House debates

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Distinguished Visitors

5:22 pm

Photo of Sharon GriersonSharon Grierson (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

It is a good thing to debate our military and civilian involvement in Afghanistan. I welcome this opportunity to put forward my views and the views shared with me by the people I represent.

At the forefront of every Australian’s thinking about the war in Afghanistan must be the tragic loss of 21 brave men who lost their lives serving in the Australian Defence Force, men who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the beliefs and interests of our nation. In the nine long years that we have been engaged in Afghanistan, longer than our eight-year involvement in the war in Vietnam, 186 Australian Defence Force personnel have been wounded. With ten deaths since June, we have shared the grief and intimate loss of families, friends and comrades at funerals held in our communities. It has been a particularly sad time. For those most affected by this terrible loss, it is important that we acknowledge these events, extend our sympathy, express our gratitude and provide some serious reflections on the events that have transpired since our involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

In the community, the debate centres on several key questions: why are we in Afghanistan, what is our purpose or mission, how will we know when the task is done so that we can bring our troops home and what legacy will we leave the people of Afghanistan? There is no doubt that, in the minds of most Australians, our involvement in Afghanistan stems from the terrorist attacks that devastated New York nine years ago—an event indelibly imprinted on the psyche of the civilized world. Good people who saw that devastation wondered at the minds that could so coldly and clinically cause the deaths of their fellow men and women and bring about misery for so many more. Good people will always, and should always, take a stand against such evil, and that is what occurred.

In response to the September 11 attacks, the UN Security Council in December 2001 passed resolution 1386, legally authorising an international security force in Afghanistan—a mandate that has been renewed ten times since then, most recently on 13 October 2010 for a further twelve months, relying upon UN certainty that the situation in Afghanistan still posed a significant threat to international peace and security. At that time, the United Nations sanctioned this war as just and called upon all nations to contribute to the International Security Assistance Force in partnership with the Afghan government. Along with 46 other states, including 19 non-NATO members, we acceded to this call.

It is worth noting that this was in distinct contrast to the Howard government’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. That war was not supported by the United Nations and it was not supported by the Australian people. The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, subsequently declared the US led war on Iraq to be ‘illegal’ and contrary to the text and spirit of the United Nations founding charter. I think that President Obama encapsulated the sentiment of the Australian people well when he said: ‘I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.’ That is why we opposed the Iraq war when we were in opposition, and why we committed to withdrawing our troops from Iraq at the 2007 election. And fortunately we delivered on that promise.

Whilst I do think it is important to be guided by the UN Security Council positions, we have a responsibility to always test for ourselves the tenets that underpin the UN position against our own knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan and against what we assess to be in the best interest of both the Afghan people and our own serving personnel. I hope that we will always get the balance right between self-determination and supporting our international alliances. I hope that we get that right in Afghanistan. But by joining the ISAF we committed to eradicating the threat to international peace and security posed by Afghanistan. As to the nature of that threat, clearly the control the Taliban gained in most of Afghanistan had made that country a safe haven for terrorists. Taliban control of people, resources and vast spaces put Afghanistan at the centre of Islamic extremist terrorism. This control provided the freedom for al-Qaeda to establish an extensive global financial network and an extensive terrorist training network in Afghanistan.

In my electorate of Newcastle we have felt keenly the consequences of that successful incubation of terrorism. On 1 October 2005, 22 people were killed and 84 injured in a terrorist bombing in Bali by individuals with links to Afghanistan. Three people from Newcastle were killed and nine more injured. Many more were traumatised, left confused and bereft. Two young men face life without their parents; a family faces life without its mother, wife and sister; and too many families battle with physical and emotional disabilities that impact still on their daily existence. I applaud their courage. They and I remain determined to protect others from similar terrorist attacks.

At a personal level, although my values always drive me to oppose war, my experience with the innocent victims of terrorism insists that we do need to take a stand with our international friends against terrorism. We cannot forget the atrocities of the Taliban, not least the hangings, shootings, amputations and stonings. We cannot forget the brutality of this regime. I do not want to see al-Qaeda re-establish their hold in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, and I want our efforts to signal to al-Qaeda that there will be no comfort for them there. The best way, of course, to remove that comfort is to strengthen the ability of the Afghan people to defend themselves against the Taliban and resist the presence of terrorist networks on their soil. Although some say al-Qaeda has found new homes to sustain their networks in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, and that our efforts in Afghanistan will inevitably fail, there is now indeed a greater global effort to combat terrorism wherever it emerges.

Recently I spent three weeks in Europe. I had not anticipated reading every day in the newspapers—in Italy, France and Ireland—accounts of terrorist activity uncovered or of attempts foiled by the international antiterrorism effort. We are much more discreet in Australia and some would say that we are much more sheltered in Australia. It was a salient reminder that there is quite a way to go in eradicating extremist motivated terrorism from our world and that every day we should acknowledge the success of our own Australian Federal Police and security agencies for the part that they play in keeping us safe.

Returning though to Afghanistan and the other reason why we are there, Article VI of the ANZUS treaty, invoked by then Prime Minister John Howard in October 2001 after the September 11 attacks, committed Australian military personnel to Afghanistan in support of our alliance with the United States of America. It has always been my belief that the alliance with the US is one based on honest negotiation, not blind allegiance. I respect the significance of the US alliance but I am not a supporter of the pre-emptive warfare stance adopted by John Howard in 2001 and would always hope that our decisions in these matters will be more informed and more considered than just that presumption. I am also sure that America will decide its path regarding withdrawal from Afghanistan, and I think that we should do the same.

That brings me to the mission we face in Afghanistan and how will we know when the task is done so we can bring our troops home. Veterans in my electorate of the Vietnam War have warned that we need to get out, that we should bring the troops home. They warn that we risk re-running the Vietnam War, that we do not always know who the combatants are and who the civilians are. Others are equally worried about Pakistan, citing the need to counter violent extremism in that country to ensure regional stability. On Monday, I note, the Melbourne Age reported that 49 per cent of Australians oppose our involvement in Afghanistan, while 45 per cent support our ongoing intervention there. This war has divided the community, but no matter what, as a party, as a government and as a people, we must remain committed to supporting our troops. Although we might frequently disagree in this parliament, each holding different views as to the legitimacy or the worth of our involvement in this war, we remain united in support of our troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

The Australian task force in Afghanistan is concentrated in the Oruzgan province in southern Afghanistan, working in partnership with forces from America, New Zealand, Singapore and Slovakia. Oruzgan is one of the least developed provinces in Afghanistan, and in this region the literacy rate among women is less than one per cent. Among men, it is only 10 per cent. This is in part because the Taliban prohibited women from working and they were withdrawn from the education system, with a resulting loss of 70 per cent of Afghan teachers. In areas under their control, the Taliban continue to restrict the rights of women, including their rights to freedom of movement, to political representation and to education. The implications of these policies, sadly, will outlast all of us in this current parliament. A generation of Afghan children will have grown up brutalised by this regime and lacking any education. Yet experience demonstrates that empowering women empowers communities.

Our mission in Oruzgan is tripartite. First, we are providing training and mentoring to the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade, to allow them to assume responsibility for the province’s security. Second, we are building the capacity of the Afghan National Police to assist with civil policing functions. Finally, we are helping the Afghan government to better deliver core services and create an environment in which the Afghan people can prosper socially, culturally and economically. In each of these areas we have already made progress. The 4th Brigade is increasingly expanding its operations in key population centres in Oruzgan, creating a safer environment in which the Afghan people can live and work. In partnership with civilian volunteers, our forces have assisted the Afghan government to create a more prosperous society. Since 2002, economic growth has averaged 11 per cent. Basic health services are now available to 85 per cent of the Afghan population, rather than the 10 per cent of the population under the Taliban regime. Since 2001, and I think this is particularly important for the future prosperity and stability of Afghanistan, primary school enrolments have increased from one million to around six million, of which two million are girls—girls who were prohibited from receiving an education under the Taliban. This has only been possible because of the presence of our forces in Afghanistan and because of our International Development Assistance Program administered by AusAID. Through AusAID we have provided $120 million in 2010-11 to support education, health, infrastructure and good governance. This is in addition to the more than $82 million that we already provided between 2007 and 2009.

The achievements listed provide some concrete measures of what we have achieved and put a more human face to Australia’s contribution. If those achievements are sustained by the Afghan people when we leave Afghanistan then that will be a legacy of which we can all be proud. But it must be asked: will the legacy that we leave to the Afghan people also be more civilian deaths than all terrorist attacks combined? If that were to be the only legacy then we would have visited upon the people of Afghanistan a much greater tragedy. General David Petraeus, the Commander of ISAF, has said that ‘every Afghan death diminishes our cause’, and I agree.

It remains my hope, and I believe the hope of all Australians, that we will succeed in bringing a higher degree of security and civility to the people of Afghanistan so that they experience safety and peace in their daily lives, providing for them the necessary foundation for achieving their individual and shared aspirations. Then we can bring our troops home with the knowledge that they and their fallen comrades completed their missions and served well the interests of the people of Afghanistan and Australia. That outcome would be the direct result of the efforts of ISAF to banish the insurgents and increase the capacity of the Afghan military and police to resist the rise or return of those insurgents. But perhaps heightened security and safety will arise from an accommodation struck between the Afghan government, the Taliban and partners to the UN Security Council, given that these talks are now underway. If that is the case, we must prepare ourselves because it will hardly look like democracy as we know it, but it will represent an increased degree of self-determination. As we saw from the parliamentary elections held in Afghanistan last month, democracy is terribly fragile, relying on the consent of the governed.

We have an obligation to the Australian people to fight terrorism at home and overseas. It is not easy, but we came to government in 2007 to make hard decisions about who we are as a nation. At home, here in Australia, we must continue to be an open, accepting and welcoming country, with strong international and intercultural ties. The threat of terrorism should not, and will not, diminish the resolve of this country to the values of freedom, liberty, equality and democracy, and will not diminish our commitment to a multicultural, tolerant Australia. I think it was Martin Luther King Jr who said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and that is the dilemma we face. We need to ensure that our region is stable, free from the threat of terrorism and just. May we continue to succeed in Afghanistan so we can plan the withdrawal of our troops and bring them home safely.


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