House debates

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Ministerial Statements


10:40 am

Photo of Sussan LeySussan Ley (Farrer, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Childcare and Early Childhood Learning) Share this | Hansard source

Although I have no problem with the parliament debating Afghanistan, I note that this debate is taking place because of the government’s alliance deal with the Greens. I know, however, that most members will give strong support to the mission, its rationale and our troops in the field. However, the fact that without the Greens, who do not believe in Australia’s involvement, we would not be having this debate, in my opinion gives it a flavour that it should not have. I sincerely hope that the message that comes from this parliament is one of clear, strong support for Australia’s presence in Afghanistan.

Yesterday a couple in their 60s from a rural area in my electorate called in to see me in Parliament House and I explained that we were debating the subject of Afghanistan and asked them their views. They both expressed some doubt and uncertainty about Australian soldiers losing their lives in a war so remote for a cause not well explained. They did not say we should not be there but they did not seem convinced that we should. I believe this attitude sums up the views of a great many in my electorate of Farrer and underscores a point, which is that we have not explained well to people what the mission in Afghanistan is and why we are there. As casualties have begun to mount, the conflict has been attracting greater attention, and public opinion has begun to shift more decisively against Australia’s continuing participation. We must spell out more clearly the strategic rationale for Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. We are not arguing the case with sufficient conviction. The Australian people need to know what is at stake, because the steady decline in public support for the war is of concern.

Also important is the attitude of the Afghans to the foreign forces. Many Afghans view the presence of foreign forces as supporting President Karzai’s corrupt and dysfunctional government rather than making a difference to the lives of ordinary Afghans, most of whom are still poverty stricken. What Afghans need most is structural political reforms, institution building, strong central principles around which to rebuild their society and reconstruction to provide them with employment, improved living conditions, safety and security. It would be the best way to contain the Taliban’s resistance. Australia is in Afghanistan helping with this task.

The people in my electorate of Farrer have a long and strong association with the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, an association and pride that still flourishes today. Through Australia’s past engagements and conflicts—and now with our efforts in Afghanistan—the adjacent regional training facilities of Latchford Barracks at Bonegilla and the Blamey Barracks, Kapooka are preparing our young men and women to be ready if called upon to defend our national interests. I remind the House that early last year we had the opportunity to pay tribute to Trooper Mark Donaldson, who received the prestigious Victoria Cross—the first Australian in almost 40 years to be awarded the Commonwealth’s highest military honour for acts of courage performed in Afghanistan. Trooper Donaldson began his military training and career from Kapooka, just south of Wagga. Regularly from outside my office in Albury a bus leaves with new recruits to the Army, Navy and Air Force going to begin their military training. The dads look proud, the mums sometimes a little bewildered, trying to be strong, the girlfriends almost always in tears—as, I should say, are the mums in my office. But the new recruits look excited and determined and they are so clearly doing what they want to do. There are numerous stories of the courage and commitment from Australian military personnel from my area.

Can I also draw the House’s attention to a non-military example of Australia’s feelings toward this battle. I draw from a report in the local Albury newspaper, the Border Mail, from May of last year. It is the story of a 22-year-old former supermarket worker, Tim Stephens, who spent two months teaching in an Afghan school for poor children. A member of the local Wodonga District Baptist Church, Mr Stephens had developed a passion for Afghan people after reading a book written by a member of the Shelter for Life organisation, which has worked in the country for 25 years. He said:

The Afghan people have battled through droughts, civil wars, Soviet invasions, Taliban oppression and a backlash from the September 11 attacks, … (They) have no choice but to live a hard life. I guess I just wanted to help out in some way.

The Australian government describes Operation Slipper as: ‘the ADF’s contribution to the international coalition against terrorism. Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan is necessary to help establish democracy, to prevent a re-emergence of the country as a base for terrorism and to prevent it being taken over and controlled by drug cartels.’

The enemy in Afghanistan is the Taliban, and its reach is considerable. Units of the Taliban have been linked with militants in Pakistan’s Punjab province. The deadly assault in March 2009 in Lahore, Punjab’s capital, against the Sri Lankan cricket team, and the bombing in September 2008 of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the national capital, were two examples of the joint campaign. The hand of the Taliban can be felt further abroad, too. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a bomb in Times Square in May 2010, said the Pakistani Taliban had taught him how to make bombs.

Afghanistan produces more opium than any other country in the world, and the Taliban are widely believed to make money at virtually every stage of the trade. They run a sophisticated financial network to pay for their operations, raising hundreds of millions of dollars from the illicit drug trade, kidnappings, extortion and foreign donations. The fact that some consider foreign donations, rather than opium, to be the single largest source of cash for the Taliban indicates again their worldwide reach.

There are better cash crops then opium. Next month, raisins grown in the Parwan province will land on the shelves in Britain, and hopefully soon in Australia, under a brand that comes from an alliance between Afghan farmers and international aid organisations. There is evidence that the reliance on opium as part of the Afghan regional economy is being reduced. The marketing director of this enterprise said:

A country like that, that has been at war for 30 years, if you can bring calm and happiness to a few families’ lives and that can grow, why wouldn’t you want to do that?

We should consider the impact of the chaos in Afghanistan on Pakistan’s stability. The collapse of Pakistan into the hands of al-Qaeda would be a strategic disaster. Afghanistan might be an imperfect democracy but the fall of any democracy to terrorism would embolden extremism in Asia and elsewhere, to say nothing of the threat that would be generated by Pakistan’s nuclear warheads falling into the hands of terrorists.

There are reasons for optimism in Afghanistan, but the point that needs to be made is that the outcome of the war will almost certainly have a profound impact on the future stability of the whole south-west Asia region. The military, political and economic challenges to be overcome are formidable. They demand a long-term commitment by all those who have a strategic interest in the outcome. This certainly includes Australia and it is the reason the opposition strongly supports the government’s commitment.

We must prevent Afghanistan again becoming a safe haven for terrorism. The significant, dangerous and continuing linkages between the Taliban and al-Qaeda are a persistent threat to Western interests. We would be taking a massive strategic risk if the International Security Assistance Force were to leave Afghanistan without a high degree of confidence this enemy had been crushed.

In recent days there have been reports of talks to end the war in Afghanistan involving extensive, face-to-face discussions with Taliban commanders from the highest levels of the group’s leadership, who are secretly leaving their sanctuaries in Pakistan with the help of NATO troops. The talks have been held on several different occasions and appear to represent the most substantive effort to date to negotiate an end to the nine-year-old war. An Afghan with knowledge of the talks said:

These are face-to-face discussions … This is not about making the Americans happy or making Karzai happy. It’s about what is in the best interests of the Afghan people.

I have never worn the uniform of the Australian Army, Navy or Air Force. I am no expert on the conflict in Afghanistan. When I listen to the arguments about why we should or should not be in this war, I understand the sentiments that are being expressed from all sides about an issue that is so complex.

I mentioned earlier the bravery recognised of Trooper Mark Donaldson. But, as we have been reminded so recently, while we could rejoice in the exploits of this fine young Australian, in this same House just a few months ago we also rose to honour Sapper Darren James Smith, killed while part of an Australian dismounted patrol conducting operations in the Mirabad Valley region of the Oruzgan province. Like Trooper Donaldson, Sapper Smith also entered the military at Kapooka. Unlike Trooper Donaldson, Sapper Smith did not return—in life—from his duty in Afghanistan, but for me he does also return a hero.

This pair, along with the hundreds of other young trainees from my area, willingly forged themselves to be ready for active duty in fields such as Afghanistan. They do this for one reason: they care. They care about their country. They care about its future. They care enough to defend our right to be free—in some cases to the death. Today I salute and honour each of those 21 Australian soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan.

In the end, it comes down to the threat and the response to that threat. I believe that the threat posed by the regime in Afghanistan, its links with terrorist networks and its capability to destabilise the region and the world, has to be fought and defeated. Afghanistan has long been known as the graveyard of empires, a phrase often quoted but surely thought of much by those in the field on both sides. President Obama has remarked in relation to America’s commitment to Afghanistan: ‘You don’t muddle through the central front on terror.’ Neither should Australia.


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