers safe and certainly to continue our efforts in Afghanistan, because the Afghan people need to know that our support is with them. They need—as everybody does—to have a free country.

We need to leave our troops in Afghanistan. Progress is being made on our goal to help stabilise the country, but there is a lot of work to do, obviously. Unfortunately, there are many people in Australia who do not understand the progress being made. Media programs often show a negative side of war. Of course, it is important that they do show those tragic ramp ceremonies, when our diggers have unfortunately made the ultimate sacrifice. Quite often the media do not represent good things being achieved in Afghanistan. We heard the Prime Minister speak yesterday about the great strides that the coalition has helped to make for education, for minorities and certainly for women, and about the good work we are doing to ensure that there is no safe haven for terrorist activity in Afghanistan. That is not always reflected as much as the tragedy of soldiers being killed on the battlefield and certainly in green on blue attacks.

The soldiers believe that what they are doing is making a difference—and they should know; they are right there in the trenches, in the camps and in the streets of Afghanistan doing good work. If they get pulled out now, they believe the 39 fallen will have died in vain. Certainly those 39 who have lost their lives in Afghanistan are the bravest of the brave; the best of the best. Afghanistan is our war. Everyone deserves freedom—Afghans too. If we leave too soon the country will turn back to the chaotic situation it has been in for the past 30 years. It has been a terrible situation for decades.

The soldiers know the risks; they also know the job at hand and they will know when it is finished. As we heard the Prime Minister say yesterday, the end is nigh but certainly we need to stay there until we get the job done. Until democracy and the rule of law is brought to failed states, we need to continue to play our part. The coalition has achieved so much with so few casualties—though sadly we have had 39 killed and more than 240 injured. Those 39 fallen have paid the ultimate sacrifice, but all in all our soldiers and our Navy and our Air Force since 2001 have done mighty things. The people of Afghanistan are depending on us to continue the work we have done. We cannot leave them with warring tribes, terrorist schools and mediaeval treatment for women and minorities. We must see out a tough fight; we must see out a just fight.

Defence lobbyist Neil James, who served in the Army for more than 31 years and who still serves in the reserves, has commented that some Australian soldiers were undertaking too many deployments as a result of budget cuts to the Department of Defence. Mr James is Executive Director of the Australia Defence Association. As the ADA official spokesman, he is also responsible for the association's contributions to day-to-day public debate and for helping maintain the long-term and informed perspectives the Australia Defence Association has long brought to such discourse. Mr James's military experience over almost four decades has spanned a wide range of regimental, intelligence, liaison, teaching, operational planning and operational research positions. He said:

One of the reasons that people are having to do … too many tours, is there aren't enough of them and the reason there aren't enough of them is that the defence budget is too small.

Unfortunately the defence budget was cut by $5½ billion in the May budget. Mr James went on:

The people of Australia refuse to vote for politicians who will invest sufficiently in defence to give us strategic alternatives.

He said the price was being paid by 'a very small part of the national family who are doing most of the country's war fighting.' He is right. The budget cuts were extremely tough, and they will continue to be tough on our military. I know the working accommodation that was planned for the Kapooka army base at Wagga Wagga, where all recruits for the Regular Army are turned out, has been put on hold because of these cuts.

When we are on the battlefield the job of the Army is always to bring the troops in. Of course if they are injured they are brought in but if they have sadly fallen and died they have to be brought in and then looked after with the greatest respect when they get back to Australia. I plead for the government, and I implore our own side, to ensure fair indexation for military pensions and superannuation into the future. I know that times are tough and I realise that sometimes cuts need to be made. But these people signed up to fight wars to promote freedom and to help our country and other peoples, and when they come home they need to be looked after with respect by the parliament which sends them to wars.

This morning a brave Australian soldier is going to be awarded the Victoria Cross. I do not know his name yet; it may well have been announced since I started speaking. At any rate, the Governor-General and the Prime Minister will make an announcement this morning that another Australian soldier is going to be a recipient of the highest honour for valour in the field. That is a tremendous thing. We know what great things Ben Roberts-Smith, our last Australian VC recipient, did to earn that remarkable honour for courage, and the latest recipient will join the long line of khaki heroes to receive a VC. The first Victoria Cross was awarded in the Boer War and, since that conflict—through Gallipoli and all the other struggles that Australia has been involved in—men have reached the highest point of valour by putting life and limb on the line in a way that is beyond what most mere mortals would even contemplate. It is a great to think that today another VC recipient will join the other military heroes which Australia has turned out.

The war in Afghanistan on Australia's part needs to continue. We are doing great work. We have built airstrips and schools and we have helped many women to rise up from the medieval state that they were in. Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for terrorists thanks to the great work that Australia has done as part of the coalition. That is to be acknowledged, and it should continue. I acknowledge the Prime Minister for her words in the House of Representatives yesterday during debate on Afghanistan. Our efforts need to continue until the job is finished.

Photo of Yvette D'AthYvette D'Ath (Petrie, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think it would be accurate to say on behalf of all those in the chamber that we congratulate the soldier who will be receiving the Victoria Cross today.

Debate adjourned.