Thursday, 21 October 2010
Sending our young men and women into harm’s way is one of the most important and challenging decisions a government ever has to make. This parliament is situated on an axis that ensures we are always in sight of the Australian War Memorial. There is no mistake in this, as it was intended that it be a reminder of the consequences of political decisions and that they should not be taken lightly. It is also a reminder that this nation has made great sacrifices throughout its history in the cause of peace and freedom. Previous generations of Australians have been tested in ways we can barely imagine today. There were times when the very existence of this nation was in question, when we had to steel ourselves against a steady drumbeat of defeat and setback, when it would have been so easy to succumb, to try and pretend that the isolation of our island home would somehow save us from extremism and evil or that others would come to our rescue without us having to make the sacrifices that we would ask of them.
Those generations did not succumb, they did not shirk; they kept faith with those who were asked and who volunteered to assume the greatest risks, and they did their bit to support the national effort. We venerate their fortitude and salute their service. But are we worthy of them? Are we made of the same stuff? Are we prepared to carry the torch they have passed to us with the same courage? This generation is facing tests that are forcing us to ask these questions. One of these tests is the threat of Islamist extremism.
I believe that Islam today is going through a period of ideological struggle not dissimilar to that experienced by Christianity during the Reformation, with a similarly tragic loss of life. One little understood feature of this struggle is that the victims of Islamist extremism have overwhelmingly been Muslims, although there have of course been countless tragic, outrageous and unacceptable losses borne by others. There may be some who think that we can hide from this threat or its consequences, but this is sadly delusional.
Our challenge is to encourage and promote the voices of moderate Islam, which are in truth the majority, both at home and abroad. At the same time we must confront and defeat the extremists by using all the elements of state and non-state power at our disposal. We are essentially engaged in a battle of ideas, key to which is maintaining the moral high ground. In this battle our chief weapons will be what is termed ‘soft power’—promoting interfaith dialogue, reducing sources of grievance, advancing education. This last element is extremely vital, as we are not really engaged in a war on terror at present but a war on ignorance. Where ignorance flourishes, the seeds of Islamist extremism grow most plentifully. It is no accident that in 2008, when the Taliban controlled the Swat valley in Pakistan, the first thing they did was blow up 100 schools and replace them with radicalising madrasahs. They know knowledge is their enemy.
The problem of Islamist extremism becomes most severe when such forces have secured the resources, machinery and possibilities of a state. Where these extremists are forced to operate on the margins, their potential for causing harm is much more limited. This is the key to the challenge to us posed by Afghanistan. Once the Taliban had won control of most of Afghanistan it was not only free to pursue horrific domestic policies based on its own interpretation of Islam but it became the international epicentre of Islamist terrorism. Principal among these was of course al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was able to attain a level of organisational sophistication, in the space and state support that was provided by the Taliban, which they could never achieve elsewhere. For those who say that al-Qaeda can and does operate in other disrupted or poorly governed spaces in Somalia, Pakistan or Yemen, this may be true, but these locations in no way offer what al-Qaeda enjoyed in Afghanistan until 2001. Between 1997 and 2001 al-Qaeda was able to operate a conventional battle formation, the 055 Brigade of around 2,000 effectives, which served as shock troops for the Taliban but which also formed the strategic reserve for al-Qaeda’s terrorist network.
Through the opportunities provided by the freedom it had in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was able to establish an extensive global financial network that also enabled it to exercise effective control over the Taliban. This financial resource provided the funding for operations such as the 9/11 attack. Al-Qaeda was also able to establish an extensive terrorist training network in Afghanistan, with thousands passing through these facilities. This training consisted of all the ideological, technical, logistical and organisational skills a modern terrorist could need and was vital in underpinning the related terrorist capability throughout our region, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jemaah Islamiah, to name a couple. We know that al-Qaeda was also using its opportunities in Afghanistan to experiment with and develop biological and chemical weapons to enable it to perpetrate ever-escalating levels of slaughter on the West. We cannot allow the circumstances to ever arise again where a terrorist organisation can have at its disposal the resources and opportunities of a state, and this is the risk we run if we do not maintain our support for the international effort in Afghanistan.
And let us not forget the horror of the Taliban regime itself and the atrocities Taliban insurgents still inflict. From the moment they seized power, a brutal, medieval reign of terror and ignorance descended on the country. Summary processes which were a mockery of justice were followed by hangings, shootings, amputations and stonings. Women were prohibited from working or gaining an education, forced to wear burqas and denied the most fundamental of human rights. Because all women were withdrawn from the education system, this resulted in the loss of 70 per cent of the teachers, and so a generation of Afghan children have missed a basic education and the human capital of the country has thereby been crippled. The Taliban were responsible for vandalism on a massive scale of the cultural heritage of Afghanistan and the world through the irrational destruction of the centuries-old Bamiyan buddhas and hundreds of other treasures besides. The massacre of thousands occurred in places like Mazar-e-Sharif and Yakaolang, while large numbers of women were abducted, forcibly married, raped or sold into sexual slavery by Taliban fighters.
This was the regime that promoted the development of the narcotics industry that is plaguing the streets of our cities, with estimates that they were supplying up to 90 per cent of the world’s heroin production. Our continuing effort in Afghanistan carries with it the hope that this will at least be much reduced, with transition plans for the farmers of the country and the cessation of the dependence of the state and warlords on this industry of death and social devastation.
It also never ceases to amaze me that those who are quite rightly passionate in the defence of asylum seekers from Afghanistan are not prepared to extend their compassion to the people who remain. Are not the women and children of Afghanistan deserving of our best efforts to prevent a return to the brutalisation of the Taliban years? The silence of some activists against Islamist extremism shocks me, as this extremism should be total anathema to the agenda of liberals and social democrats. Granted, Afghanistan still has a long way to go along the reconstruction path and the assurance of fundamental human rights, but it is light years in advance of what was occurring before 2001. It should also be well understood in the context of our concern over the flow of asylum seekers from Afghanistan at the moment that, should the country descend back into chaos or Taliban control, we would need to brace ourselves against a much larger human wave, where no doubt further lives would be lost at sea.
Another critical consideration is the impact the disintegration of the situation in Afghanistan could have for the broader region. Already it is well understood that the Afghanistan problem is closely related to the situation in Pakistan, and we very recently experienced the advance of Taliban and extremist elements towards Islamabad in 2009, which was thankfully thwarted. Should the Taliban regain Afghanistan and facilitate the takeover of Pakistan by extremist forces, the implications would be enormous. As it is a nuclear armed state, one can imagine the tension that this would cause in India, the region’s other nuclear armed state. The threat of a wider war in our region would deeply affect Australia. There would also be bleed-out destabilisation occurring in other Central Asian nations, widening the human and economic consequences impacting on us.
Our presence in Afghanistan could not be founded on a sounder basis of legitimacy. We are part of an international community effort which goes well beyond the military contribution of the 46 nations whose forces are on the ground sharing the risks with us. The mission is underpinned by UN Security Council resolutions and a clear basis of self-defence arising from the horrendous assault on the United States on 9-11, which killed thousands of innocents including Australian citizens. It is not just our alliance with the United States, though, that is at stake in Afghanistan but the future of NATO and the ability of the international community to stand firm in the face of the Islamist extremism. Signs of weakness in this broader alliance of democracies will only encourage the extremists.
This is not to say that we should be offering a blank cheque of support and that, if the mission were clearly headed for strategic failure or the governance and rule-of-law situation in Afghanistan were proving utterly repugnant to Australian values, we should stay regardless. That is not what the government is asserting. We have formed our view based on Defence advice, observation on the ground and close consultation with our coalition partners. From this we have formed the view that progress is being made, although this is not uniform across the country or across all aspects. It also does not mean that the risk of strategic failure is not still there or that progress is inevitable.
Discussions about strategy and methods will continue, but the overall basic concepts underpinning the effort are now well accepted and are being pursued. These include providing the surge of troops necessary to establish a secure space so that good governance and the rule of law can develop. It also involves reorienting the focus of the military forces to understand that protection of the civilian population is the centre of gravity and that we cannot kill our way to success. Key good governance and rule-of-law issues are also finally receiving the attention they deserve, as the success of this mission is at its heart mostly dependent on social, economic and political factors. It is precisely to address these key dimensions of our operations that this government has established the Asia Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence. The centre is proving, as it continues to mature, to be a vital mechanism in refining the whole-of-government and NGO effort in stabilisation operations and disaster response.
The Australian effort in Afghanistan has achieved much since 2005. This includes standing up education, health and trade-training facilities; providing critical aviation support to the ISAF coalition; shouldering much of the security heavy lifting in Oruzgan through our Special Operations Task Group; providing key military staff positions and civilian experts for mission-critical coalition roles; and primarily now providing the mentoring and training support to the 4th ANA Brigade. This last is the most critical from the military perspective. Ultimately our mission is to make ourselves redundant, not create continuing dependency. We must therefore build the Afghan capacity to provide their own security. In relation to claims that we should be sending more troops, it should be noted that these assertions have not been informed by the situation on the ground. It should also be recognised that there comes a point where a continuing and overbearing presence of foreign troops can become counterproductive. While the vast majority of Afghans, estimated at around 82 per cent, do not want a return to the Taliban and continue to broadly support the international military presence, this will have a use-by date.
In terms of the civil aspects of our effort in Oruzgan, and noting my reference to this being a war against ignorance, we have gone from almost no child receiving an education to numbers now having risen towards 50,000. This is the most pleasing aspect of all we have achieved so far. NATO recently reported that in 2002 nine per cent of Afghans had access to health care. Today that figure is 85 per cent. Afghan women hold almost a quarter of the seats in parliament, in contrast to being barely visible under the oppressive Taliban rule. The number of teachers has almost doubled since 2002.
The Afghan National Army has expanded to 134,000 and continues to improve in capability and expand in size. The Afghan National Police has now grown to 109,000, and our mentoring and training effort provided by the AFP and outlined by Minister O’Connor is one of the most vital aspects of our work. In April this year the Special Operations Task Group supported a community-led push to expel Taliban insurgents from the town of Gizab, north of the Chora valley. This was a clear indication that the insurgents are not welcomed by the population at large. Fighting side by side, the people of Gizab, the Afghan National Security Forces and Australian Special Forces troops pushed the insurgents out of the town.
I understand what we are asking of our men and women in Afghanistan and their families. I have seen the devastation of war in Somalia, Bosnia, Timor-Leste and Iraq, watched men die, lost friends and washed their blood from my uniform. I have shed tears over broken bodies and, together with coalition colleagues in recent times, tried to console families. I do not support the continuation of our commitment in Afghanistan lightly. If you were to ask the troops themselves, they would tell you that they think they are making progress, they want us to keep faith with them, as do the families that I have spoken to. We should not leave Afghanistan because it is hard. We are in Afghanistan because our national interests are engaged and because it is the right thing to do. What the government has outlined is not a prescription for a blank cheque but, as things stand at this moment, we believe it is worth our perseverance, and persevere we must.
Debate (on motion by Mr Forrest) adjourned.