Thursday, 21 October 2010
Debate resumed from 20 October, on motion by Mr Stephen Smith:
That the House take note of the document.
Last Friday I met with 15 foreign ministers from around the world to discuss and to make decisions on our future support for Pakistan. A few days later special envoys from around the world, including Australia, gathered in Rome to deliberate on future policy towards both Afghanistan and Pakistan. From these and other nations, we now have a combined coalition force in the field of some 120,000 troops from 47 nations—some 80,000 Americans; nearly 10,000 Brits; 4,500 from Germany; 4,000 from France; 3,500 from Italy; 2,500 from both Canada and Poland, and 1,500 or more from Turkey, Spain and Australia. Of these troops from these nations, more than 2,000 now lie dead—21 of them Australians. Many more brave Afghan soldiers and police have also died serving alongside their coalition allies.
I say this at the outset because the debate we are having today in this parliament is a debate being held in democracies around the world asking: why are our troops, police and civilians in Afghanistan? Is the current international strategy on Afghanistan effective? Are our national contributions to that strategy capable of measurable success? It is right that democracies have this debate but my starting point is that, in doing so, we are by no means alone for we are all in this together. How we resolve this debate in Australia affects other contributing nations, many of whom are watching our deliberations very closely. Already in the course of the debate this week, a number of questions have been raised by members about our effort in Afghanistan and the rationale for it. I intend to work to provide candid and measured comments in response to those questions.
After nine years into this hard war, and six years of continuous Australian military engagement, what is our national mission in Afghanistan today? Put simply, it is to help protect innocent people, including innocent Australians, from being murdered by terrorists. Put simply, it is to support our friends and our allies in achieving that mission. Put simply, it is to work with them to defend, maintain and strengthen an international order that does not tolerate terrorism. All other purposes associated with our mission in Afghanistan—including, for example, helping the Afghan people to develop a viable Afghan state—flow from these three primary purposes. These primary purposes are also alive in the international legal instruments which underpin our presence there. Following terrorist attacks in Washington and New York on September 11, UN Security Council resolution 1386 of December 2001 authorises the establishment of an international security force in Afghanistan. In the Australian parliament a unanimous resolution of this House formally invoked articles IV and V of the ANZUS Treaty and the commitment of Australian forces in support of United States-led action against those responsible for those terrorist attacks.
Australia’s actions in Afghanistan since then have been anchored in these two resolutions, bringing together the full moral legitimacy of the UN system with the enduring commitment Australia has under the US alliance. Some have argued that there has been mission creep in Afghanistan since those earliest days or at least that the mission has become confused in relation to its original purpose. If that were so, then it is difficult to explain why such a fractious international community would have so consistently renewed the mandate for our continued military operations in Afghanistan. At a more practical rather than legal level, others have argued that with the defeat of the Taliban regime in Kabul in early 2002, and subsequently in major centres in the south and in the west, the mission was then complete. Again, we would disagree because the Taliban insurgency, while repressed for a period, returned with a vengeance following the flawed decision of 2003-04 to provide an insufficient troop presence in Afghanistan while the United States, United Kingdom and Australia undertook the invasion of Iraq. In other words, a violent Taliban insurgency rebounded, the same Taliban that had given succour and support to the terrorists who had launched their murderous attacks on innocent civilians in 2001.
A further argument which is now advanced by some is that our continued and collective military presence in Afghanistan is in fact inciting the insurgency rather than effectively combating it. But this argument fails to deal with the counterfactual—that if coalition military operations in Afghanistan were now to cease the Afghan government’s authority and reach would be undermined. Were that to occur, the ability of a successful Taliban insurgency to again offer support for global terrorist organisations would increase. The costs to the Afghan people themselves, who have already endured 30 years of conflict, would also be great.
Still another argument is that all that has been achieved is a bubbling out of al-Qaeda and related terrorist organisations to new operational bases in other countries. But, once again, that argument does not deal with the counterfactual of what would happen in the event of a premature international departure. It would most likely precipitate the erosion of the Afghan government’s authority and reach and once again add Afghanistan to the list of states around the world where terrorist organisations have a high level of freedom of operation.
There is, however, a more important point to make about the argument and its assumption that no effort is being made by allied governments to monitor, contain and, wherever possible, interdict terrorist operations in other centres around the world. The truth is that massive intelligence and security assets are being invested on a daily basis in multiple centres around the world—across the Horn of Africa, the wider Middle East, South and South-East Asia, as well as within the domestic populations of target countries, including Australia.
This in turn leads to a further question raised in this debate which put simply is as follows: is the world a safer or more dangerous place from terrorist threat than was the case nine years ago? Again, it is important to engage in an analysis of the counterfactual. Had we not toppled the Taliban regime and had we failed to then prevent it from returning to power, what would have then occurred across the border as terrorists sought to perpetuate and perpetrate more 9-11s, more Madrid and London train bombings and more Bali bombings? The truth is that our continued operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban to deny the return of al-Qaeda and its allies to Afghanistan, combined with coordinated counterterrorism operations around the world, have helped in preventing a repetition of a series of large-scale September 11 type attacks. Of course there have been many near misses—in fact, many more than the general public is ever likely to know about. The problem is that the success of an effective counterterrorism strategy is much harder to recognise than its failure.
In summary, we argue that the counterterrorism argument underpinning the continuing mission in Afghanistan remains valid. Afghanistan does not represent the totality of the international coalition’s global counterterrorism strategy. It does however represent an important part. If Afghanistan were to fall, the global counterterrorism challenge would be rendered much more difficult than is currently the case.
A further reason for our continued military engagement in Afghanistan is our alliance with the United States. Some have argued that this represents an invalid basis for our engagement. The government disagree. The government have never regarded the alliance as a blank cheque in our dealings with the US. That is why when in opposition we opposed the Iraq war and committed to the withdrawal of combat forces were we to succeed in being elected to office. And that is precisely what we did. The government’s policy towards Afghanistan was different for two reasons. Firstly, the UN Security Council authorised the creation of an international security force, which it did not do in the case of Iraq. Secondly, the ANZUS alliance was formally invoked in the case of Afghanistan, which was not the case in Iraq.
These arguments aside, however, the government has stated in both the 2009 defence white paper and the government’s National Security Statement to the Australian parliament that the US alliance is fundamental to Australia’s overall national security. The dense fabric of defence, diplomatic and intelligence cooperation which occurs within the framework of the alliance is of great strategic importance to Australia. It cannot be replicated elsewhere. Therefore, the government do not apologise for a single moment for invoking the alliance as a relevant consideration in our continued engagement in Afghanistan.
Further, Australia has broader international obligations to support an international order which confronts terrorism head-on rather than ignoring it. As noted above, UNSC resolution 1386 authorises ISAF’s mission under chapter VII of the charter—the chapter which governs the use of force in defence of international peace and security. In fact, article 2 of resolution 1386 actually calls upon member states to ‘contribute personnel, equipment and other resources to the International Security Assistance Force’ as well as explicitly authorising member states to take ‘all necessary measures’ to fulfil its mandate. Once again it should be noted that this resolution has been renewed on 10 occasions since then. The point here is that, if we are serious about our obligations to maintain a stable international political order, it follows that responsible states are in fact obliged to act under the UN charter rather than this simply being a matter of discretionary choice.
It is for this reason that 47 states are now members of ISAF, including 19 non-NATO members. It is also the reason why more than 70 countries and international organisations attended the London conference on Afghanistan in January this year and around 70 attended the Kabul conference in July, including Islamic countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. In short, we are not in this alone. We are part of a collective international effort aimed at defending an at times fragile international order. Of course it is a matter for each state to determine what resources they dedicate to the collective security task assigned to the international community by the council. Some are doing much more than others, just as others have varied their commitments over time. But the core principle at stake is one of defending an international system based on collective security, the same system which, for example, provides the international legal authority for the outlawing of terrorist organisations worldwide and the authorisation of national actions against such organisations. As a middle power which has long exercised global responsibilities it is appropriate that Australia also play its part rather than freeloading on the international system. Freeloading is not in our nature.
The next question to consider is a practical one, namely, the content of the current international strategy in Afghanistan and Australia’s role within that strategy. There are four key elements to the current international strategy in Afghanistan: first, counterinsurgency operations to degrade the capability and will of insurgents; second, a transition to the Afghan government taking lead responsibility for its own security; third, negotiation and, where possible, reconciliation with insurgents within the country to bring about not just a military solution for the country’s future but, more importantly, a political settlement as well; fourth, effective engagement with Pakistan in order to give genuine effect to the political and military goals outlined above.
As noted by the Prime Minister on Tuesday, transition is core to the coalition’s strategy both nationally and in Oruzgan province. This entails training the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police to, in time, take on lead responsibility for the maintenance of national and local security. It also requires assistance to the Afghan government to enable it to deliver basic health, education and infrastructure for the benefit of ordinary Afghans and, as a consequence, to foster support for the Afghan government. A number of contributors to the debate have argued that, whatever is done to enhance the capacity of the Afghan government, its weaknesses are such that it cannot deliver real benefits. They argued that the Afghan government is so flawed on a number of fronts, from corruption through to the treatment of women, that it is no longer a government worthy of international support. Certainly, the government of Afghanistan has a number of failings and, in the course of this parliamentary debate, some have raised examples. Nonetheless, it is important, once again, to apply the counterfactual test: were the withdrawal of international support to result in the loss of authority of the Afghan government, a return to anything approaching the previous Taliban regime from the perspective of the Afghan people would be infinitely worse against practically all measures, compared with the imperfect situation they now confront. Australia, nonetheless, remains committed to supporting the continued reform of the Afghan government and political system through our aid program.
Negotiation and reconciliation represent another arm to the international strategy in Afghanistan. Australia recognises that reconciliation and reintegration are a matter for the Afghan people, who must be led and owned by the Afghan government, and need to be consistent with conditions set by the Afghan government. It will be critical to ensure that these undertakings are met and observed in practice. Negotiation and reconciliation are complex processes that can only succeed if the necessary military and political environment is in place. In practice, that means applying military force against the Taliban leadership as part of a hard-headed strategy which reinforces political negotiation and reconciliation processes, with clear military resolve—in other words, to talk from a position of strength rather than weakness.
The international community, including Afghanistan’s neighbours, has a role in supporting such efforts. There have been some preliminary signs that some senior Taliban leaders are perhaps considering taking the path towards negotiation. President Karzai said earlier this month that the Afghan government had been holding unofficial talks with the Taliban for some time. In recent days General Petraeus has confirmed that the US and NATO have facilitated some contact between the two. This is encouraging, but we must recognise that the negotiation and reconciliation process is likely to be long, complex and inevitably the subject of setbacks.
A further arm of the international strategy on Afghanistan concerns Pakistan. The truth is that Pakistan has a highly permeable border with Afghanistan. This has meant that hostile Taliban forces have been able to move freely between Pakistan and Afghanistan to conduct attacks against ISAF, Afghanistan and Pakistan forces. The government of Pakistan has cooperated with ISAF to take action against elements of both the Taliban in Pakistan and al-Qaeda. However, there is still much scope for Pakistan to do more, particularly against the Afghanistan Taliban and al-Qaeda. Closer cooperation between ISAF and Pakistan is essential if this vital element of the international strategy is to succeed.
Both the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence have outlined in their statements to the parliament that Australia is deploying a coherent strategy in Afghanistan in concert with the international strategy outlined above. I do not propose to repeat the detailed contents of our own strategy here. Our special forces are applying pressure to Taliban insurgents with telling effect. Our military and police training programs in Oruzgan are substantial. A development assistance engagement of some $120 million, through AusAID, is making a measurable difference on the ground. Our diplomatic engagement in Kabul, where we seek to inject an Australian view in the central deliberations of both ISAF and the Afghan government through our highly capable ambassador, Paul Foley, and his team of diplomats and aid officials is, again, having an effect. Australia is well served by these first-class officers. For those who have argued in this debate that our military forces be withdrawn now and that, instead, our development assistance program be enhanced, it should also be borne in mind that all our aid workers require significant force protection—currently provided by the ADF and our US allies—in order to do their job.
We have committed $25 million to the Afghan government’s nationwide peace and reintegration program that focuses on creating the conditions among communities for the reintegration of insurgents who are willing to lay down their arms and return to their communities. As for Pakistan, Australia is a founding member of Friends of Democratic Pakistan. We run a significant development assistance program. We are also the second largest trainer abroad of Pakistan military officers, including in counterinsurgency techniques. Taken together, the government believes this is a credible, integrated political, military, economic and diplomatic strategy for Australia which reinforces the overall ISAF effort. Of course, any such strategy and the financial resources committed to it must be the subject of continuing review, as will occur at an international level at the upcoming Lisbon summit.
My contribution to this debate has not sought to replicate those of either the Prime Minister or the defence minister. Instead, it seeks to complement those statements, particularly in relation to the international dimensions of the Afghan conflict. It also seeks to add to the debate by responding to various concerns raised by others in the debate and in a manner which seeks to be constructive. The Australian government is fully seized of the difficulty of our mission in Afghanistan. This is a hard war, not an easy one—a fact underlined by those who have lost their lives in their country’s service, those who have been wounded and those whose families have suffered terribly as a consequence. More casualties will occur, including the real possibility of civilian casualties. Our responsibility as a government is to maintain bipartisan support for our troops in the field and to maximise the wider support of the Australian international community. Once again, this will not be easy but our mission is clear, as is our strategy, and the resources we have committed to it are significant. At a personal level, I am also very mindful of General Cantwell’s recent remarks that now is not the time to lose faith. For the reasons I have outlined in this statement to the parliament today I agree with General Cantwell: Australia will stay the course in Afghanistan.
At 8.46 am on 11 September 2001, an aeroplane crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York. At 9.03 am a second aeroplane exploded on impact at the same site. The history books will show that it was these shocking terrorist events that resulted in the first major conflict of the 21st century. Even before coalition forces entered Afghanistan on 7 October 2001, some 2,977 innocent civilians, including 11 Australians, had been killed in New York and Washington. Afghanistan was the crucible of the terrorists who plotted and launched this unprovoked attack that, in the minds of many, rivalled the day of infamy when Japan attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor, thus bringing the United States, with a terrible retribution, into the Second World War.
The Taliban government of Afghanistan, led by Mullah Omar, not only protected but encouraged the perpetrators of this strike, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, in their evil purposes. After the Taliban’s refusal to hand over the criminals, coalition forces commenced a campaign, initially to depose the Taliban regime and to destroy the al-Qaeda network. The operations of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, were carried out under the aegis of United Nations Security Council resolution 1386 of 2001. The Taliban regime was effectively overthrown by 13 November 2001 when Kabul was taken after just six short weeks of war. However, as we all know—and this is the reason for holding this opportune debate in the nation’s parliament—the struggle against terrorism in Afghanistan did not end at that time. It has been a too-long, grinding war of attrition against an insurgency that is tenacious in its staying power.
In historic terms Afghanistan has been called the ‘graveyard of empires’ due in large part to the fierce resistance of the population to the presence of various international forces over the centuries. There are many examples where the forces within Afghanistan have refused to be subdued by the world’s great powers. Famously, in the 19th century there were the Anglo-Afghan wars and the terrible story of more than 16,000 British soldiers and civilians killed while trying to flee Kabul. More recently, in the 1980s, there was the withdrawal of Soviet troops after years of guerrilla warfare. Therein lie the lessons for the current NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. It is very difficult to achieve a decisive military victory against a determined insurgent force that is able to find safe haven amongst the civilian population by hiding in the rugged terrain and in the neighbouring country.
The ongoing development of Afghanistan was set back decades after the devastation that occurred during the Soviet occupation. National development was set back even further under the brutal medieval rule of the Taliban. In addition, the Taliban had imposed a particularly harsh interpretation of sharia law in Afghanistan that took away the rights of women particularly and which brutally suppressed the rights of the native Afghan population.
Afghanistan has a long way to go in terms of meeting the challenges and being a robust, peaceful, independent nation. While the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai nominally holds jurisdiction over major cities like Kabul and Kandahar, its remit over much of the countryside is often tenuous. The Karzai government’s moral authority is also weakened by persistent allegations of corruption and maladministration that never seem to go away. The credibility of the national elections in Afghanistan has been undermined by widespread claims of fraud. While this is a cause for deep concern, the allegations of corruption pale in comparison to the situation when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan.
Australia was a key participant in the coalition of the willing that began this mission all those years ago. Initially, our commitment included Army special forces and elements of the RAAF. This initial deployment was principally active from 2001 until the end of 2002. Between 2002 and 2005 Australia’s involvement in the conflict was significantly downgraded before ramping up with the redeployment of special forces in the second half of 2005. In 2006 a reconstruction task force was deployed in the Oruzgan province with protection provided by elements from the Royal Australian Regiment and the Cavalry Regiment, based outside Tarin Kowt.
Over the course of the war some hundreds of Australian troops have been rotated through the theatre of operations. Twenty-one brave Australians have lost their lives in the service of their country and another 152 have been wounded. As a nation our hearts go out to the families and friends of these heroes, who have so honoured Australia with their sacrifice. The human element to this conflict is heartbreaking. The Special Air Service Regiment at Campbell Barracks is based in my electorate in Perth’s western suburbs. Every time I hear the news that a soldier has been killed or wounded in Afghanistan, I think of the men I have met at the barracks, the wives and partners with whom I have shared morning teas, their children at the local Swanbourne Primary School, and fear that one of those men, one of those families, will be receiving that devastating news.
We cannot debate the military participation in Afghanistan without making some reference to the other principal conflict of the early 21st century, namely, the war in Iraq. For base political purposes, the Labor Party has made a distinction arguing that in some way the Iraq war was a bad war while the Afghan war is a good war. The coalition has never made that distinction. There has been a fight against extremism and the two wars have been two battle fronts in what is a long and protracted conflict.
The fight has also encroached into Pakistan. Extremist forces coming from Pakistan, and foreign fighters, are taking part in cross-border attacks. The Taliban has previously attacked Pakistan’s military headquarters. In recent weeks, militants in north-west Pakistan have reportedly attacked and destroyed fuel tankers attempting to deliver fuel to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. The efforts of the Pakistan government to repress extremists within its borders would not be assisted by any lessening of the international commitment to neighbouring Afghanistan. It is unthinkable for the Taliban to gain control of Pakistan, a nation with a significant arsenal of nuclear weapons. However, the increased efforts of ISAF, in particular through the Obama administration’s surge and the additional troop deployment from the United States as a result of the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategic review, should provide the necessary leadership and resources to implement and improve military strategy and the nation-building campaign.
Like the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have also visited our troops on the ground. I undertook a visit last year with the member for Wentworth and Senator David Johnston. I was impressed by the strides made by our troops in their tasks of training the Afghan army and I was privileged to meet the men and women bravely serving on a foreign field, just like their military predecessors over the decades.
ISAF has been focused on providing stability and security to a nation shattered by decades of conflict. The task of reconstruction remains daunting. While there have been great gains, much remains to be done. There is the task of building the capacity of the local Afghan people to provide for their own security through armed forces and police. The Afghan government is also being supported to build the institutions to enable the nation to achieve long-term stability.
I pay tribute to the work of Australia’s troops and civilians working in a dangerous environment in support of the Afghan people. However, despite their efforts, the security situation remains fragile. Against this background it is worth noting that President Karzai announced recently that he has established a council to support peace and reconciliation talks with militants. President Karzai has said that the National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration will consist of government officials and tribal elders. He has called for an end to violence, with militants rejoining mainstream society. Importantly, President Karzai urged the Taliban leadership to drop the condition that NATO forces leave the country before entering peace talks. He reminded the Taliban that international forces were in Afghanistan to ensure that extremists do not regain control of the country and that the international forces will remain until that objective can be met.
It is vital that the Australian government not set artificial time lines for the withdrawal of troops. The Taliban would use any such time line, regardless of how far into the future, to promote its cause among the Afghan people. Putting an end date on withdrawal would greatly encourage the Taliban. Debate about artificial time lines for withdrawal is also damaging to the efforts of our people in Afghanistan because the local people remain sceptical that the international forces will remain in the country for the long term. After all, they have seen others come and go over the years.
Local people are naturally very concerned about their future security after the international forces withdraw. The Taliban uses that prospect as a weapon to convince local communities to remain on their side. One of the keys to the decline in violence in Iraq was the successful promotion of awakening councils, which involved the local population no longer harbouring insurgents and forming armed groups to battle militants in their midst. The challenge in Afghanistan is, if anything, greater than in Iraq because of the drastically lower standards of literacy and education. Afghanistan lacks many of the institutions necessary for the functioning of a civilian government.
The key to success in Afghanistan is, to use the familiar phrase, to win the hearts and minds of the people. Part of this is to convince the Taliban that the international forces remain committed to the original task. It also involves winning the trust of the broader Afghan community that the international forces will not abandon them to the extremists, al-Qaeda or related Jihadist groups. It involves building the trust of the people that corruption within the Afghan government can be reduced or, hopefully, eliminated. The Afghan people also need reassurance that other nations will not desert them after they take control of their own security needs. The Afghan people must be confident that they will be supported in coming decades as they slowly rebuild their shattered nation.
The primary goal of ISAF is to enable Afghanistan to stand as an independent nation responsible for its own affairs and with the capacity to provide a secure and peaceful environment for its citizens. The Afghanis are like people all over the world in that the vast majority want to live in peace and to have the opportunity to build a better life for themselves and their families. A necessary element of establishing Afghanistan as a state capable of defending its people and its institutions and policing its territory is to build an effective national security force. Much of the international effort and the effort of the Australian troops has been aimed at training the Afghan army and police.
Ensuring that the Afghan people succeed not only politically but also economically will assist in the battle against extremism. Australia’s Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force is supporting local communities with infrastructure projects, particularly in security, health, education and other essential services. I recall visiting the trade training centre that the Australian troops have provided for local people, encouraging young men of fighting age—and that can mean age 10 or 11 and above—to work at the trade training centre to gain skills that will enable them to help rebuild Afghanistan.
The Afghan government has had some success in its efforts to strengthen its security forces, and it has implemented programs in health and agricultural development. However, the Taliban is well aware that its chances of success are greatly improved if the Afghan government is weak. The aim of our commitment in Afghanistan must be to defeat the Taliban and to stabilise the country to prevent it from becoming a terrorist haven again. However, the military objectives must be supported by civil objectives in strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan government through progress on the security, political, governance and economic fronts so that the country can stand on its own.
When the 1,900 Dutch troops in Oruzgan province pulled out during the year, the coalition said that we were prepared to consider doing more if the nation’s military advisers thought there was a strategic sense and it was compatible with our other military commitments. Based on the reports that the coalition has received, there is concern amongst our troops in the field about resourcing issues, and it would appear that our resources are indeed stretched. The Prime Minister has already conceded in public statements that there may be a case for increased helicopter support, and we await the outcome of the government’s deliberations in that regard.
Let me conclude by reconfirming that the coalition supports a successful conclusion to our operations in Afghanistan. There is no concrete time limit on that task. The Obama administration has not declared, although some have verballed it, that United States troops will withdraw from mid-2011. That timetable is simply a notification that the United States aims to begin handing over security responsibility to the Afghan Army from July 2011. This will begin to allow for future troop withdrawals. However, it will be protracted. Indeed, our own commitment to training the Afghan Army’s 4th Brigade has been placed in a two- to four-year time frame by the government. The coalition stands behind this time frame as practical and reasonable. The sacrifice of our brave troops demands that. The memory of more than 100 Australians who have been killed by terrorists in recent years also demands that. There should be no precipitate withdrawal from Afghanistan. To do so would be a grave strategic and tactical error, as the history books would surely record when this chapter is closed.
I commend both speakers this morning on their contribution to this debate on the motion to take note of the Prime Minister’s statement about Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan. I also thank the Prime Minister for this important opportunity to debate the war in Afghanistan. This debate provides an important opportunity to spell out the key national interests for Australia at stake in this conflict. There can be no greater decision for any government than to put Australian men and women in harm’s way by committing them to an armed conflict. Any decision to ask our forces and other Australian personnel to risk their lives must always be an option of last resort taken only when all of the other alternatives have been exhausted. But there are times when our national security and our national interests demand such difficult decisions, and we face such a situation in Afghanistan today. Put simply, Australia has a key interest in preventing Afghanistan from re-emerging as a safe haven and a base for global terror groups.
This link between Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism to Australia is neither hypothetical nor imagined; it is real and it continues today. Since 2001, as we have heard in previous speeches, more than 100 Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks overseas, and, of course, countless other innocent civilians around the world have also been killed. Many of these attacks can be linked to Afghanistan and the safe haven it provided before the fall of the Taliban. In some cases, those who carried out these attacks received training and, in other cases, support from al-Qaeda and its allied groups. Most infamously, in 2002, the Bali bombings were financed by al-Qaeda and undertaken by Jemaah Islamiah, who had trained with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. These attacks, as we are aware, killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. Subsequent terror attacks—such as the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Indonesia, the Jakarta hotel bombings in 2003 and just 12 months ago at the Marriott Hotel, where we lost three lives, the second Bali bombings in 2005 and the 2008 attacks in Mumbai—killed even more Australians and, again, other innocent civilians from other countries.
In light of this terrible history, no responsible government could disregard the clear links between these horrific attacks against Australian citizens and terrorist safe havens in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. There is no doubt that the ability of terror organisations to exploit safe havens in Afghanistan has, as a result of the intervention, been severely curtailed, but we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. Australian forces have unquestionably played a vital role in maintaining pressure on terror networks and ensuring Afghanistan does not once again revert to being a source of support for these horrific terror attacks. In this way, the efforts of our troops have paid a real security dividend for Australia’s interests, but our success in degrading al-Qaeda and in denying them safe haven in Afghanistan is not a reason to abandon our mission. The latest assessments indicate that the main source of international terrorism, and the primary threat to Australia and our interests, continues to be from al-Qaeda, groups allied or associated with al-Qaeda, and others inspired by a similar extremist view of the world.
Australians have travelled to Afghanistan in the past for terrorist training and to fight, and even today we still see examples of Australians seeking to travel to Afghanistan and Pakistan for that same purpose. If military and counterterrorism pressure in Afghanistan is withdrawn or reduced, al-Qaeda could resume using Afghanistan as a safe haven for planning terrorist operations. This of course would have serious implications for Australia’s national security. Quite simply, we cannot allow it to occur. It is not just the Australian government that holds this view; this assessment of the legality and the necessity of coalition efforts in Afghanistan is shared by the United Nations and the international community more broadly.
It was less than a decade ago, shortly after the September 11 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda, that the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1378. In this resolution the United Nations Security Council condemned the Taliban for allowing Afghanistan to be used as a base for the export of terrorism by al-Qaeda and by other terrorist groups. The United Nations Security Council also condemned the Taliban for providing safe haven to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and others associated with him. In the days immediately following the attacks, United Nations member states also condemned the attacks through a unanimous General Assembly resolution. The General Assembly called urgently for international cooperation to prevent and eradicate acts of terrorism. The resolution stressed that those responsibility for aiding, supporting or harbouring the perpetrators, organisers or sponsors of such acts would be held accountable for their actions.
In passing these two resolutions, the international community recognised that for many years al-Qaeda had possessed the freedom to plan and train for terrorist attacks with impunity within the borders of Afghanistan. The council condemned the Taliban regime that allowed this to occur. The Security Council’s continued support of the International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, and the contributions of 47 nations from around the world to their mission demonstrate that the international community remains committed to preventing Afghanistan from again being used as a training ground for terrorism. Most recently, NATO’s ISAF mandate was renewed by the Security Council in resolution 1943 of 13 October 2010. This authorisation from the Security Council and the consent, significantly, of the Afghan government provide the legal basis for the presence of Australian forces. It is important to recognise that the legal basis for Australian forces being in Afghanistan is in no doubt.
Australia recognises that military means alone will not be sufficient to bring long-term stability to Afghanistan. Civilian efforts to improve governance and economic development are also essential. Afghanistan has taken modern steps towards building civil institutions. There is a long way to go. But a new constitution enshrines human rights, including freedom of religion, and provides women with equal protection under the law. Importantly, the constitution also recognises an independent judiciary. Nevertheless, the challenges for Afghanistan’s law and justice sector remain profound. Considerable reform is required to institutionalise the rule of law and to ensure functioning and fair legal processes as well as to build the capacity of judicial and law enforcement authorities.
As the Afghan people work to rebuild their legal system, active support from countries such as Australia is absolutely crucial. The Australian government is currently considering options for capacity building in Afghanistan and as a first step it is envisaged that the Attorney-General’s Department will offer training to Afghani legal officials in order to strengthen legal responses to transnational crime. Assistance may also be offered to strengthen Afghan legislation relating to transnational crime and corruption and to train those involved in the law enforcement area, including prosecutors. Building a more effective law and justice system will be important to achieving a functioning and effective state in Afghanistan.
We should also not forget the role of Australian support in confronting Afghanistan’s narcotics trade, much of which can end up on the streets of our cities. Since 2007, AFP officers have assisted the Afghanistan National Police counternarcotics effort and this has led to a number of tangible counternarcotics gains. For example, in 2009-10, AFP officers supported the Afghan led major crime taskforce operations that resulted in the arrest of the Arghistan district Afghan national police chief for drug trafficking offences and contributed to the seizure of significant quantities of narcotics and firearms. This action, which was against a local police chief, confirms the intention to enforce the rule of law, which is that all will be held accountable, irrespective of the office that they may hold.
In debating our role in Afghanistan, we need to also consider the rights of the Afghan people. In particular, we cannot afford to forget the barbarous human rights record of the Taliban, both now and before Western intervention. Before its overthrow, the Taliban imposed an extreme form of sharia law on the people of Afghanistan, which severely curtailed the rights and liberties of its citizens and in particular women. Even out of power, the record of the Taliban remains appalling. Today in areas under their control the Taliban continues to curtail the rights of women, including denying them the fundamental rights of education, freedom of movement and political representation. Aside from women and those who defy their extreme version of Islam, the Taliban also continues to accelerate its ruthless war against political opponents. Amnesty International estimates that in the first half of this year the number of executions and assassination of civilians by the Taliban and other insurgent groups increased by over 95 per cent. Most of these people were executed or assassinated for supporting the government.
We must be frank, however, in admitting that since the fall of the Taliban human rights have not advanced as far as we may have wished and have strived for. Indeed, the human rights situation of many citizens, especially women, in some parts of Afghanistan remains absolutely and totally unacceptable. But progress has been made. For example, since 2001, Afghanistan has established a Ministry for Women’s Affairs and introduced a constitution that provides women with equal legal status to men and representation for women in parliament. Although there is considerable room for improvement and a long way to go, our presence in Afghanistan ensures that we are able to continue to exert pressure to improve conditions for women and human rights more broadly in that country.
In conclusion, the sacrifice of 21 Australian personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan weighs heavily on all members of parliament and indeed the Australian community generally. Afghanistan has endured decades of conflict and there is no easy solution to its many and deep-seated challenges. But walking away and neglecting our responsibilities to the Afghan people, as well as our national security, is not an option. There is a saying that, each time history repeats itself, the price goes up. In September 2001 the world witnessed the consequences of allowing Afghanistan to fester as a failed state. Neither Australia nor the international community can afford to make that mistake again.
Throughout this debate we will hear thousands of words spoken about our involvement in Afghanistan. We will hear terms like ‘strategic goals’, ‘campaign objectives’, ‘regional security’ and the like. But no matter how many words Hansard eventually records on this debate, there is only one thing we can all be certain of: somewhere in Afghanistan, at this very moment, the men and women of the Australian Defence Force are simply getting on with the job.
Yesterday in this chamber we heard the names read out of the 21 Australian soldiers who have so far paid the ultimate price for their commitment to serving our nation, its people and its interests. No-one understands the hardships, risks and dangers of war better than those who serve on the front line. Like their colleagues on the front line today, these 21 soldiers went forward to face those dangers in the full knowledge that it may cost them their lives. They did not have the luxury of being able to second-guess their actions. They did not have the luxury of being able to hesitate, waver or look for a softer option. Despite the hardships, the risks and the dangers, they did not look around for someone else to the job for them.
Pulling on the uniform of the Australian Defence Force is the ultimate act of courage. In doing so these young men and women signal their willingness to risk their own lives on our behalf. They understand it is their job to do so. Their service underpins, protects and guarantees our democracy. As the elected representatives of the Australian people, what we owe to these young men and women is to be clear in our purpose and unwavering in our commitment. There are no soft options or opt-out clauses in the war against terrorism. We need to ensure our troops have access to all of the military hardware, equipment, resources and support they need to do their job and to return home safely. We need to support their families and loved ones while they are away from home in the service of the nation. And we must always honour their courage, their service and their sacrifices.
The work of Australia and its allies in Afghanistan was never going to be easy. We knew that we when we first engaged in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks. It is no easier today. It is difficult, dangerous work. The men and women of the Australian Defence Force face that reality every day. This parliament needs to face up to that reality and decide whether we no longer have the stomach for the fight or whether, like our troops, we will simply get on with the job because it is right thing to do in our national interest. I cannot imagine a situation where an Australian parliament would leave its armed forces second-guessing on our commitment to such an important cause. During a long conflict such as this one, people rightly ask questions of their leaders to ensure that the reasons for ongoing involvement in war are just ones. As the Leader of the Opposition said in this place, we owe it to those who have died, and their families, to be confident that the cause has been worthy of their sacrifice. The coalition has welcomed this debate because it provides that opportunity.
The men and women of the Australian Defence Force are fighting to protect free people everywhere from the scourge of international terrorism. They are fighting to liberate the Afghani people from the tyranny and oppression of a totalitarian regime that has long harboured and supported the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda. This is a fight they are winning, but the job is not yet done. The mountains of Afghanistan must never again become a safe haven and launching pad for terrorist activities. The Afghani people deserve the opportunity to enjoy the democratic freedom we take for granted, and the chance to decide their own path into the future. This did not exist under the Taliban regime. By achieving these goals we will safeguard our own security and the security of our allies.
I welcome the statements of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition this week, and am hopeful that the bipartisan support for the continuation of this operation will not be subverted by Labor’s desire to appease the Greens. The Australian Greens are this Labor government’s partner in the 43rd parliament. The Greens opposed the war in Afghanistan and continue to oppose the Australian deployment. The new member for Melbourne has said this week that Australia’s involvement in this conflict is unjustifiable. If the Greens had won the argument in 2001, and coalition forces had never intervened in Afghanistan in the first place, the Taliban regime would still be in power, the region would still be a haven for Islamic terrorism. It would also mean that two million Afghani girls would not be in school today, learning to be the teachers, doctors and leaders of tomorrow. It seems counter-intuitive that the Greens, who profess to care about human rights, would see two million girls be illiterate and uneducated if their views prevailed. If the Greens believe that somehow a coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan would not result in another takeover of extremist elements then they are dangerous partners in government and dangerously naive.
The member for Melbourne says the war is unjustifiable. What greater justification can there be than combating terror, stopping those who would commit acts of terror and neutralising those who harbour, support, and provide succour for terrorists? The Taliban regime emerged in 1994 and, over four years, with the support of Osama bin Laden and others, seized control of Afghanistan. The regime stripped half the population of the country of even the most basic rights. Women were ruthlessly oppressed, denied medical care and access to education. Perceived offences against the fundamentalist Islamic moral code were punishable by public beating, stoning or decapitation without trial. The country became a base of operations and training ground for Islamic terrorism.
On 11 September 2001 these same Islamic terrorists struck the World Trade Centre in New York, one of the most heinous and cowardly attacks in history. It caused the ANZUS Treaty to be invoked and Australia answered the call. Striking a civilian target, murdering almost 3,000 innocent people and causing widespread devastation was a clear provocation that had to be answered with force. This act became the catalyst for a war against terrorism that was long overdue.
It is difficult for us to understand the motivation of an enemy who wilfully attempts to murder innocent civilians. It is the goal of an Islamic terrorist organisation to harness fear through acts of murder and destruction and from this fear extract concessions. They seek to scare the populace into support for their cause; they seek to expand their reach through terror.
Australians have suffered at the hands of this enemy: 88 Australians were amongst the 202 in the 2002 Bali bombings and other Australians have died in New York and in operations planned and executed by Islamic terrorists around the world. The elements of our society we treasure the most, the Islamic fundamentalist despises the most. Freedom and liberty in our country are viewed as offensive to al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who are driven by control and oppression. It is no surprise then that Islamic terrorism was a threat to our national security before 2001, and it is certainly no surprise that it remains a threat today.
Australia’s National Security Statement demands that the government of this nation ensures that its people and our interests are protected specifically in terms of freedom from attack or the threat of attack. We are committed to combating terrorism wherever it hides, and I am proud to be part of a nation that is prepared to stand against it.
Since the 2001 intervention began, terrorist operations in Afghanistan have greatly diminished due to the work of the coalition forces. The fall of the Taliban has placed the Afghani people on a pathway to lasting change, but now is not the time to waver in our commitment to this task. This task has changed as the war has progressed. In 2005 the Australian government increased its deployment in Afghanistan as part of a wider strategy to combat the Taliban insurgency and, while it is still relatively modest when compared to our allies, our soldiers do a difficult job in the Oruzgan province, close to the Islamic extremist enemy. Where the Taliban has retreated, a new democratic government has been established, along with the necessary independent mechanisms for the management of elections and the oversight of these processes.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan continues to cultivate the idea of an Afghani national identity, a re-engagement with regional and outlying areas and aiding the government of Afghanistan in rebuilding vital infrastructure. Australian forces are mentoring Afghani soldiers and training them up to beat the enemy in conflict. We are assisting to create police and security forces. By the very presence of Australian troops in the country, we are breaking down the falsehoods perpetrated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Australians in Afghanistan are better ambassadors for the advantages of freedom and democracy than reams of propaganda ever will be.
Now is not the time to withdraw. The entire nation remains in the balance. This is not a country with a historical democratic tradition. Rather it is an ancient land where conflict and conquerors have swept in and swept out like the tide over thousands of years. Outside of major cities, it has long been controlled by warlords and tyrants. We need to give the Afghani people the time they need to take the reins of their nation firmly in their own hands without the threat of extremists who still seek to subvert that nation. No democracy has ever had an easy birth. Afghanistan will continue to grow as a country. While traditions and beliefs are not so easy to put aside, a democracy has the best hope of achieving a climate where freedom and liberty can flourish. No-one thinks this will be an easy process, but it is a just and worthy one.
Our commitment in Afghanistan must also remain part of a wider regional strategy to combat terrorism wherever it appears. We provide police training and intelligence sharing through our security agencies, and these operations, along with the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, must similarly be maintained.
I have never served in the armed forces but I have the most profound admiration for those who serve their country in this way. I can only imagine the immense sorrow of the families and friends of the 21 brave Australians who have died in this conflict. I can promise those families that the sacrifice of their loved ones will never be forgotten.
This is an important debate. There is no more important decision for government than the decision to send its own citizens to war, and it is important that that decision and the ongoing mission have the support of this parliament and that the parliament and the people it represents understand why our troops have been deployed, what they are doing and what support the Australian government is providing them to get the job done. In my contribution to this debate, I will focus on these three things.
First, why we are there: we are in Afghanistan because it is in Australia’s national interest to be there. I believe it is in our national interest because the threat posed by an unstable Afghanistan reaches far beyond its own borders. It affects its neighbours. It affects us. We all remember where we were on September 11. The actions of al-Qaeda that day killed more than 3,000 people from more than 90 countries, including 10 Australians, but this was not the only act of terrorism planned or supported from Afghanistan. The 88 Australians killed in Bali died at the hands of Jemaah Islamiah terrorists trained and supported by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is just one example of the global reach of the violent extremism that was allowed to flourish in Afghanistan. That is why 46 other countries are contributing to the same effort under the mandate of the United Nations, including our closest ally, the United States. We are all there for the same reason: the threat posed to all countries by an Afghanistan where malign forces can take root again.
We cannot pretend that what happens in Afghanistan does not affect us here in Australia. It does, and because it does it is right that we are there. Australia and Australians would be less safe if Afghanistan became a place where terrorists could operate from again. It is true that creating a stable Afghanistan does not eliminate the threat of terrorism. Terrorist groups are active in a lot of places—Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Maghreb—but that does not mean that what happens in Afghanistan is without consequence. If we fail, if Afghanistan becomes a place that provides sanctuary to terrorists again, the impact to the cause espoused by organisations such as al-Qaeda would be enormous. It would be felt not just in the Middle East but in our own region, and that is why it is in our national interest that we play a role in establishing a stable and secure Afghanistan.
So how do we do that? This is not a conventional war and it will not be won by conventional means. Relentlessly seeking out and killing insurgents is not enough. The commander of Australian forces in the Middle East, Major General John Cantwell, tells the story of an Australian patrol conducting a meeting, a shura, with local elders in the Baluchi Valley where they met a young boy with a badly broken arm. His arm had been caught in a wheat-threshing machine and the bone was poking through his skin. The Australian soldiers asked local elders for permission to take the boy to be treated, but the boy’s father refused. General Cantwell recounts:
After two hours of pleading, he said that if the Taliban see that I have taken anything from you they will kill me and my family. That boy will either lose his arm or die.
I can understand that father’s concern. What happens when the soldiers leave the village? What happens when we leave Afghanistan and he is still there? Counterinsurgency relies on winning the hearts and minds of men like this, but that can only be done if there exists a sense of confidence that, when we are no longer there, the foundations of a stable, secure society will remain.
That is why the work that we are doing in Afghanistan training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army is so important. You cannot have a stable, secure society unless the government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. There is a lot to do to improve governance in Afghanistan, but if you do not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force you cannot do any of those things. Our job in Afghanistan is to help build that monopoly of force. The work we have done in Iraq and East Timor demonstrates that we are very good at it. That is why NATO has asked us to provide more artillery trainers. We have agreed to meet that need by providing up to 20 artillery trainers to support the establishment of the artillery school in Kabul. It is an important contribution to the broader coalition effort. ISAF forces are doing the same thing throughout Afghanistan. It takes time to train and build an army—it is expected to take two to four years to mentor and train the 4th Brigade before they take lead responsibility for security in Oruzgan—and beyond that we will play a supporting role for some time. But, as the Prime Minister has said, before that transition occurs the ability of the Afghan forces to assume responsibility for security must be irreversible. If that standard is not met, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. We are making progress, but if we hand over responsibility to the Afghan army before they are ready to take over we will not leave a stable and secure Afghanistan.
I have spoken about why I believe that it is right that we are in Afghanistan and why our mission is the right one. The next issue is how we support our troops to get the work done. There has been a lot said and written in the past few weeks about troop numbers, tanks and other equipment. I welcome the comments by the Leader of the Opposition in this debate that the opposition supports the deployment and has accepted the advice of the commander on the ground and the Chief of the Defence Force that the mission has the resources it needs to get the job done. Bipartisanship is the bedrock on which this mission rests. In that spirit, I would like to make a few comments about the support we are providing our troops. Last year the former Minister for Defence initiated a review of force protection, and from this the government has allocated $1.1 billion in new measures to improve the protection of our troops in-theatre. They include upgrading the protection of our ASLAV and Bushmaster vehicles against improvised explosive devices and artillery fire, SPARK mine rollers that attach to the front of Bushmasters to help combat IEDs, the rollout of an early-warning system—which is called C-RAM and expected to be deployed later this year—against rocket and mortar attacks and the use of the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle to provide our troops with increased surveillance coverage.
We are always reviewing what is needed to protect our troops, particularly from the threat posed by IEDs. Our troops are well equipped. In June, the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, told a Senate estimates hearing:
The vast majority of troops acknowledged that they were among the best-equipped troops in the theatre.
The issued equipment that is given to our soldiers is of world leading quality. This is not just my observation; it is reinforced through statements by soldiers who have combat experience. It performs very well on operations.
An example of the quality and effectiveness of our equipment is the Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicle. They have been hit hard by IEDs and have done an incredible job protecting the lives of Australian soldiers inside them, most recently in northern Kandahar only two weeks ago. I went to the Bushmaster production line in Bendigo last week to thank the men and women who build the Bushmaster. It is a great Australian story—iron ore from the Pilbara and coking coal from the Hunter forged in Port Kembla, cut to size in Melbourne and welded together in Bendigo to make a vehicle that is saving the lives of Australians in Afghanistan. No equipment is perfect, and there are plenty of issues still to work through, but in the short time that I have been Minister for Defence Materiel I have seen a lot of evidence of Defence’s ability to respond to the issues raised by our soldiers in-theatre.
Perhaps the best example of this is what has been done about the combat body armour our troops are wearing. The standard issue MCBAS body armour is very effective; it is also very heavy. It worked well in Iraq, where troops required maximum ballistic protection and were not required to regularly patrol on foot. In Afghanistan, the feedback from troops is that it has made it very hard for them to do their job. Defence has responded by purchasing about 1,000 sets of the lighter body armour called Eagle Marine. That means our troops can now use light or heavy body armour depending on the mission. That flexibility will be enhanced next year. The Army is currently trialling new, tiered body armour that will allow troops to insert different armour plates in their rigs depending on the conditions. I am advised that Army is working towards having this ready for mission rehearsal exercises next year and expects that when Task Force 8 deploy in the middle of next year they will go with this new equipment. It is just one example of the work being done by the team equipping our soldiers. As Minister for Defence Materiel, I recognise how important this work is and that there is more work to do.
This is not an easy fight. The last nine years are proof of that. We have already mourned the loss of 21 young Australians. Many more have been wounded. I met one of them the other day when I visited Robertson Barracks in Darwin. While the rest of us were still celebrating Christmas two years ago, he was in a firefight in the Chora valley. His platoon was ambushed. They were hemmed in on both sides. As he ran to find cover behind a tree, he was shot through both legs. He survived because his mates dragged him 600 metres, through irrigation ditches, around small mud brick walls and a compound, taking us much cover as they could along the way. He was carried the last 200 metres to a Bushmaster by one of his mates who carried him over his shoulder. The Bushmaster got him to a medivac helicopter that got him back to Tarin Kowt. He was operated on there, and then again in Germany.
Meeting him had an enormous impact on me. I felt very fortunate to meet him and to shake his hand and more conscious than ever before of the importance of the decisions that we make. They are not easy decisions, but in our darkest moments in Afghanistan it is important to remember why we have made them, why we are there, why there are 46 other nations there and to contemplate what would happen if we were not. An unstable Afghanistan where malign forces could rise again is not just a threat to a father too afraid to let Australian soldiers help save his son. It is a threat to all of us. The impact of our success or our failure will be felt for many more years than those we have already spent in Afghanistan, and that is why it requires our support now and our endurance.
When asked how he measures progress, General Cantwell said:
It is a matter of doing small things whenever we can to move the campaign forward. It has to be a whole series of constant small chips.
Progress … is measured in small victories. We influence this community leader, we open a school, we clear an IED, we kill a Taliban who is trying to kill us or we capture someone and put them in gaol.
There’s a thousand things that need to be done. Some of those are military. Others are about being kind and generous and encouraging, to be sympathetic to the cultural issues, to understand that these people are scared.
He said it demands the endurance of commanders and soldiers, ‘And it demands endurance of our government if they want to see this thing come to an ending that is satisfactory’. It does. It demands the endurance of government and it also demands the endurance and support of this parliament.
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.
by leave—I table the minority report that I prepared in relation to the review into the Defence Annual Report 2008-09 as part of the Defence Subcommittee work for the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. I table that report because it goes into detail in regard to my views on this topic, which I have held from a long way back, from my work in the defence space.
After nine years of war, 21 lives lost, more than 150 soldiers injured and at least $6.1 billion of taxpayers’ money spent, Australia welcomes this parliamentary debate in the ‘people’s chamber’. Many Australians have a great understanding of parliamentary procedure, and recognise that we are debating a statement to the House by the Prime Minister rather than a motion before the House—a subtle difference, maybe, but important, as it means there will be no vote at the end of this debate. As the debate will not conclude with a vote, I therefore ask that the Prime Minister commit to making a concluding statement to this debate, in response to the many contributions from members. It would show respect for the Parliament, respect for the debate and a listening ear from the Prime Minister. I hope she does make that statement.
I listened closely to the contributions of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, as I have listened closely to many other good contributions such as those from new members—the member for Denison and the member for Melbourne. They are all good contributions demonstrating the truth that no-one owns political and moral right in what is a complex issue.
After nine years and with a potential 10 more now on the table, with those working for freedoms exposed as propping up a less than perfect, corrupt regime, with the language of war and peace becoming tangled alongside the drift in objectives from military to civilian, with nation building being on and now off, with democratisation being on and now off, with the chase for Osama bin Laden being on and now off, with the defeat of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan being largely achieved, with the traditions of international rules of war and the challenges of nation-state versus nation-state being exposed by free movement of the Taliban between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and with increasing reports of institutional support from Pakistan itself, and with all this being dressed in an argument of ‘building a safe haven’ when Yemen, Somalia, the southern island of the Philippines at Mindanao and locations in Indonesia and many other hot spots having emerged in this same nine-year period, and with narcotics, sharia law and religious extremism thrown into the complex mix, it should be very clear to any open-minded Australian that this is all about the shades of grey and anyone arguing a black or white absolutist view on whether we should go or stay is really pushing a barrow all of their own.
We have now found ourselves in one hell of a bind. If we leave, like when the 120,000 Russian troops left in 1989, there will be a void. There will be civil unrest and there will be blood. The bad elements of the Taliban would push back and potentially again gain control. The implications for being a ‘base for terrorist groups’ would potentially re-emerge. On the upside if we leave, however, our 1,550 Australian troops are safe, our tight budget has less strain and our ability to engage on both domestic and regional defence matters arguably increases. Importantly, we must also recognise that article 4 of the ANZUS treaty would be tested if we left.
Compare this with our military staying; there would be more Australian deaths and wounded. The ‘base for terrorism’ would continue to move to alternative locations such as Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, several Asian hot spots and even into locations such as London. We would continue to work on peace and reconstruction, with gun in hand—‘shoot and talk’ as General Petraeus recently put it—and we would continue the work of clear, hold and build for at least another 10 years.
Importantly, however, if we are operating in Australia’s sovereign interests, we have to leave sometime and we cannot delay the inevitable void that will follow—not now nor in 10 years time. It is this issue—the one called Australia’s sovereign interests—that should be central to this debate. We will leave sometime so that we do not spend another $6.1 billion on questionable return. We will leave sometime so we do not continue to lose Australian soldiers for a corrupt regime. We will have to at some point accept a lesser democracy than ours and we will have to at some time recalibrate to focus on our international obligations to our region, to the many challenges that religious extremism and terrorism pose and to what we can and should be doing to develop peace and development in our own region.
The surprise argument that we are in Afghanistan in a military capacity for another 10 years is wrong. We should not be. The US is not even saying that and nor should we. We will not strike a ‘grand bargain’ in 2020, and it is wrong to pretend that we somehow can or will. This will be a messy and complex withdrawal, whether it happens now or in 10 years time. This work should therefore be on in earnest now.
It is and should be recognised as such by the Prime Minister and the parliament. NATO, right now, is escorting Taliban commanders through to the capital, Kabul, to hold peace talks. We are trying to strike a deal now, so why won’t the Prime Minister either admit these peace talks or encourage them? General Petraeus is using the language of ‘shoot and talk’ in regard to the current strategy of engaging with the Taliban. This means that with some elements we are all involved in chasing the worst of the worst down every foxhole.
But we are also talking with other elements of the Taliban in an effort to form a working arrangement and then to get out. Why, therefore, is Australian public discourse stuck on the ‘shoot’ and unable to admit and discuss the ‘talk’ that is currently going on and is the potential light at the end of this complex tunnel? We must admit to the Australian people our true strategy of the moment, and that is that we are talking to elements in the Taliban and we are hoping they will form a part of a lasting relationship in the nation-state of Afghanistan. It is this that will allow our military withdrawal alongside a US and coalition withdrawal. It is sensible work that is happening right now that should be admitted and should be supported and encouraged to draw a conclusion soon. We are talking to the Taliban and we should admit it. We should admit it because it is a sensible military and political strategy that is in both Afghanistan’s and Australia’s best interests if it is successful.
The language of ‘safe haven’ should also be challenged. It is illogical to create a safe haven in one location that creates many other unsafe havens in many other locations. That is what we have done and continue to do. Pakistan is now an obvious example. In the Horn of Africa and in our own Asian region we should not be blind to ongoing concerns about religious fundamentalism. Logically, therefore, our case of making a safe haven in one nation-state is weakened by our lack of action in many others.
One person can do a lot of damage today. None of us are safe from that one person on an unholy mission. We can only use best endeavours within government and within society generally to protect each other. It is the job of all of us to be—and I almost hate to use the expression—‘alert but not alarmed’ in all we see in the way we live our lives.
It is a lie for government to try and guarantee safety through invading one nation. This is a global challenge of trying to capture the heart and mind of that one person with evil intent. It involves all people in all countries. I am optimistic that we are doing good work on this in many locations which deserves recognition within this debate.
I mention as an example my brother John, who works for the little known Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. He lives in Davao City on Mindanao, a southern island of the Philippines, home to some of the world’s most violent and extreme religious and antigovernment fundamentalists. John works on building economy for local farmers to try to build a long-term sustainable option other than the money to the locals that is on offer for terrorist actions. John does not carry a gun in one of the most dangerous places in the world. John is not alone and has many other Australian aid and development workers in the field in the areas of agriculture, education and health working alongside him.
It is the John Oakeshotts and the many Australians like him who are the nation-builders and who are the answer for the long-term to global terrorism. Australia’s name is strong in the southern Philippines because of this, just as it is in Cambodia, where many in the legal profession have just completed the Duch trials following the atrocities in this poorest of poor nations and the most corrupt of corrupt nations. Civil engagement, without a military engagement, can be achieved. This is how we build safe havens for the long term.
This is not to deny the military role. They have done an excellent job, and I particularly mention the faceless men of the SAS, who have been on the front line in the most difficult of conflicts. To the best of my knowledge, Australian troops and all coalition troops have won all battles. To that I say, ‘Job well done.’
But the challenge is to move beyond the ‘clear and hold’ to the build. And the build, through the peace and reconstruction trust, will be and should be through all Australian departments and all of Australian civil society—just like in the southern Philippines and just like in Cambodia. I would therefore ask the Prime Minister to reconsider her 10-year military commitment and bring that forward to at least 2014. I would ask for her to consider the civil society building that is being done in other hot spots in the world and focus on them as a model for Afghanistan. And I would ask for her to admit we are talking to the Taliban now and we are working for a peaceful settlement now. We will be a stronger democracy if she does.
Some things must be fought for. Not everyone shares our values. Talk alone will not always get you there. Not everyone is always ready to talk, but no group should ever be beyond talking to. Without making any references to Christian morality, even humanists will describe a just war, as Rothbard said, when people try to ‘ward off the threat of coercive domination by others’. Afghanistan fits that perfectly and it always has.
Sure, this debate comes at a time when it is not running that well. The PR battle and the bad stories at home are probably in some ways overwhelming the stories that we hear about victories on the ground. Many of us are truly seduced by the notion of war by remote control, without casualties, and the idea that perhaps we can pull away from battlefronts like this and our values and our lives will be unaffected. For many, making the connections and joining the dots between 9-11, the Horn of Africa, Bali, the Philippines and Times Square is all that little bit too difficult and perhaps they think militant Islam is something that we can afford to ignore. I suspect that because it was John Howard who joined those dots together so articulately it has become a potent political battle over the last decade.
So for Australians who have questions, it is only right that we lift that veil and answer them. Many Australians out there must feel, as Kipling described:
For undemocratic reasons and for motives not of State, They arrive at their conclusions—largely inarticulate. Being void of self-expression they confide their views to none; But sometimes, in a smoking-room, one learns why things were done.
Let us learn why things are done. Let us learn why we are in Afghanistan. It is far more complex than downloading a page from the Socialist Alliance website and running through the eight reasons why we need to ‘get out of Afghanistan now’.
The key questions that I would put to the Australian people would be these, because it is right that they be asked. Firstly, are our military leaders engaged in Afghanistan balancing military potency and effectiveness with doing everything they can to spare the lives of our military and civilians? I have no doubt that they are. Secondly, when can patrolling in the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan be taken over—in our case, by Oruzgan’s 4th Brigade of the 205th ‘Hero’ Corps of the Afghan National Army? When can they start pulling the load and doing their fair share? Finally, how vigorously can we proceed from defence to diplomacy and then to development?
But my great frustrations in this debate over the last three days have been many. The first is that this work in Afghanistan is immensely complex and nothing has infuriated me more than the member for Denison, whose glib conclusion ran like this:
The only way to turn Afghanistan around now is to hastily rebuild the governance, infrastructure, services and jobs which give people hope and underpin long-term peace.
There is no-one on this planet who knows how to do that. There is no way to hastily rebuild governance. If there was a way to do it we would have been doing it decades ago. This is one of the most complex engagements of our time.
Let us also remember that our Australian forces, like the coalition, work under extraordinary military scrutiny. Sure, in every war there have been those who have felt that we should come home, but never has it been under such ruthless media scrutiny of everything these fine soldiers do. That is a very tough ask, as we have learned.
This debate has still been a little too simplistic. We have not yet considered the role of Iran in maintaining the efforts of the Taliban. There has been inadequate attention paid to whether our withdrawal will strengthen or weaken Pakistan and what we are going to do with those federally administered tribal areas, FATA, in northern Pakistan, which in the end are responsible for creatures such as Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad, the Manhattan subway bomber and the Times Square bomber respectively. In the end there must be a solution to that.
We still have not truly examined in this debate the nature of the adversary—the Taliban, this heterogenous group of fighters around Afghanistan, who for generations have been fighting the British, the Sikhs, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Moguls, the Mongols, the Soviets and the list goes on. That is not a reason to stop trying; it is a reason to find a way to succeed.
There is an end state in Afghanistan and we must not lose hope of that. The end state, in all asymmetric wars, is to build a domestic force of police and on-the-ground military presence that is strong enough for democracy to take root. I am not saying that these elections in Afghanistan have been perfect and I am not saying that President Karzai is an immaculate president, free of any whiff of corruption. But consider the political conditions in which the administration operates. This is a $12 billion licit annual GDP, operating in parallel with a $14 billion military operation. It is almost impossible not to be involved in a cash grab with your hand out. It is almost impossible for schools not to cost 10 times what they should and it is almost impossible for ordinary everyday Afghans not to be unhappy about that. But we are a little tired of analyst reports being written by people across the border. In this debate we have not heard enough about what the Afghans are saying, and I hope to address that today. In Afghanistan, in 1992, I lived not with the military cordon, not under the hospitality of the Australian Army, not with a UN security clearance but in a small village in northern Afghanistan. I went to the markets, went to the hen fights, drank the ulubalu and talked to people by the river. There is not a clear solution and there is not an easy answer, but I think those words need to be heard.
Kay Danes is a humanitarian worker who is there right now. She has travelled from Nangahar in the east to Herat in the west. I am not going to select her quotes; I think I should be as non-selective as I can. But the main theme that comes through is (1) peace and security; (2) finishing and getting rid of corruption; and (3) the killing of innocent people by both international forces and the Taliban. It is not a clear picture. But the one thing that I hear over and over again from Afghans on the ground is that the schools that were empty and were bombed are now rebuilt and are full. To me, that is such a powerful endorsement of what we are doing there. The women in Afghanistan will say, ‘We’re at university. I beg you to stay the course until we can finish our studies. Our fathers and brothers are supporting us in our study, even though at night we get an anonymous note saying: we will come and kill you, as soon as the coalition forces withdraw.’
There are simple questions to be asked. Is this deployment relevant to Australia? I argue that despite the damage inflicted by this aggressor, the Taliban, and by its weakening links to al-Qaeda, by virtue of the fact that we are there and they cannot remain in contact as easily with those Arabic petrodollars that fund al-Qaeda, they are not as well connected as they were, but they still pose a risk to us of grave and lasting implications if we withdraw. Has every means, apart from war, been exhausted with these groups? The answer is yes. Is there a serious prospect of success in Afghanistan? Absolutely, simply by virtue of having got one election off the ground and then another election off the ground. And to walk away is to lose everything and to go back not just to 2005 but back potentially to 1992 when we were rebuilding towns, clearing the landmines. There is no greater look than on the face of a family who return to their home having had those landmines cleared.
If you talk to Afghanis, they will say that the international forces have failed to bring peace. It is a truism. Security conditions in some parts are getting worse day by day. The killing of innocent people is utterly regrettable and, in many cases, there is intense abhorrence at the fact that that has been done with only a small, flippant excuse from international forces. I am not going to gild that, but the clear message that comes with that from Afghanis is: ‘If you evacuate, you leave us in despair. The limited developments and the relative peace achieved in significant parts of the country would be entirely lost and that everything you have done will collapse. It will go back to anarchy, back to the Taliban era, civil strife, warlords re-emerging and total destruction of what we know.’ That is a clear message from Afghanis. Sure, they do not love everything we do, but if you do a poll in Afghanistan and ask, ‘Do you hate the war?’ of course most people will say yes. It is a truism.
We must endeavour, as the previous speaker, the member for Lyne, said, to negotiate with the Taliban. There is no secret about that. Secretary of State Clinton has not ruled that out. We know it is happening, but that is not what the debate is about. The debate is about pulling our troops out. The debate is being driven by a socialist alliance agenda. Two MPs who are in here, thanks to the vagaries of the preferential voting system, are saying, ‘Pull the troops out.’ And this is the list of Socialist Alliance reasons, and you can run through them: life is getting worse for Afghans. Wrong. Where were you during the Taliban? More people are dying and being displaced as a result of military operations. Before there was a military operation people were displaced for other reasons in equivalent numbers. Another reason: the war has cost us billions. The war cost the coalition $120 billion a year in Iraq. In Afghanistan we are spending just a fragment of that, at around $20 billion a year, for potentially far greater yields. This is not an economic war; it is a war to ensure there is nowhere left to hide.
The next argument is that the war has not liberated women. You cannot just quote one former MP from the Afghan assembly who thinks that is the case. Talk to women in Afghanistan before you make such a foolish comment that women are not slowly being emancipated, thanks to our presence. The next claim is that the Afghanistan government is corrupt and undemocratic. Consider the conditions. It is a democratic government, it has its warts, but what is the alternative? In fact, if you replace the current administration, you would end up with something very similar to what we now have, simply with a different head. The majority of the world wants the troops to leave and the Afghanis do not want the war. This sort of ordinary polling that we are meant to be making national decisions on is, frankly, really disappointing. Even attributing the spread of terrorism worldwide to our presence in Afghanistan is absolutely amazing. The member for Denison suggested that our presence in Afghanistan is somehow attributed to some terrorist here in Australia who wanted to attack the Holsworthy Barracks. Is the member for Denison suggesting we withdraw our troops so that this guy has a better day? Seriously, we are here to fight for the values that we regard as democratic values. Why are we there? Because we can be and we have the resources.
There is a simple conviction that, given a fair go, human beings can better themselves. They just need to be given a chance to do it and they can make a better world around them. These are values that we live by and, as awkward an ally as the Americans sometimes are, they are values they also live by and that is why I am proud that we continue to do it. It is one thing to shed tears for our wonderful troops who make the supreme sacrifice. Never forget the aid and care workers, who work in similarly dangerous conditions and often suffer even greater privations. Though, not necessarily risking their lives in such intensity, they never know their enemy but often still lose their lives. To all of those Australians I say to you that these are the values we live by. Yes, we are engaged in a titanic struggle to free ourselves of a group of individuals who wish to impose their values on us and by so doing remove our liberties. That to me is one of the strongest reasons to have this fight.
In closing, remember that the Taliban is not some crazy uniform entity. They are a conglomeration of warlords, of disenchanted mullahs and of young people. I said this in my first speech in 2004 before we were actually in Afghanistan—we had only one officer in Afghanistan in 2004 before we deployed. I said at that time that we have an urgent appointment with the Islamic world. On the one hand we need to ensure that trouble cannot be fomented in any corner of this planet by extremists, but on the other hand we need to provide the economic opportunities so that the young and, often, dispossessed can have an opportunity to gain capabilities rather than turning towards extremism. Those words are no less true than they were when they were said in 2004. They apply exactly to what we are doing in Afghanistan.
This will not be easy but, please, I beg the Australian people, do not assume that this is something that can easily be done without a military presence. Part of it—if you call it shoot and talk—is the fact that the Taliban will have to one day come to the table. We may not defeat them, but we can handle them if we engage their respective groups effectively. The Haqqani network is one. It has been pointed out by Tom Gregg, a young Australian who has been an analyst on the ground in Afghanistan, that the Haqqani network has an elderly leader who is probably in his final years. His 36-year-old son, Sirajuddin, is different. He is not a tribal elder. He is not a religious scholar. He has known nothing but war. He has never been part of a government nor lived in a peaceful society. Our one opportunity with the Taliban may be only a brief moment of sunshine. That is why I know that the US, Holbrook and the others are going to have to reach out. But it is a two-step process. The debate today is purely and simply a debate about withdrawing our troops and it is a step that would undermine everything that we have achieved so far.
I want to thank the member for Bowman for his contribution. I have been in this place for more than 20 years and in the course of that time I have participated in three debates over whether or not Australia should be involved in conflict. The first was in 1991 when we had a debate in this parliament about the Hawke government’s decision to send troops to the Gulf. I was privileged to be involved in the debate and happy to support the government’s position. The second was in 2003 when we debated here in this place whether or not we should be in Iraq. I am happy to say that I opposed that war.
Today, we are debating Afghanistan and whether or not we should withdraw our troops. Let me make it very clear from the outset that I think it is in our national interest that we maintain our mission in Afghanistan until we have completed the job. People who have listened to this debate will have heard the Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Foreign Affairs outline very comprehensively the rationale for Australia’s ongoing presence in this conflict. It is absolutely imperative and in our national interest that we continue.
It is very important that the people of Australia understand what we are doing here and the privilege that sits in the hands of every member of this parliament to stand up here and debate whether or not we should be involved in this conflict. After all, we live in a democracy which, I think, is the envy of much of the world for our capacity to be able to have these debates in a sensitive and appropriate way without taking to the streets. We need to comprehend how important that is.
When we commit ourselves to an engagement like that in Afghanistan, the Australian government—and I include the Howard government, when it committed our troops to Iraq, against the wishes of many—has a commitment to the Australian Defence Force, to their families and to the nation to see that our soldiers will have everything they need to give them the best chance of success and the support they require when returning home. Importantly, while our defence platforms and assets may be becoming increasingly mechanised, complex and machine oriented, it is the people of the ADF and their exceptional performance that gained the ADF the international reputation and respect for which it is renowned. In the end they are responsible for enduring the tough work of fighting the war, for risking and in some cases, sadly, dying—sacrificing their lives so that we here in Australia can sleep soundly in our beds at night. I have been to Tarin Kowt and met our soldiers on the ground and I continue to be impressed by their professionalism, their bravery and their commitment. Our service men and women are wonderful people who, on our behalf, go out and lay their lives on the line. There can be no doubt that our people are our most vital asset.
It is not difficult to understand the ongoing public debate on our role in Afghanistan. It is clear that many people are asking, ‘Is this our war?’ I think the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister and the Foreign Minister have all laid out the rationale as to why we should be engaged in this conflict and that rationale is comprehensive and logical. It is my judgment, too, that it is in our national interest to continue this mission. In this place we might disagree on policy; however, the people who are fighting this war on our behalf should be left in no doubt that, despite the different views in this place about the appropriateness of their mission, our troops on the ground have our total support in carrying out their tasks.
There should be no doubt about why we are involved in Afghanistan and why we should stay the course. After September 11 we committed to support our ally the United States to pursue al-Qaeda and rout out the terrorists from their safe haven in Afghanistan. This was a course supported by the United Nations, as explained comprehensively by the Minister for Foreign Affairs earlier this morning. As the Prime Minister has said, our mission in Afghanistan is not yet complete; our job is not yet done.
Yet there are positive signs in Afghanistan. International efforts have dealt a serious blow to al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Afghanistan. We are creating a situation where the ordinary Afghan citizen can be confident that the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan national security forces are making headway. We know that the Taliban suppressed free speech. There are now 400 print media publications, 150 radio stations and 26 television stations in Afghanistan. In the past nine years we have seen more than two million girls enrolled in schools. We have seen basic health care being extended from 10 per cent to 85 per cent of the population. Progress is clearly being made. Our mission is to put the Afghan government in the best position to provide its own security.
But we must remember, as the member for Bowman pointed out, that the world is not perfect. The Afghanistan administration is wanting in areas. There is absolutely no question or doubt that President Karzai and the government must deliver on commitments made at the London conference on Afghanistan held in January this year. Unfortunately, the knowledge that thousands of votes in the recent Afghan election have been disallowed because of questions over their legitimacy will inevitably undermine the confidence of many. Yet while we continue to put the lives of young Australians at risk it is vital that the Afghan government delivers on its promise, roots out corruption and achieves the reforms it has signed up for.
Since the commencement of our operations in Afghanistan, approximately 21,000 Australian Defence Force members have been deployed in support of operations in Afghanistan. Many have now undertaken multiple deployments in support of these operations. Sadly, 10 members of the ADF have been killed in action in Afghanistan this year. Over the life of the conflict, 21 ADF members have been killed in action in Afghanistan—such a sacrifice made on behalf of our nation. I know that every combat death is felt by all Australians, but particularly by the Defence Force family. I recently visited 1 Brigade at Robertson Barracks in the Northern Territory, where I was welcomed by Brigadier Gus McLachlan and his team. 1 Brigade is currently generating forces to support operations in the Middle East and East Timor. A key priority of 1 Brigade, and indeed of the rest of the ADF, is the support it provides to families whilst ADF members are on operations. In addition to the support provided by units, the Defence Community Organisation provides a wide range of support services to the families of members to help them cope with the demands of the military lifestyle.
Supporting the recovery and rehabilitation of wounded personnel is a very high priority for this government. As a result of our election commitment, we will invest $21.2 million over four years to enhance rehabilitation and recovery services as part of the new Simpson assistance program. This program, while in the very early planning stages, will look at the feasibility of setting up a rehabilitation centre of excellence using similar systems and programs used by our military allies. The focus of this centre will be the provision of holistic rehabilitation care and support for ADF personnel and their families in an environment tailored and suited to the young, active adult workforce. The program builds on the current support services, which include providing families with advice on how best to support their loved ones and linking them with the most appropriate services. Sadly, in previous generations a lack of understanding by the entire community meant that many veterans who required treatment for mental health conditions often did not receive assistance or the understanding that was required. In recent decades, this situation has, thankfully, changed, and there have been dramatic improvements. There is now comprehensive provision of mental health support services, but there is still more work to do.
The government is aware that physical injuries are not the only type of injuries that may occur as a result of a deployment. We are focused on understanding and supporting those with mental health issues. In partnership with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Department of Defence, the Centre for Military Veterans Health has been commissioned to undertake a series of studies to assist in identifying potential health impacts of deployment. We also have a rigorous process to ensure that we monitor the mental health of those we deploy. I would have thought that these things would be self-evident. They are things we must do.
Another area for which I have some responsibility and which plays a crucial role in improving protection, saving lives and reducing injuries for Australian troops and equipment and operations in Afghanistan is science and technology. I will ensure as far as I can that support to ADF operations in Afghanistan remains the highest priority for the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. DSTO supports military operations by providing direct technical advice, technology insertion and operational analysis support to the ADF in-theatre. Many of the measures announced as part of the force protection review involved the rapid introduction of new technology to assist Australian forces in Afghanistan. In particular, DSTO has been deeply involved across the spectrum of counterimprovised explosive device initiatives. DSTO has also enhanced its support to operations by establishing a science and technology fly-away team that Defence Force commanders call on. DSTO scientists are available to provide the Defence Force with expert advice and assistance in introducing a new technology or assisting in the conduct of field trials both in Australia and in Afghanistan.
In the past 12 months, DSTO has deployed seven fly-away teams that have addressed a range of critical issues to support commanders in the field. Providing force protection and scientific support to the men and women of the Defence Force who are deployed in operations is a critical element of our approach to Afghanistan, and I am extremely proud of our defence scientists and the leading-edge scientific support they provide to our troops in the field. Australians rightly hold our servicemen in the highest regard, and I share that high regard. In the finest traditions of those who fought in previous conflicts, today’s veterans have a reputation for tenacity, courage and spirit. Recent losses, though, remind us all of the terrible price that comes with such a reputation. In our grief we must not forget the profound responsibility for caring for those who remain.
The face of the Australian veteran is changing. The high operational tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in service men and women as young as 21 needing the support of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Our veterans are increasingly fathers and mothers of young children. They are sons, daughters, sisters, brothers and friends. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs currently supports almost 1,500 veterans with disabilities sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost 1,300 of these men and women are under the age of 50. Almost 30 children of those who have died in Afghanistan or Iraq in recent years are now assisted by the government, along with 20 widows.
This is the face of war. It is imperative that measures are in place for a lifetime of support. It is an obligation the nation owes to this community. To that end, we are working hard to ensure that the delivery of services to those who are serving or have recently completed service is as seamless as possible across government. We are reviewing existing programs for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and working hard to support those at risk. Mental health issues often arise some time after a potentially traumatic event. The government is investing heavily in reducing stigma and delivering self-help. Early intervention is a key focus. Our objective is to give those injured in service the best outcome available—rehabilitation to return to active service or, if they are separating from the forces, transition to a quality and healthy civilian life. We need to make better use of the opportunities that technology provides, be more responsive to individual needs and ensure fast and fair decisions with benefits and support delivered in a timely manner.
It goes without doubt that I, along with every member of this House, have a great respect for all of Australia’s veteran community—for what they have endured for the service of this country, for the price their families pay and for the impact of their experiences on their health. I see the impact on individuals and families of our involvement in Afghanistan. That is why this debate is so important. We need to understand the human impact of what we are doing. Our mission in Afghanistan is critical to our national security. There are others in this place who have different views on our commitment. I respect their views, but I do not agree with them. I take comfort from the fact, as I said earlier, that in our country such disagreements are conducted here in this place. We have a responsibility to ensure the best possible support for those who need it as part of their service. We are obligated to provide it. We also have a responsibility to stay the course in this important mission. We need to see this job through.
On the cover of the August 2010 addition of Time magazine is a harrowing photograph of Bibi Aisha. Bibi is a young Afghan woman, a pretty girl by any measure. It is a high-resolution photograph, and what makes the photograph harrowing is the fact that, where Bibi’s nose should be, there is a large cavity. You see, Bibi’s nose was cut off by her husband for some perceived transgression. But what was not shown in the photograph was that her ears had also been cut off by her husband. Rod Nordland wrote in the New York Times that this image has become the:
… litmus test about attitudes toward the war … in Afghanistan. Critics of the American presence in Afghanistan call it “emotional blackmail” and even “war porn,” while those who fear the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan see it as a powerful appeal to conscience.
I suppose that is where we are in this debate—pondering not so much how we got there or even what we are doing there but more what would happen if we left. By ‘we’, I of course mean the coalition of military forces in which Australia is a participant.
Australian troops are aware, tolerant and understanding of other cultures. They are taught to respect other cultures before they are deployed and they have an outstanding record of success in working with those cultures wherever they have been deployed and within many countries across the globe. I am under no illusion that Afghanistan is not a basket case of democracy barely being held together by Western military might. The values we cherish as a Western nation contrast strikingly with the ancient culture and values of the Afghans. Of that there is no doubt. Without making light of the situation, I am reminded of the missionary zeal of the spread of Christianity amongst the heathens in the 15th and 16th centuries. I often wonder whether some of those conversions were willing. There are historical similarities in present-day Afghanistan, and history can be a precursor to the future.
In terms of modern history, Afghanistan and the West have never really hit it off. The British had a go in the 19th century, rather unspectacularly, and the Russians had a turn as well, in the 1980s. It is interesting to explore the Soviet experiment. At that time, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was a Soviet satellite headed by a Marxist government. Running in the background was the situation in Iran, with the Islamic uprising in 1979 and the overthrow of the shah. The political tide obviously had no territorial borders, and the flow of sentiment to the mujahideen in Afghanistan was of great concern to the Russians, who saw a threat to their power base. They had to intercede aggressively to protect against any perception of the diminishment of their authority, especially while there were similar murmurings in Chechnya and other subordinate countries in their domain. They needed a strong gesture, and in their minds I am sure they believed that intervention in Afghanistan would send a powerful message.
History shows the Americans supported the Afghans against the Russians, with military assistance and advice. The movie Charlie Wilson’s War, with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, gives some insight into the effort on the part of the Americans in that period. With the help of the Americans and the CIA, the Russians tasted defeat and withdrew after a 10-year occupation. The vacuum caused by the Russian withdrawal was rapidly filled out of the ranks of the mujahideen, with the emergence of a zealous and armed Taliban motivated not by territory or traditional tribal divisions but by religious fervour. There was no effective government in Afghanistan. Tribal might and the AK-47 constituted the law of the land, financed through the very lucrative poppy fields whose by-product was killing so many Westerners through drug abuse. The ascendancy of the Taliban also assisted in the rise of even more extremist religious zealots, foremost of which were al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda were both the architect and the instrument of 9-11.
The rest is history. America intervened and once-allies soon became enemies. Australia has enjoyed a strong bond with the United States of America, going back to World War I. They were there for us against the threat of the Japanese invasion and we responded with a show of solidarity in Korea. We went with them to Vietnam and Iraq, and they tacitly supported us in Timor. The relationship is deeply ingrained in the Australian psyche because of our shared values and historical antecedents.
Having said that, I also need to state clearly and unequivocally that I abhor war. Having been born in wartime Holland in 1944, I was raised in a family climate clouded by the experience of war. My father served in the Dutch underground. While he said very little afterwards, the war had changed him—memories so profound and entrenched they were never far from the surface. Whilst I do not have a personal experience of the war—I was only a child at the time—the influence of the views and nuances of my parents had a deep and lasting influence on my development, views and attitudes.
Today, we are in Afghanistan not only as a gesture of solidarity with the United States but also because we abhor all that the Taliban and al-Qaeda represent, including their attitude towards human dignity. We are not there to wage war for the sake of doing so. By any examination of the philosophy of religion, the war in Afghanistan is not a religious war, although it is being promoted as such by the Taliban because it suits them. What we are witnessing is an exercise of power under the guise of a religious crusade. There are certainly enough precedents in history.
That brings me to the point of asking this question: do we stay or do we go? If we truly believe in what we are doing and why we are there, then the answer is obvious; if we have doubts and our commitment is wavering, then we should not be there. Before broaching that proposition, the question to first consider is what will happen if the coalition strikes camp and departs. That question was considered in an article in Time magazine based on a book written by Bob Woodward of Watergate fame. Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars explores that very question. Afghanistan is characterised as having a persistent medieval culture based on a tribal system of power sharing. Corruption is rife, the power of the gun being the final arbiter. In some parts, women are regarded as less than domestic animals and treated as such. Woodward describes Afghan president Hamid Karzai as a manic depressive with severe mood swings. That in itself is not a hanging offence. Many great leaders in the world were depressive, Churchill included, and did a sterling job in leading their respective countries. However, it does point to the type of vacuum that would be left waiting to be filled.
There is no suggestion that the Taliban would allow al-Qaeda a safe haven. After all, if one assumes that Afghanistan reverts to its previous ‘business as usual’ mode run by several powerful warlords with a token head of state, it is unlikely that al-Qaeda, made up of fighters from diverse nationalities with their own subset of ambitions, would get much of a look in.
We saw in Iraq, for instance, after the downfall of Saddam Hussein the emergence of an internal conflict between the Sunni and Shiite sects in Iraq. That conflict was always there. Like politics within politics, there are religions within religions. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the minority Sunni sect enjoyed the upper hand. But the tables have been turned. There, as the Americans devolve their participation, the attacks go on, albeit among Iraqis as they struggle to position their respective interests in the emerging power vacuum. Let us hope that after all these years of occupancy a workable model for government has been left that will give the Iraqis a chance of success. If not, the situation will soon devolve into anarchy.
When I look at previous instances where a controlling power has handed over government I see a familiar pattern emerging in nearly every situation. I am talking about how the once mighty British Empire divested itself of its protectorates. Where there was a strong social and democratic ethic, the transition was reasonably seamless. On the other hand, leaving behind a dysfunctional substitute only compounded the instability. I look at our own experiences in Papua New Guinea, which I would describe as a reasonably successful transition.
So to my mind, based on history, unless we invest in providing stability to the country we are overseeing then our withdrawal can only result in a backward spiral. I am hard-pressed to find any published opinion anywhere in the world that suggests an optimistic outcome in the event of our premature withdrawal from Afghanistan. The question for us then becomes whether we are prepared to cut loose and allow them to take their chances, no matter what. And it is a question that must be left to the individual conscience.
However, responsible government does not have such an indulgence but must rely on the principle of serving the greater good. What is the greater good in this case? Is it our greater good—that is, that of the Australian people? Or is it that of the people of Afghanistan? If not for anything else but the women of Afghanistan, like Bibi Aisha, my conscience tells me that we need to invest in the hard yards. My practical side says that there is no easy, short-term fix to this. There is not a mood emerging that suggests to me anything other than that as soon as we are gone it is back to square one and that we would have wasted our time. I could be wrong.
But I cannot deny the sense of futility within our own community towards the question of Afghanistan. Are we trying to impose values that they cannot comprehend in the context of their own value systems, let alone want? On a more parochial basis, what if we withdraw our presence and leave the mess to the Americans? How would we view ourselves as the principled and reliable mates that we pride ourselves to be? And if we did, could we honestly continue to expect that the Americans would continue their strong support of Australia, especially in a time of need? This whole issue comes down to a question of morality and global responsibility.
There are many diverse views in the constituency that I represent and I am not going to start telling them what they should be thinking; neither are the Afghanis obliged to listen to or subscribe to our opinions—that is a fact of life. My personal inclination is that if we entered into this for all the right reasons then we should go the distance. But I do appreciate the other schools of thought that say it is none of our business and that we should not be there. But the fact remains we are there right now. Do we stay or do we go? This is a decision for the government of the day. It must weigh up the pros and the cons for both scenarios. But, in doing so, I want them to take into consideration our history. It is a history of service towards those who need us and a history of supporting the underdog in their hour of need. This is the Australian ideal, and frankly I would be repulsed by anyone who deliberately turns their back on someone in need, even a nation with a continuing threat of terrorism across the globe.
If the Afghanis ask us to leave then that is entirely a different proposition. But they have not. The women of Afghanistan, the thousands of Bibi Aishas out there who have no voice but who want to live, deserve our protection. To those who want us out of there, will your conscience be rested knowing you have turned your back on many of those women? Would we consider ourselves an advanced nation if we were to take a laissez faire view of the world; live and let live? My conscience will not allow me that latitude but we have our respective personal views. Again I say that I acknowledge the diversity of views on this subject in my electorate and I respect those views. Perhaps all these seemingly contrasting ideals are attainable given time and the right approach. But are we prepared for an investment of that magnitude?
Professor Dennis Altman of La Trobe University in an article last year said:
There is little evidence that the current Afghani government, or its likely successors, is any more likely than the Iraqi government to build the sort of democratic progressive state we hope for …
I emphasise ‘we’. In other words, except in terms of conscience, there is no other practical reason why we should stay.
Thankfully, we all don’t think like that, and I recognise the bipartisan position echoed within this chamber. However, I do think it prudent to have a line in the sand, a point where we have to accept that it is either working for us or it is not—a set of parameters that are beyond challenge and repeal. That has not been done. With such an arrangement in place we will be able to move on with dignity, with confidence and without offence.
In conclusion, I fully support the mentoring work that our troops are performing, both with the police and the Afghani community. We have always punched above our weight with our targeted operations on their territory. As the Leader of the Opposition said in his statement, “A government’s commitment to our soldiers should be no less strong than our soldiers’ commitment to our country.” On that note I would also like to take this opportunity to recognise the contribution of our service men and women, both past and present, and those stationed at HMAS Albatross and HMAS Creswell, in my electorate. They are serving with the full knowledge that they may be called upon to contribute—and, if they do, it will be in accord with the highest standards and traditions of our defence forces; of that I am confident.
I thank the House for allowing me to speak my mind. Nothing is set in concrete, and whether we stay or whether we go is a decision that must be based on considered and sober deliberations—not by dogma, which is what we are fighting over there. I also thank our community in Gilmore, especially those who took the time to email, write or phone me to let me know their views.
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.