House debates

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Distinguished Visitors

4:00 pm

Photo of Bernie RipollBernie Ripoll (Oxley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I want to start by clearly stating that I support our Australian troops in Afghanistan; I support the work they are doing. I have great confidence in their role. And I know that every other member of parliament in their own way supports our troops. People might have different outlooks as to how that is represented, but I know that is the case. We wish them all well. We wish all of them a speedy and a safe return home, as I know their families do.

It is great to have the opportunity to have this debate in the House, but the reality is that, over the past nine years, there have been unlimited opportunities for debate on Afghanistan in this place—opportunities in the address-in-reply, adjournment debates, grievance motions, private members’ business and 90-second statements, and in related bills in terms of defence and foreign affairs. There is no question that this debate is important. But let us not be mistakenly thinking that this is somehow the only debate or the first opportunity for one. There have been countless and unlimited opportunities for any member who has wanted to express their view on this particular conflict over the past nine years to do so. That does not mean that this particular debate is not important, because it is important. But the debate should be taken in context—in the context of the work of our Australian troops and in the context of the previous nine years.

Our troops are in Afghanistan, they have been there for quite some time, and they may be there for quite some time to come. Nor is it, I believe, the place of any member or senator in these chambers to express views that in some way take away from our troops—and I say that from the perspective of someone who is not an expert. I am not an expert; I do not know that anyone in this place truly is an expert. It is very hard to be expert on these matters without either having been there or having devoted many, many years to these particular issues. I do understand the difference though. Everyone has a personal view, or an electorate view that represents their constituency, and I believe very strongly in members and senators taking the opportunity in this place to express those views fully and openly, whether those views be their own or representative views from their area.

I think it is important to recognise what our involvement over the past nine years has actually been, because it appears to me, from reading and listening to some of the debate, that there may be some confusion. In October 2001, an Australian Special Forces Task Force was deployed to Afghanistan. This was in direct response to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Afghanistan was being used at that point as a safe haven for al-Qaeda. From December 2002 to September 2005, there were no Australian units deployed in Afghanistan. From March 2006, two Chinook helicopters were sent to support the Special Forces Task Force. In August 2006, the first of four reconstruction task forces were deployed in Oruzgan province. They worked on security and reconstruction under the Netherlands-led task force in Oruzgan. In April 2007, we sent in a Special Operations Task Force to enhance security and to disrupt Taliban operations. From August 2007 to July 2009, the ADF Control and Reporting Centre was deployed to Kandahar airfield to assist in managing airspace. In October 2008, the first of two Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force crews deployed to play a new role in mentoring support to the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army. In May 2009, we sent in a mentoring and reconstruction task force with increased and additional support for mentoring, security and engineering elements, and in July we sent a further 120 personnel to provide further security during the Afghan presidential elections. In February of this year, we sent a further mentoring task force, replacing the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force, containing additional operational mentor and liaison teams. These are really important events. These are really important parts of our contribution to the coalition of forces in Afghanistan. It is important work and should be recognised as such.

A question, and an obvious one, is: why are we there? What role do we play? Well, Australia has two national interests in Afghanistan. One is to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists—a real possibility, and one that we should fight against. The second is to stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies, our friends, the United States, and honour our alliance commitments to a whole range of other nations.

Australia went to Afghanistan directly in response to the September 11 attacks, to support our friends and to support the work that was being done globally. Al-Qaeda was dealt a severe blow, but it has remained resilient. Terrorism is still with us. But we should not be deterred from the work that we have begun and the support that our troops bring to the important role being carried out by a coalition of many nations.

In our current role, Australia has provided 1,550 personnel to Operation Slipper, part of our contribution to the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. Our goal in Afghanistan is to enable transition—transition to peace, and transition to proper government and governance. Our goal is also to prepare the government of Afghanistan to take the lead in and responsibility for its own security. We do not want to be there beyond what is necessary, and we should enable the Afghan government to take control of its own security so that our troops can return home. I do not know that anyone could disagree with that.

Australia has a key role in providing training and mentoring, particularly to the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army. This can only be a good thing. It is something that is supported and it is an important task. It is anticipated that this may take two to four years, but it could take longer. I do not set a time frame. I am not an expert in terms of a day, a date, a month or a year. I know that in these circumstances, when there is a conflict of this magnitude, that time lines are dangerous instruments. We need to be there until we have completed our mission, until our job is done. As well as front-line ADF personnel, Australia has provided a number of other personnel. We are there fighting a battle on many fronts. We have provided expert officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. AusAID are focusing on health, education, agriculture, water and basic infrastructure projects. The Australian Federal Police have been there to help train and mentor the Afghan National Police in Oruzgan, and the Australian Defence Force has managed work teams and trade training schools, giving young men in Oruzgan new skills to keep them occupied but also help them rebuild their country and stay out of the grasp of the insurgents. These are all good things. They are things that our troops and our officials are doing in this country.

We need to acknowledge, though, that there has been a cost. No war comes without cost. Australians in Afghanistan are doing a very dangerous job. There is cost in terms of human lives, and we have heard many people speak in this place of the 21 lost lives of brave young men who have made and paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country doing something that they believed in, something that we as a government ask of them. We ought to give them and their families every possible support that we can. Of course, on Monday we also learnt that there were four more Australians who had been wounded, and we hope for their speedy recovery. There has also been a financial cost; this needs to be acknowledged. To date, it stands at $6.1 billion, but you have to take all of these costs into context and ask yourself the broader question, which is: what is the alternative cost of sitting back and doing nothing? What is the alternative cost to us, to the world and to that particular region?

We are making progress. I know that we read reports of the disasters, of problems continuing and of not having necessarily won the war, but progress is being made. It is good progress but it will take time. Our primary mission of training and mentoring of the Afghan National Army is on track, and it is a job that we are doing well. The 4th Brigade recently completed resupply operations between Tarin Kowt and Kandahar. They have also provided security for parliamentary elections without direct support from Australian troops. The coalition is taking back areas such as Gizab and Mirabad Valley that were long held by the Taliban, and high-tempo special forces operations continue to place pressure on the Taliban and insurgent leaders. There are a whole range of other successes in terms of us making progress in Afghanistan. We do not want to be there, I believe, beyond what is necessary for us to achieve our goal and our mission.

I started by saying that this was an important debate, that I support the troops and that I believe that there ought to be a place, there ought to be a right, in this House for people to voice their views, whatever those views might be. I think that is a healthy part of our democracy in terms of these debates, but it ought not be taken out of context. People ought not try to make this debate into something which it is not or give the impression that it is the first opportunity or that somehow this is about whether we stay or do not stay. This is not a debate about that, no matter how the question is framed. I have great respect for everybody’s personal views in this place, but their personal views may not be the representative view of their electorates, the Australian constituency or, for that matter, what needs to be done, rather than what some people would like done. There are often difficult decisions for governments to make, and that is why governments are elected. The most difficult of decisions is that of a government to send its own troops to war. These are not decisions that are made lightly. I remain firm in the view that, in the end, that responsibility and that decision rests with the Prime Minister, it rests with the executive, it rests with the government of the day and it remains the responsibility of the government of the day, whatever colour that government might be. It is a very important responsibility, one that should not be taken lightly.

We should also not lose sight as to why we are there, what we are trying to achieve and how that will be achieved. We will play our role. It is a significant role. Nonetheless, it is a part of a broader coalition, part of a team effort in Afghanistan to, in the end, bring about peace and a form of parliamentary democracy—whatever that may look like in different parts of the world—in particular, in Afghanistan. Most importantly for me, it is to give freedom to the people of Afghanistan, people who have suffered for many, many decades. I do not think it is fair to compare what is happening today and the role that our troops, or the coalition forces, are playing with past invasions or other conflicts that have taken place, particularly in Afghanistan. For me, the conflict in that country is not so much about territorial borders, lines on maps about geography. It is much more about ideology. It is much more about a terrorist force—whether it be al-Qaeda, the Taliban or other extremist and terrorist organisations around the world—who have no borders, who use particular places of safe haven to train, to organise and to inflict pain on innocent civilians all around the world.

Much of that we know from what has happened in the United States, but Australia has not been alone. We know of the attacks directly on Australian citizens. We are not in this alone. We are not somehow extracted out from the things that happened globally. We are not there as some sort of token force. We are there because we have a real contribution to make. I think that is the case and that is what we are making. I believe that Australians have a right to voice their support, their opposition and their views about how long any country should remain in a war and the reasons for that. But, in the end, the responsibility rests with government. In the end, government must make that ultimate decision: the Prime Minister, the executive, the cabinet.

The question of going to war cannot, in my view, be a position that is debated in the House, where it is left to individual members of the House to decide whether we go into war or not go into war, or to decide whether we stay or whether we leave. These are not matters of conscience in the same sense that you would have a parliamentary debate on legislation in other areas. These are much higher order principles that are couched in the right framework. Today they remain so, and I support those frameworks that have stood the test of time and ought to remain. I am confident of the ability of the government of the day and the Prime Minister of the day, whoever that might be and whatever government that might be, to make the right decision on behalf of all Australians. That is why Australians elect a democratic government to act on their behalf and to do these things right.

There are many questions in terms of our engagement and the solutions, and people will sometimes talk about solutions. But I have to say that, for all the debate and all the great contributions, and the respect that I have for the members and senators who have contributed to this debate, the central question remains: when do we leave Afghanistan? I am afraid I do not know the answer to that question. I am not sure that anyone else does either. My view is that we leave when we believe our mission is complete—and we ought to give enough space for our military and our troops to decide, in terms of capacity and the form that the involvement takes once they have been deployed—it is not necessarily always the case for parliamentarians to—(Time expired)


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