Thursday, 21 October 2010
I commend both speakers this morning on their contribution to this debate on the motion to take note of the Prime Minister’s statement about Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan. I also thank the Prime Minister for this important opportunity to debate the war in Afghanistan. This debate provides an important opportunity to spell out the key national interests for Australia at stake in this conflict. There can be no greater decision for any government than to put Australian men and women in harm’s way by committing them to an armed conflict. Any decision to ask our forces and other Australian personnel to risk their lives must always be an option of last resort taken only when all of the other alternatives have been exhausted. But there are times when our national security and our national interests demand such difficult decisions, and we face such a situation in Afghanistan today. Put simply, Australia has a key interest in preventing Afghanistan from re-emerging as a safe haven and a base for global terror groups.
This link between Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism to Australia is neither hypothetical nor imagined; it is real and it continues today. Since 2001, as we have heard in previous speeches, more than 100 Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks overseas, and, of course, countless other innocent civilians around the world have also been killed. Many of these attacks can be linked to Afghanistan and the safe haven it provided before the fall of the Taliban. In some cases, those who carried out these attacks received training and, in other cases, support from al-Qaeda and its allied groups. Most infamously, in 2002, the Bali bombings were financed by al-Qaeda and undertaken by Jemaah Islamiah, who had trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. These attacks, as we are aware, killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. Subsequent terror attacks—such as the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Indonesia, the Jakarta hotel bombings in 2003 and just 12 months ago at the Marriott Hotel, where we lost three lives, the second Bali bombings in 2005 and the 2008 attacks in Mumbai—killed even more Australians and, again, other innocent civilians from other countries.
In light of this terrible history, no responsible government could disregard the clear links between these horrific attacks against Australian citizens and terrorist safe havens in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. There is no doubt that the ability of terror organisations to exploit safe havens in Afghanistan has, as a result of the intervention, been severely curtailed, but we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. Australian forces have unquestionably played a vital role in maintaining pressure on terror networks and ensuring Afghanistan does not once again revert to being a source of support for these horrific terror attacks. In this way, the efforts of our troops have paid a real security dividend for Australia’s interests, but our success in degrading al-Qaeda and in denying them safe haven in Afghanistan is not a reason to abandon our mission. The latest assessments indicate that the main source of international terrorism, and the primary threat to Australia and our interests, continues to be from al-Qaeda, groups allied or associated with al-Qaeda, and others inspired by a similar extremist view of the world.
Australians have travelled to Afghanistan in the past for terrorist training and to fight, and even today we still see examples of Australians seeking to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan for that same purpose. If military and counterterrorism pressure in Afghanistan is withdrawn or reduced, al-Qaeda could resume using Afghanistan as a safe haven for planning terrorist operations. This of course would have serious implications for Australia’s national security. Quite simply, we cannot allow it to occur. It is not just the Australian government that holds this view; this assessment of the legality and the necessity of coalition efforts in Afghanistan is shared by the United Nations and the international community more broadly.
It was less than a decade ago, shortly after the September 11 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda, that the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1378. In this resolution the United Nations Security Council condemned the Taliban for allowing Afghanistan to be used as a base for the export of terrorism by al-Qaeda and by other terrorist groups. The United Nations Security Council also condemned the Taliban for providing safe haven to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and others associated with him. In the days immediately following the attacks, United Nations member states also condemned the attacks through a unanimous General Assembly resolution. The General Assembly called urgently for international cooperation to prevent and eradicate acts of terrorism. The resolution stressed that those responsibility for aiding, supporting or harbouring the perpetrators, organisers or sponsors of such acts would be held accountable for their actions.
In passing these two resolutions, the international community recognised that for many years al-Qaeda had possessed the freedom to plan and train for terrorist attacks with impunity within the borders of Afghanistan. The council condemned the Taliban regime that allowed this to occur. The Security Council’s continued support of the International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, and the contributions of 47 nations from around the world to their mission demonstrate that the international community remains committed to preventing Afghanistan from again being used as a training ground for terrorism. Most recently, NATO’s ISAF mandate was renewed by the Security Council in resolution 1943 of 13 October 2010. This authorisation from the Security Council and the consent, significantly, of the Afghan government provide the legal basis for the presence of Australian forces. It is important to recognise that the legal basis for Australian forces being in Afghanistan is in no doubt.
Australia recognises that military means alone will not be sufficient to bring long-term stability to Afghanistan. Civilian efforts to improve governance and economic development are also essential. Afghanistan has taken modern steps towards building civil institutions. There is a long way to go. But a new constitution enshrines human rights, including freedom of religion, and provides women with equal protection under the law. Importantly, the constitution also recognises an independent judiciary. Nevertheless, the challenges for Afghanistan’s law and justice sector remain profound. Considerable reform is required to institutionalise the rule of law and to ensure functioning and fair legal processes as well as to build the capacity of judicial and law enforcement authorities.
As the Afghan people work to rebuild their legal system, active support from countries such as Australia is absolutely crucial. The Australian government is currently considering options for capacity building in Afghanistan and as a first step it is envisaged that the Attorney-General’s Department will offer training to Afghani legal officials in order to strengthen legal responses to transnational crime. Assistance may also be offered to strengthen Afghan legislation relating to transnational crime and corruption and to train those involved in the law enforcement area, including prosecutors. Building a more effective law and justice system will be important to achieving a functioning and effective state in Afghanistan.
We should also not forget the role of Australian support in confronting Afghanistan’s narcotics trade, much of which can end up on the streets of our cities. Since 2007, AFP officers have assisted the Afghanistan National Police counternarcotics effort and this has led to a number of tangible counternarcotics gains. For example, in 2009-10, AFP officers supported the Afghan led major crime taskforce operations that resulted in the arrest of the Arghistan district Afghan national police chief for drug trafficking offences and contributed to the seizure of significant quantities of narcotics and firearms. This action, which was against a local police chief, confirms the intention to enforce the rule of law, which is that all will be held accountable, irrespective of the office that they may hold.
In debating our role in Afghanistan, we need to also consider the rights of the Afghan people. In particular, we cannot afford to forget the barbarous human rights record of the Taliban, both now and before Western intervention. Before its overthrow, the Taliban imposed an extreme form of sharia law on the people of Afghanistan, which severely curtailed the rights and liberties of its citizens and in particular women. Even out of power, the record of the Taliban remains appalling. Today in areas under their control the Taliban continues to curtail the rights of women, including denying them the fundamental rights of education, freedom of movement and political representation. Aside from women and those who defy their extreme version of Islam, the Taliban also continues to accelerate its ruthless war against political opponents. Amnesty International estimates that in the first half of this year the number of executions and assassination of civilians by the Taliban and other insurgent groups increased by over 95 per cent. Most of these people were executed or assassinated for supporting the government.
We must be frank, however, in admitting that since the fall of the Taliban human rights have not advanced as far as we may have wished and have strived for. Indeed, the human rights situation of many citizens, especially women, in some parts of Afghanistan remains absolutely and totally unacceptable. But progress has been made. For example, since 2001, Afghanistan has established a Ministry for Women’s Affairs and introduced a constitution that provides women with equal legal status to men and representation for women in parliament. Although there is considerable room for improvement and a long way to go, our presence in Afghanistan ensures that we are able to continue to exert pressure to improve conditions for women and human rights more broadly in that country.
In conclusion, the sacrifice of 21 Australian personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan weighs heavily on all members of parliament and indeed the Australian community generally. Afghanistan has endured decades of conflict and there is no easy solution to its many and deep-seated challenges. But walking away and neglecting our responsibilities to the Afghan people, as well as our national security, is not an option. There is a saying that, each time history repeats itself, the price goes up. In September 2001 the world witnessed the consequences of allowing Afghanistan to fester as a failed state. Neither Australia nor the international community can afford to make that mistake again.