Thursday, 21 October 2010
At 8.46 am on 11 September 2001, an aeroplane crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. At 9.03 am a second aeroplane exploded on impact at the same site. The history books will show that it was these shocking terrorist events that resulted in the first major conflict of the 21st century. Even before coalition forces entered Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, some 2,977 innocent civilians, including 11 Australians, had been killed in New York and Washington. Afghanistan was the crucible of the terrorists who plotted and launched this unprovoked attack that, in the minds of many, rivalled the day of infamy when Japan attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor, thus bringing the United States, with a terrible retribution, into the Second World War.
The Taliban government of Afghanistan, led by Mullah Omar, not only protected but encouraged the perpetrators of this strike, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, in their evil purposes. After the Taliban’s refusal to hand over the criminals, coalition forces commenced a campaign, initially to depose the Taliban regime and to destroy the al-Qaeda network. The operations of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, were carried out under the aegis of United Nations Security Council resolution 1386 of 2001. The Taliban regime was effectively overthrown by 13 November 2001 when Kabul was taken after just six short weeks of war. However, as we all know—and this is the reason for holding this opportune debate in the nation’s parliament—the struggle against terrorism in Afghanistan did not end at that time. It has been a too-long, grinding war of attrition against an insurgency that is tenacious in its staying power.
In historic terms Afghanistan has been called the ‘graveyard of empires’ due in large part to the fierce resistance of the population to the presence of various international forces over the centuries. There are many examples where the forces within Afghanistan have refused to be subdued by the world’s great powers. Famously, in the 19th century there were the Anglo-Afghan wars and the terrible story of more than 16,000 British soldiers and civilians killed while trying to flee Kabul. More recently, in the 1980s, there was the withdrawal of Soviet troops after years of guerrilla warfare. Therein lie the lessons for the current NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. It is very difficult to achieve a decisive military victory against a determined insurgent force that is able to find safe haven amongst the civilian population by hiding in the rugged terrain and in the neighbouring country.
The ongoing development of Afghanistan was set back decades after the devastation that occurred during the Soviet occupation. National development was set back even further under the brutal medieval rule of the Taliban. In addition, the Taliban had imposed a particularly harsh interpretation of sharia law in Afghanistan that took away the rights of women particularly and which brutally suppressed the rights of the native Afghan population.
Afghanistan has a long way to go in terms of meeting the challenges and being a robust, peaceful, independent nation. While the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai nominally holds jurisdiction over major cities like Kabul and Kandahar, its remit over much of the countryside is often tenuous. The Karzai government’s moral authority is also weakened by persistent allegations of corruption and maladministration that never seem to go away. The credibility of the national elections in Afghanistan has been undermined by widespread claims of fraud. While this is a cause for deep concern, the allegations of corruption pale in comparison to the situation when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
Australia was a key participant in the coalition of the willing that began this mission all those years ago. Initially, our commitment included Army special forces and elements of the RAAF. This initial deployment was principally active from 2001 until the end of 2002. Between 2002 and 2005 Australia’s involvement in the conflict was significantly downgraded before ramping up with the redeployment of special forces in the second half of 2005. In 2006 a reconstruction task force was deployed in the Oruzgan province with protection provided by elements from the Royal Australian Regiment and the Cavalry Regiment, based outside Tarin Kowt.
Over the course of the war some hundreds of Australian troops have been rotated through the theatre of operations. Twenty-one brave Australians have lost their lives in the service of their country and another 152 have been wounded. As a nation our hearts go out to the families and friends of these heroes, who have so honoured Australia with their sacrifice. The human element to this conflict is heartbreaking. The Special Air Service Regiment at Campbell Barracks is based in my electorate in Perth’s western suburbs. Every time I hear the news that a soldier has been killed or wounded in Afghanistan, I think of the men I have met at the barracks, the wives and partners with whom I have shared morning teas, their children at the local Swanbourne Primary School, and fear that one of those men, one of those families, will be receiving that devastating news.
We cannot debate the military participation in Afghanistan without making some reference to the other principal conflict of the early 21st century, namely, the war in Iraq. For base political purposes, the Labor Party has made a distinction arguing that in some way the Iraq war was a bad war while the Afghan war is a good war. The coalition has never made that distinction. There has been a fight against extremism and the two wars have been two battle fronts in what is a long and protracted conflict.
The fight has also encroached into Pakistan. Extremist forces coming from Pakistan, and foreign fighters, are taking part in cross-border attacks. The Taliban has previously attacked Pakistan’s military headquarters. In recent weeks, militants in north-west Pakistan have reportedly attacked and destroyed fuel tankers attempting to deliver fuel to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. The efforts of the Pakistan government to repress extremists within its borders would not be assisted by any lessening of the international commitment to neighbouring Afghanistan. It is unthinkable for the Taliban to gain control of Pakistan, a nation with a significant arsenal of nuclear weapons. However, the increased efforts of ISAF, in particular through the Obama administration’s surge and the additional troop deployment from the United States as a result of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategic review, should provide the necessary leadership and resources to implement and improve military strategy and the nation-building campaign.
Like the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have also visited our troops on the ground. I undertook a visit last year with the member for Wentworth and Senator David Johnston. I was impressed by the strides made by our troops in their tasks of training the Afghan army and I was privileged to meet the men and women bravely serving on a foreign field, just like their military predecessors over the decades.
ISAF has been focused on providing stability and security to a nation shattered by decades of conflict. The task of reconstruction remains daunting. While there have been great gains, much remains to be done. There is the task of building the capacity of the local Afghan people to provide for their own security through armed forces and police. The Afghan government is also being supported to build the institutions to enable the nation to achieve long-term stability.
I pay tribute to the work of Australia’s troops and civilians working in a dangerous environment in support of the Afghan people. However, despite their efforts, the security situation remains fragile. Against this background it is worth noting that President Karzai announced recently that he has established a council to support peace and reconciliation talks with militants. President Karzai has said that the National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration will consist of government officials and tribal elders. He has called for an end to violence, with militants rejoining mainstream society. Importantly, President Karzai urged the Taliban leadership to drop the condition that NATO forces leave the country before entering peace talks. He reminded the Taliban that international forces were in Afghanistan to ensure that extremists do not regain control of the country and that the international forces will remain until that objective can be met.
It is vital that the Australian government not set artificial time lines for the withdrawal of troops. The Taliban would use any such time line, regardless of how far into the future, to promote its cause among the Afghan people. Putting an end date on withdrawal would greatly encourage the Taliban. Debate about artificial time lines for withdrawal is also damaging to the efforts of our people in Afghanistan because the local people remain sceptical that the international forces will remain in the country for the long term. After all, they have seen others come and go over the years.
Local people are naturally very concerned about their future security after the international forces withdraw. The Taliban uses that prospect as a weapon to convince local communities to remain on their side. One of the keys to the decline in violence in Iraq was the successful promotion of awakening councils, which involved the local population no longer harbouring insurgents and forming armed groups to battle militants in their midst. The challenge in Afghanistan is, if anything, greater than in Iraq because of the drastically lower standards of literacy and education. Afghanistan lacks many of the institutions necessary for the functioning of a civilian government.
The key to success in Afghanistan is, to use the familiar phrase, to win the hearts and minds of the people. Part of this is to convince the Taliban that the international forces remain committed to the original task. It also involves winning the trust of the broader Afghan community that the international forces will not abandon them to the extremists, al-Qaeda or related Jihadist groups. It involves building the trust of the people that corruption within the Afghan government can be reduced or, hopefully, eliminated. The Afghan people also need reassurance that other nations will not desert them after they take control of their own security needs. The Afghan people must be confident that they will be supported in coming decades as they slowly rebuild their shattered nation.
The primary goal of ISAF is to enable Afghanistan to stand as an independent nation responsible for its own affairs and with the capacity to provide a secure and peaceful environment for its citizens. The Afghanis are like people all over the world in that the vast majority want to live in peace and to have the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their families. A necessary element of establishing Afghanistan as a state capable of defending its people and its institutions and policing its territory is to build an effective national security force. Much of the international effort and the effort of the Australian troops has been aimed at training the Afghan army and police.
Ensuring that the Afghan people succeed not only politically but also economically will assist in the battle against extremism. Australia’s Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force is supporting local communities with infrastructure projects, particularly in security, health, education and other essential services. I recall visiting the trade training centre that the Australian troops have provided for local people, encouraging young men of fighting age—and that can mean age 10 or 11 and above—to work at the trade training centre to gain skills that will enable them to help rebuild Afghanistan.
The Afghan government has had some success in its efforts to strengthen its security forces, and it has implemented programs in health and agricultural development. However, the Taliban is well aware that its chances of success are greatly improved if the Afghan government is weak. The aim of our commitment in Afghanistan must be to defeat the Taliban and to stabilise the country to prevent it from becoming a terrorist haven again. However, the military objectives must be supported by civil objectives in strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan government through progress on the security, political, governance and economic fronts so that the country can stand on its own.
When the 1,900 Dutch troops in Oruzgan province pulled out during the year, the coalition said that we were prepared to consider doing more if the nation’s military advisers thought there was a strategic sense and it was compatible with our other military commitments. Based on the reports that the coalition has received, there is concern amongst our troops in the field about resourcing issues, and it would appear that our resources are indeed stretched. The Prime Minister has already conceded in public statements that there may be a case for increased helicopter support, and we await the outcome of the government’s deliberations in that regard.
Let me conclude by reconfirming that the coalition supports a successful conclusion to our operations in Afghanistan. There is no concrete time limit on that task. The Obama administration has not declared, although some have verballed it, that United States troops will withdraw from mid-2011. That timetable is simply a notification that the United States aims to begin handing over security responsibility to the Afghan Army from July 2011. This will begin to allow for future troop withdrawals. However, it will be protracted. Indeed, our own commitment to training the Afghan Army’s 4th Brigade has been placed in a two- to four-year time frame by the government. The coalition stands behind this time frame as practical and reasonable. The sacrifice of our brave troops demands that. The memory of more than 100 Australians who have been killed by terrorists in recent years also demands that. There should be no precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan. To do so would be a grave strategic and tactical error, as the history books would surely record when this chapter is closed.