Wednesday, 27 October 2010
At the commencement of my contribution to this debate, I would like to place on record my thanks to the Prime Minister for her statement on Afghanistan and for committing to make a similar statement to this House each year that we are involved in the Afghan conflict. The worrying thing about this commitment is that the Prime Minister expects the war to continue and that Australian troops will be fighting there for some time to come. I would like to place on record my thanks to our Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Their commitment to our country makes us all proud. Our troops have my full support, and I am not questioning our alliance with the US. However, I question our involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan.
I ask myself: how has our presence in Afghanistan made either it or Australia a safer place? I am afraid the answer is that it has not. Civilians are still being killed, wounded and traumatised. Australian soldiers are dying. Twenty-one young Australians have lost their lives and a further 156 soldiers have been wounded. Even more have suffered trauma and psychological damage. I put on record that I do not apologise for the position that I am taking in this debate. But in taking this position I must say that I fully support our troops and the veterans who will come back to Australia after this war.
The conflict has not led to a decline in militant Islamism, nor less death and destruction. Rather, it has led to more civilian deaths and more devastation in a country that struggles to feed its people and has the worst child and maternal health outcomes in the world. It remains a country where 28 per cent of the population are illiterate and where corruption is rampant. An article by John Kerin in the Australian Financial Review on 19 October this year highlighted the inconsistencies in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. He pointed out that the Karzai government is one of the most corrupt governments on earth and that the only more venal government is Somalia’s. I question that we are sending our troops to protect such a government. I ask: is it worthy of our protection? I question a government that oversees state organised drug-running, fraud and bribery and one that reportedly maintains power through election fraud and violence. I refer to that same article, John Kerin’s article in the Financial Review, where he states:
An election in late September was riddled with fraud in up to one-third of Afghan provinces. Both Hamid Karzai and his brother Ahmed Wali were accused of trying to fix the result.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups made good on their promise to disrupt the elections by mounting rocket attacks and intimidating election workers.
The attacks led to the closure of 1000 of the 6000 polling stations.
I feel that that really puts into question the level of democracy that exists in Afghanistan. It would appear that it is a government that mirrors the Taliban and that Australians are involved in a conflict that is propping up a corrupt government to prevent another corrupt government coming to power, in the hope that this corrupt government is less inclined to direct terrorism towards Australia and our allies.
I question whether it is worth the loss of life, the devastation and the destruction in a country that has a long history of being plagued by conflict and civil war. Afghanistan is a dysfunctional society. Our intervention has not changed this, nor will it in the future. I ask: are the lives of the Afghani people any better as a result of our involvement in the war in Afghanistan? The answer is no. Is the world a safer place? The answer is no. Is there less likelihood of a terrorist attack? The answer is no. If this cannot be achieved through the conflict, how then can it be achieved? I strongly believe that it can be best achieved by winning the hearts and minds of the Afghani people, by improving literacy, ensuring better health outcomes, addressing the issue of food shortages—by spending money on aid, not bullets.
Australia’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan commenced in October 2001 with the deployment of a special forces task force which was withdrawn in November 2002. Up until 2005, Australia maintained a relatively small presence in Afghanistan. Since 2005, however, troop numbers have been boosted, and currently we have almost 1,500 soldiers deployed under the International Security Assistance Force. The sacrifice of all these soldiers is to be admired, with special thought given to the 21 Australian soldiers who, tragically, have been killed in the conflict.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 6.47 pm to 7.21 pm
The terrorist attacks on September 11 were a terrible tragedy, a horrible event that shocked the international community. The response by the United States was a natural path in retaliation against the deaths of 3,000 American citizens. Australians will remember the horror of the Bali attack in 2002 and the many Australians who were killed there. However, the legality of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is questionable. I refer to a statement by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, where they say that ‘central to just war theory is the protection of innocent citizens, the preservation of life and the supremacy of human dignity, in addition to a high probability of success and that the use of force is the absolute last resort’.
The war is in its ninth year and 2010 is arguably the most violent year yet with the growing Australian death toll. Abandoning the Afghan people would only prove doubts over the legality of the war true; however, if Australia were to formulate a timely and reasonable exit strategy to withdraw its troops, we would not be abandoning the Afghan people but quitting as some contributors to this debate have suggested.
According to a study commissioned by the Australian Council for International Development Afghanistan working group, the Australian defence budget at approximately $1.2 billion is estimated to be 10 times that of the Australian aid budget. By withdrawing the troops Australia would not be giving up; it would be an opportunity to expand our foreign aid efforts to Afghanistan and the region while not putting any more Australian lives at risk. In particular there would be an opportunity to support the cause of non-government organisations like Caritas Australia who are known for their close relationship with the Afghan communities. The Australian Council for International Development has also called for a decoupling of Australian aid and defence spending. On 1 October 2001, in his address to a special week-long session of the General Assembly on terrorism, United Nations then Secretary-General Kofi Annan said:
As we summon the will and the resources to succeed in the struggle against terrorism, we must also care for all the victims of terrorism, whether they are the direct targets or other populations who will be affected by our common effort. That is why I have launched an alert to donors about the potential need for much more generous humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
During 2008 the life expectancy at birth in Afghanistan was 44 years. This is close to half that of Australia. The war has contributed to this low life expectancy. According to recent United Nations reports to the UN in New York by the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations, the civilian death toll is up by 31 per cent this year due to an increase in insurgent attacks. Indeed much of the death toll is unknown and will never be known. It is impossible to come to an exact figure of how many people have lost their lives, but estimates suggest a figure in the vicinity of 44,000—and they are civilians.
Afghanistan ranks 181 out of 182 countries in the UN Human Development Index as corruption runs rife within the Karzai government, highlighted by the outcome of the recent election which I touched on earlier. The continuing deployment in Afghanistan is often justified on the grounds that it is supporting stable and democratic government. I question whether the Karzai government could be described as either. All reports show that it is a government that is rife with corruption and that it is perpetuating many of the problems that have been long seeded in the Afghan society. Al-Qaeda is virtually non-existent in Afghanistan in 2010, and with the diminishing influence of al-Qaeda on the Taliban it is time for diplomacy and to negotiate with the Taliban. This will help end the bloodshed, will actively promote the cause of democracy in the region and end the culture of corruption within the Afghan government.
The Australian community is becoming more and more sceptical about our prospects of success and increasingly doubtful about the merit of our involvement in Afghanistan. If our constituents do not support putting Australian lives at risk, we should endeavour to bring our troops home safely. The Netherlands left Afghanistan earlier this year and Canada has announced plans to withdraw its soldiers from the country next year. The purpose of our involvement was to prevent further terrorist attacks and to halt the spread of terrorism. Arguably, Australia’s involvement has increased the terrorist threat to Australia. If that is the case then it is time to consider our exit strategy from this war where there can be no winners, only loss of life and destruction. A time frame for the withdrawal of our troops needs to be set and a discussion as to how this will occur needs to commence. New strategies need to be developed that will lead to Afghanistan becoming a functioning, viable society where extremism is a thing of the past.
The Prime Minister, in her statement to the parliament, highlighted our aid commitment to Afghanistan. I believe this is the answer to terrorism. By improving people’s lives and lifting them out of poverty and fear the need for fanaticism and radical solutions will be removed. I conclude by thanking the Prime Minister for allowing this debate. I put on record the fact that I question our involvement in this conflict, but whilst questioning our involvement I give my unconditional support to our troops.
Debate (on motion by Ms Rishworth) adjourned.