Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Before I suspend the sitting of the Main Committee, I would like to recognise Major Anastasia Roberts of the British Army, who is in the gallery today. She is part of an Australian Defence Force exchange program. She is here for two years. She has served in Afghanistan. I certainly hope that Major Roberts enjoys her experience visiting the Australian Commonwealth parliament.
Honourable members—Hear, hear!
Sitting suspended from 12.54 pm to 4 pm
I want to start by clearly stating that I support our Australian troops in Afghanistan; I support the work they are doing. I have great confidence in their role. And I know that every other member of parliament in their own way supports our troops. People might have different outlooks as to how that is represented, but I know that is the case. We wish them all well. We wish all of them a speedy and a safe return home, as I know their families do.
It is great to have the opportunity to have this debate in the House, but the reality is that, over the past nine years, there have been unlimited opportunities for debate on Afghanistan in this place—opportunities in the address-in-reply, adjournment debates, grievance motions, private members’ business and 90-second statements, and in related bills in terms of defence and foreign affairs. There is no question that this debate is important. But let us not be mistakenly thinking that this is somehow the only debate or the first opportunity for one. There have been countless and unlimited opportunities for any member who has wanted to express their view on this particular conflict over the past nine years to do so. That does not mean that this particular debate is not important, because it is important. But the debate should be taken in context—in the context of the work of our Australian troops and in the context of the previous nine years.
Our troops are in Afghanistan, they have been there for quite some time, and they may be there for quite some time to come. Nor is it, I believe, the place of any member or senator in these chambers to express views that in some way take away from our troops—and I say that from the perspective of someone who is not an expert. I am not an expert; I do not know that anyone in this place truly is an expert. It is very hard to be expert on these matters without either having been there or having devoted many, many years to these particular issues. I do understand the difference though. Everyone has a personal view, or an electorate view that represents their constituency, and I believe very strongly in members and senators taking the opportunity in this place to express those views fully and openly, whether those views be their own or representative views from their area.
I think it is important to recognise what our involvement over the past nine years has actually been, because it appears to me, from reading and listening to some of the debate, that there may be some confusion. In October 2001, an Australian Special Forces Task Force was deployed to Afghanistan. This was in direct response to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Afghanistan was being used at that point as a safe haven for al-Qaeda. From December 2002 to September 2005, there were no Australian units deployed in Afghanistan. From March 2006, two Chinook helicopters were sent to support the Special Forces Task Force. In August 2006, the first of four reconstruction task forces were deployed in Oruzgan province. They worked on security and reconstruction under the Netherlands-led task force in Oruzgan. In April 2007, we sent in a Special Operations Task Force to enhance security and to disrupt Taliban operations. From August 2007 to July 2009, the ADF Control and Reporting Centre was deployed to Kandahar airfield to assist in managing airspace. In October 2008, the first of two Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force crews deployed to play a new role in mentoring support to the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army. In May 2009, we sent in a mentoring and reconstruction task force with increased and additional support for mentoring, security and engineering elements, and in July we sent a further 120 personnel to provide further security during the Afghan presidential elections. In February of this year, we sent a further mentoring task force, replacing the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force, containing additional operational mentor and liaison teams. These are really important events. These are really important parts of our contribution to the coalition of forces in Afghanistan. It is important work and should be recognised as such.
A question, and an obvious one, is: why are we there? What role do we play? Well, Australia has two national interests in Afghanistan. One is to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists—a real possibility, and one that we should fight against. The second is to stand shoulder to shoulder with our allies, our friends, the United States, and honour our alliance commitments to a whole range of other nations.
Australia went to Afghanistan directly in response to the September 11 attacks, to support our friends and to support the work that was being done globally. Al-Qaeda was dealt a severe blow, but it has remained resilient. Terrorism is still with us. But we should not be deterred from the work that we have begun and the support that our troops bring to the important role being carried out by a coalition of many nations.
In our current role, Australia has provided 1,550 personnel to Operation Slipper, part of our contribution to the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. Our goal in Afghanistan is to enable transition—transition to peace, and transition to proper government and governance. Our goal is also to prepare the government of Afghanistan to take the lead in and responsibility for its own security. We do not want to be there beyond what is necessary, and we should enable the Afghan government to take control of its own security so that our troops can return home. I do not know that anyone could disagree with that.
Australia has a key role in providing training and mentoring, particularly to the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army. This can only be a good thing. It is something that is supported and it is an important task. It is anticipated that this may take two to four years, but it could take longer. I do not set a time frame. I am not an expert in terms of a day, a date, a month or a year. I know that in these circumstances, when there is a conflict of this magnitude, that time lines are dangerous instruments. We need to be there until we have completed our mission, until our job is done. As well as front-line ADF personnel, Australia has provided a number of other personnel. We are there fighting a battle on many fronts. We have provided expert officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. AusAID are focusing on health, education, agriculture, water and basic infrastructure projects. The Australian Federal Police have been there to help train and mentor the Afghan National Police in Oruzgan, and the Australian Defence Force has managed work teams and trade training schools, giving young men in Oruzgan new skills to keep them occupied but also help them rebuild their country and stay out of the grasp of the insurgents. These are all good things. They are things that our troops and our officials are doing in this country.
We need to acknowledge, though, that there has been a cost. No war comes without cost. Australians in Afghanistan are doing a very dangerous job. There is cost in terms of human lives, and we have heard many people speak in this place of the 21 lost lives of brave young men who have made and paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country doing something that they believed in, something that we as a government ask of them. We ought to give them and their families every possible support that we can. Of course, on Monday we also learnt that there were four more Australians who had been wounded, and we hope for their speedy recovery. There has also been a financial cost; this needs to be acknowledged. To date, it stands at $6.1 billion, but you have to take all of these costs into context and ask yourself the broader question, which is: what is the alternative cost of sitting back and doing nothing? What is the alternative cost to us, to the world and to that particular region?
We are making progress. I know that we read reports of the disasters, of problems continuing and of not having necessarily won the war, but progress is being made. It is good progress but it will take time. Our primary mission of training and mentoring of the Afghan National Army is on track, and it is a job that we are doing well. The 4th Brigade recently completed resupply operations between Tarin Kowt and Kandahar. They have also provided security for parliamentary elections without direct support from Australian troops. The coalition is taking back areas such as Gizab and Mirabad Valley that were long held by the Taliban, and high-tempo special forces operations continue to place pressure on the Taliban and insurgent leaders. There are a whole range of other successes in terms of us making progress in Afghanistan. We do not want to be there, I believe, beyond what is necessary for us to achieve our goal and our mission.
I started by saying that this was an important debate, that I support the troops and that I believe that there ought to be a place, there ought to be a right, in this House for people to voice their views, whatever those views might be. I think that is a healthy part of our democracy in terms of these debates, but it ought not be taken out of context. People ought not try to make this debate into something which it is not or give the impression that it is the first opportunity or that somehow this is about whether we stay or do not stay. This is not a debate about that, no matter how the question is framed. I have great respect for everybody’s personal views in this place, but their personal views may not be the representative view of their electorates, the Australian constituency or, for that matter, what needs to be done, rather than what some people would like done. There are often difficult decisions for governments to make, and that is why governments are elected. The most difficult of decisions is that of a government to send its own troops to war. These are not decisions that are made lightly. I remain firm in the view that, in the end, that responsibility and that decision rests with the Prime Minister, it rests with the executive, it rests with the government of the day and it remains the responsibility of the government of the day, whatever colour that government might be. It is a very important responsibility, one that should not be taken lightly.
We should also not lose sight as to why we are there, what we are trying to achieve and how that will be achieved. We will play our role. It is a significant role. Nonetheless, it is a part of a broader coalition, part of a team effort in Afghanistan to, in the end, bring about peace and a form of parliamentary democracy—whatever that may look like in different parts of the world—in particular, in Afghanistan. Most importantly for me, it is to give freedom to the people of Afghanistan, people who have suffered for many, many decades. I do not think it is fair to compare what is happening today and the role that our troops, or the coalition forces, are playing with past invasions or other conflicts that have taken place, particularly in Afghanistan. For me, the conflict in that country is not so much about territorial borders, lines on maps about geography. It is much more about ideology. It is much more about a terrorist force—whether it be al-Qaeda, the Taliban or other extremist and terrorist organisations around the world—who have no borders, who use particular places of safe haven to train, to organise and to inflict pain on innocent civilians all around the world.
Much of that we know from what has happened in the United States, but Australia has not been alone. We know of the attacks directly on Australian citizens. We are not in this alone. We are not somehow extracted out from the things that happened globally. We are not there as some sort of token force. We are there because we have a real contribution to make. I think that is the case and that is what we are making. I believe that Australians have a right to voice their support, their opposition and their views about how long any country should remain in a war and the reasons for that. But, in the end, the responsibility rests with government. In the end, government must make that ultimate decision: the Prime Minister, the executive, the cabinet.
The question of going to war cannot, in my view, be a position that is debated in the House, where it is left to individual members of the House to decide whether we go into war or not go into war, or to decide whether we stay or whether we leave. These are not matters of conscience in the same sense that you would have a parliamentary debate on legislation in other areas. These are much higher order principles that are couched in the right framework. Today they remain so, and I support those frameworks that have stood the test of time and ought to remain. I am confident of the ability of the government of the day and the Prime Minister of the day, whoever that might be and whatever government that might be, to make the right decision on behalf of all Australians. That is why Australians elect a democratic government to act on their behalf and to do these things right.
There are many questions in terms of our engagement and the solutions, and people will sometimes talk about solutions. But I have to say that, for all the debate and all the great contributions, and the respect that I have for the members and senators who have contributed to this debate, the central question remains: when do we leave Afghanistan? I am afraid I do not know the answer to that question. I am not sure that anyone else does either. My view is that we leave when we believe our mission is complete—and we ought to give enough space for our military and our troops to decide, in terms of capacity and the form that the involvement takes once they have been deployed—it is not necessarily always the case for parliamentarians to—(Time expired)
On September 11 2001 the world stopped and watched the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the United States. The media ran continuous coverage, and we mourned across the world at the loss of life and the loss of freedom from fear. On that day, all of us will remember that the world changed, and we remember where we were. Nearly 3,000 people, including 19 terrorists, died in the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, on the Pentagon in Virginia, just outside Washington DC and in a field near Shanksville, rural Pennsylvania. The overwhelming majority of casualties, as we all know, were civilians, including nationals of 77 countries. Eighteen of those were Australians.
We watched the tragedy unfold before our very eyes. We heard the mobile phone recordings—the anguish, the heartbreak, as people said goodbye to loved ones. And we glimpsed a terrifying and repulsive future of random terrorism, of senseless violence and of living in fear that any day could be our last. That day galvanised the Free World into action and Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in response to the fight against terrorism. A coalition against terrorism was established and, by 2002, 136 countries had offered a range of assistance. Australia, for its part, invoked the ANZUS treaty, to underline the gravity of the situation and to demonstrate a steadfast commitment to work with our allies in combating international terrorism. We recognised that Australia would not be safe if we did not play our part in repelling terrorism. We committed to the fight but still, over the past 10 years, over 100 innocent Australians have been killed by terrorist attacks—but none on Australian soil.
The more recent planned attack on Holsworthy Army base is a reminder that terrorism is real and that we must forever remain alert to the dangers. There is a common thread between the threat to Holsworthy Army base, the attacks on September 2001 and terrorist attacks in various parts of the world: al-Qaeda, a terrorist organisation based in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Following the identification of al-Qaeda as responsible for the September 11 attacks, allied forces initiated military action against the Taliban, conducting air strikes against the Taliban forces and al-Qaeda terrorist training camps.
Australia has provided military support in Afghanistan since October 2001. Over the last nine years the fight against terrorism continued, but it has taken on a different tone. From 2006 to 2007 a major part of Australia’s support has been reconstruction and population protection tasks, while Australian special forces continued to find and destroy terrorist training camps. A year later we added a Mentoring and Construction Task Force, to mentor and train the Afghan national army and police, with a view to Afghani self-determination and our withdrawal at the appropriate time. The move towards more mentoring and training has become the dominant focus. The Australian efforts in Oruzgan province, training and mentoring the 4th Afghan Battalion, has had its challenges, but is gradually reaping rewards. The focus now is to strategically deny Afghanistan as a training ground and operating base for global terrorist organisations and to stabilise the Afghan state through a combination of military, police and civilian efforts, with an objective of handing over responsibility in a reasonable time frame to the Afghanis themselves.
Our deployments are doing an incredible job, in very difficult and dangerous circumstances. Progress is being made, according to the commander of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. The goal is Afghani self-reliance, to enable the Afghans to control their own destiny and to have a safe and secure place where their people can live without fear of reprisals from the Taliban and other criminal elements. There is still much to be done, and while I, like many people, have seen the impacts of war on individuals and families, and our men and women, there are compelling reasons to stay the course. Both the operations to eliminate terrorist training camps and efforts to train and empower Afghans to work towards self-determination are goals requiring our support and commitment.
I have met and spent much time with members of the SAS, the 2nd Commandos, 6RAR and their families, either while they have been training or, unfortunately, in the tragic circumstances of our men returning home. Members of that RAAF base at Richmond, whom I have also spent time with, have been deployed. Our Defence men and women and their families, particularly families of those service personnel deployed in Afghanistan, or the service men and women themselves who have been deployed, have on many occasions expressed their view that we need to finish the job. Does that mean it is not painful or challenging for them during and after deployment? No. This is where, as a nation, and successive governments who have made the decision to send our men and women into harm’s way, need to take responsibility and do whatever we can to respond to their needs. It is important that we continue to improve and look at ways of increasing the effective response to the impact of operations overseas, on both the individual on the unit and also on their families—whether is be relational, psychological or physical. In their own words many of them say that to pull back now would be to devalue the effort and the sacrifices of the last nine years.
I have recently spoken to Mrs Worsley, the mother of Private Luke Worsley, the fourth Australian soldier to be killed in action. Mr and Mrs Worsley live in my electorate. I have spent time with the family since Luke, a private from 4RAR Commando unit, now known as 2nd Commando Regiment, was killed in action on 23 November 2007 in a battle with Taliban fighters. He was only 26 years old. The family was devastated at the loss of a young man in the prime of his life. I spoke to Luke’s mother last week, knowing that I would speak during this debate, and Luke’s mother told me then that, although it was hard for the family to accept the circumstances, they accepted it because it was what Luke wanted to do.
Many people question why our defence personnel are there in a country far removed from the comfortable life and safety that we enjoy here, in a conflict they did not start or have any control over, for a cause that is global. Luke believed that the strategy to help the Afghan people to become masters of their own destiny was the right one. Luke’s family supported that view. I want to thank Mrs Worsley and Mr Worsley for the time that they have shared with me and for the way that they have expressed, in a quiet and dignified way, that if we were to pull back now Luke’s life and sacrifice would be in vain. Marjorie pressed home to me—if I may say—that it is important that we stay the course and finish the job.
The men and women deployed in Afghanistan and their families have made enormous sacrifices, some the ultimate sacrifice. I acknowledge the deepest respect for the 21 Australian soldiers who have lost their lives and for their families and also for those more than 150 personnel who have been wounded in action. I also acknowledge the returned service men and women and their families who may or will feel the impact of this service in many ways in the years ahead. The direct consequence of war is not always the loss of life. It is often the loss of quality of life, and that hits hardest. I have seen the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on individuals and on their families.
I want to honour and pay my deepest respect to the commitment of our defence forces to carry out the work that they are called on to do. They know there is a job to be done and they will see it through. That is what motivated both the Anzacs and those during the Second World War. That is what saw Australian soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses in the theatres of conflict in Europe, Singapore, the Torres Strait and New Guinea, Japan and the Pacific. They fought and died, were wounded and returned home, but their legacy was freedom.
Since that time Australian peacekeepers have been deployed in many parts of the world. They are respected and accepted because they have the capacity to build relationships with local communities and earn their trust. That is a breakthrough for building local confidence and the transfer of responsibility for self-determination. Trust and respect are necessary for this process, and Australian Defence Force personnel are renowned for their capacity to help local communities rebuild and take ownership. Their weapons are there if needed, but the real weapon in the war against terrorism is the capacity to communicate, to empathise, to train and to empower people to rise to the challenges and to overcome.
That same spirit is the foundation for Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan. We are at war with terrorism. There is a job to be done, and our nation should be proud of the way our Defence Force men and women are carrying out their duties.
We are not alone with that support. Other nations are also contributing to troop and training resources. There are now 47 nations in Afghanistan assisting the rebuilding and training process. Afghanistan is a country that suffers chronic poverty, violence from extreme militants, unstable food security, health and education challenges and a culture where women do not enjoy the freedom and opportunity that we take for granted. It is obvious that long-term efforts are needed to help the Afghani people rebuild their confidence, their independence and their capacity to be self-reliant and manage in their own right the security, stability and prosperity of their nation.
It is important that the Labor government make a strong and unequivocal statement about the mission and objectives in Afghanistan and outline what still needs to be done to achieve self-determination in that nation. Such a statement is necessary for several reasons: firstly, to assure the Afghani people of our continuing support; secondly, to demonstrate our commitment to our allies; thirdly, to be a public expression of support and appreciation of the men and women of Australia’s defence forces serving in Afghanistan; and, fourthly, to honour the 21 soldiers who have been tragically killed in Afghanistan doing their duty, as well as to express support to the many defence personnel who have been wounded. I honour our service men and women and their families to see the job through, and I support the efforts of the Australian Defence Force in reconstructing, protecting, mentoring and training the Afghan people.
I rise to support our troops in Afghanistan. I rise to support our Prime Minister’s views on our conduct of the war in Afghanistan. I support what is being done and I support the purposes outlined by our Prime Minister, how it is being done and how it will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. But, having said that, I wish to turn to our long duty which will come from this long war.
The long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the war on terror will exercise, I predict, a great and continuing presence in community and political attitudes over the next 50 years. The human and financial cost will last for the next half-century. We can pinpoint when the Afghan war started but not when it will finish, and, for some 21,000 Australian service personnel so far, the end of the war is far less clear or demarcated.
I would like to acknowledge the influence upon my thinking today of the insightful book Anzac legacies: Australians and the aftermath of war, edited by Martin Crotty and Marina Larsson. This book, studying the history and the travails of returned servicemen over 100 years, in its foreword captures the reality of long duty when it says:
… it is a process and a journey not a point in time … private experiences of repatriation are a more complex and individualised matter.
I wish to put on record my acknowledgement of the fine work of the nurses, the physiotherapists and the doctors, the counsellors and the psychologists who are always there for our troops in our medical repatriation and care centres in Melbourne, in Adelaide, in Sydney, in Brisbane or in Perth. Their efforts are remarkable.
Many of our men and women in uniform return home and will do well. Following demobilisation they will be reabsorbed into the emotional security of family and community. Sadly, some will do it much harder. War experiences remain with all service personnel for all of their days. War experience does not simply conclude when the war ends or demobilisation occurs. Australians who served can have physical impairment, psychological impairment and illness for many years. I think it is incumbent upon us in this place at this time to look over the parapet into the distance to the often overlooked feature about service in Afghanistan: what will happen to our returned service personnel over the next two, three, four or five decades? There is much high-blown rhetoric about support for our troops, and the troops believe it. But when they do return if the reality does not match the rhetoric then trouble will follow. Our troops will be cynical if promises or services fail to live up to expectations. Inevitably unresolved anger will follow about government and politicians of all political stripes. Poor experiences will lead to resentment and hostility, which could be layered over five, six, 10 and 20 years time and beyond. The important issue, I suggest, is what happens to our sons and daughters, friends and neighbours who serve in the ADF when they return. It is a question for me, this war in Afghanistan, of support at how people who are and people who surround our soldiers deal with the exposure of war. I want veterans to know that their fellow troops are of good morale. I want veterans to see the support for them within the people significant to them. These significant people are their family and friends. These significant people are the government of Australia. I want our ADF veterans to be able to answer that the risks they faced on our behalf were worth the cost to them.
This war is not a new Vietnam; at least in several ways it is certainly not. Our servicepeople are at war in a time when information exchange is so much faster. Email is so quick. The upside of this, of course, is a closer connection to home. If Vietnam was the television war, Afghanistan and the war on terror are surely the internet war. The downside of this technological phenomenon is that bad news travels quickly. The media legitimately report frustrations and grief. The internet can also allow unfounded rumours about operations and indeed the conduct of our troops. This can be pretty hurtful. Information is having a profound effect. We do not want our troops to win the conflict and be lost in peace. We do not want the nation to disappoint the expectations of our returned service personnel. I believe it is very important to pick up people after their return to Australia, resilience within the ADF, and support both people who have been wounded and those who finish outside the service.
I believe it is important to understand that psychological injuries can take some time to manifest. Conditions do not always present straight away at exposure. Tremors of the mind can take two years and beyond to build. People seemingly all right can subsequently develop a condition, a trouble or an anxiety that erodes their wellbeing. Neil James of the Australian Defence Association has advised me that 53 per cent of Vietnam veterans have presented with some form of psychological condition. He advises me that nearly three-in-four of every peacekeeper who served in Rwanda deal with demons of the mind from what they saw there. One expert has advised me that at least three per cent of returned service personnel from Afghanistan are guaranteed to have a psychological condition but that this number could be higher if the purpose of the conflict and the existing support for the war changes. The mental wellbeing of servicepeople will deteriorate if social support in the community for the war fails. If the fall is expressed in the media, this could be a negative reinforcer of psychological problems.
The transition of service personnel to Australia and to civilian life can be very hard, but it is very important to get right. When people leave the military and return home, often in a different location from the barracks where they have been based, they potentially move into socially isolated existences. If there is insufficient support to help our troops transition to civilian life, to help our troops adapt, they will be maladapted.
It is appropriate and fitting and right that the funerals of our 21 troops who have died tragically receive recognition. Theirs was the ultimate sacrifice. But I worry about the wounded soldiers and their families. One hundred and fifty-six of our best and bravest have been wounded in Afghanistan, and this figure does not include those with psychological wounds. We need to look after them and we need to look after their families; to be true to our returning veterans we need to look after their families as well. Over and over again we need to ask: what can we do for their children, what can we do for the partner of those who have been wounded, those who now have a disability? These families can do it very hard. Yet the cornerstone of care for veterans is families. Governments help, and we have an obligation to help, but those with the primary emotional relationship to our demobilised soldiers have to do the most work. We do not want their children and their grandchildren to suffer damage. When dad comes home a hero but shocked and hurt by battle, it is his family who are the unsung healers. Yet they are also suffering. We venerate the soldier, appropriately, but what about the families? They have to deal with the emotional trauma and I do not believe that the damage and pressure on families is sufficiently appreciated. Support mechanism for defence families can be overlooked.
There are unique features of this current conflict. I have said it is not Vietnam all over again, and I certainly do not believe it to be so in terms of our domestic politics. There is by and large bipartisan support. We have a complete volunteer and professional force, unlike Vietnam. The modern serviceman by and large does not get ridiculed by the public but receives public support. Again, and thankfully, this is acutely unlike the unfair treatment experienced by returning Vietnam veterans. I note, however, reports that through the internet the lunatic fringe has been able to denigrate with irresponsible criticism our returned servicemen. I believe that another difference is that since Timor our army reservists can be signed on full time as formed units, mainly in peacekeeping but now in Afghanistan and serving with distinction. From infantry to commandos and beyond, our army reservists deploy with the regulars. They go overseas, they return and come back to normal civilian jobs. Although the same system of decompression exists for reservists as it does for regulars, it is possible for some to miss the regulars’ debriefs. Reservists need support services too because they are not immune from having a bagful of problems. There is a real possibility of post-traumatic stress disorder. There can be drug-taking to mask the anguish and then sometimes we have rebuild our wounded veterans from scratch.
Another difference between today’s diggers and those before them are the multiple rotations for our professional soldiers. Young men 26 or 27 years old may have served twice in Afghanistan, twice in Iraq and once in Timor or the Solomon Islands. Our special forces are doing even more rotations in Afghanistan. We are talking about several rotations with the constant pressure in war zones where there are no safe places on deployment. This increase in operational tempo will be the source of burgeoning challenge.
I recognise our soldiers are great professionals. When they are home they do the exercises and the training and then there is the deployment, all at the price of increasing separation from the lives of their families. After this, our service personnel can do it hard when they enter civilian life. These dedicated diggers do not always seek the help they need, despite their needs. We need to engage their families in the transition to civilian life and the future. It is not just a question of transitioning soldiers but also their families, including of course their partners.
In military life our service personnel are treated separate, as professional soldiers who are highly accomplished. The change to civilian life is a massive identity change. They discover that sometimes the things that they have used to measure themselves in the forces do not matter as much in civilian life, or that some civilians are simply just not interested.
We need to appreciate that when our troops come home they may have spent extended periods in a Third World country, places where life can be cheap and where poverty, sickness and disease can be prevalent. When our people come to civilian life they perhaps find the conversations in our suburbs unreal—the retirement age, the latest model Monaro, the PlayStation or the interest rates. It does take time to adjust. It is a big journey to go from a war zone in southern Afghanistan to a family home in suburban Australia. The soldier has had life- and personality-changing experiences. I am told that we witness too much marriage breakdown after deployment. I am told that after Cambodia, for instance, there was a 60 per cent divorce rate in the first 12 months. Households can fall apart and sometimes they fall apart slowly. Even if an injured soldier remains in service after deployment they can be moved from their unit, reallocated somewhere else, and they can feel dumped and isolated. Sadly, some service people still fall through the cracks of the system.
It is the case that after the First World War over 264,000 men returned. The sheer weight on our systems meant that some people were missed and overlooked, even if we regret what happened to those ANZAC diggers. But in 2010 it is just too difficult to either understand or accept that people can fall through the system. Let me be clear and on the record. The ADF and the government have and continue to take significant steps to ensure our system of support becomes one without cracks. Ministers Smith and Snowdon and other esteemed parliamentarians like the member for Bruce, the member for Eden-Monaro, the member for Dunkley and Senator Faulkner are passionately seized of these challenges. Good work was done by the member for Bruce and the member for Dunkley in ensuring there was a single medical discharge test rather than the two that used to happen prior to their intervention.
But I wish to use this important debate as an opportunity to remind all that promises must be kept. We do need effective transitional case management with switched-on empathetic and appropriate case managers. We need a focus on our invisible families and carers that has to be far greater and far more effective. Veterans with disabilities need access to services despite their impairment. Disabled veterans need assistance finding work. There is still too much discrimination in Australian society against people with a disability, generally. Veterans’ counselling services, which are doing a good job catering to pre-1975 veterans also need to understand that, increasingly, they will be dealing with younger veterans, young widows, people who have performed as peacekeepers through to fighting in high-intensity, multiple-rotation conflict zones. I recognise that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs does do a very fine job, but more will need to be done in the next 50 years. We need to remove any misplaced stigma in the minds of our diggers that interaction with government services is somehow a second-class outcome.
I said at the outset that the war in which we are engaged is a long war. Our men and women who fight it will have an even longer journey ahead when they return home. Let us use all these fine words about Afghanistan and our debate about our role there as a signpost that for the next 50 years we will maintain the same level of interest and commitment to our returned servicemen, who will number more in the future than those who served in Vietnam. Our practical resolve to honour their duty for the rest of their days should always match our spoken gratitude for our diggers’ duty, honourably served.
I would like to begin by commending the member for Maribyrnong on his contribution as one of the most thoughtful and, I believe, heartfelt contributions we have heard in this debate. I would also like to begin my contribution, like so many others in this place, by recognising the 1,550 Australian men and women currently serving in Afghanistan. There is no greater service than to put on the uniform of your country and be prepared to put yourself in harm’s way. We must respect them for the service they provide for our community.
I grew up in Sale and my electorate now includes the community of Sale, which is home to the East Sale RAAF base. I have met a lot of people over the years who have served or are continuing to serve in uniform. I believe they are the true patriots of our nation. Their willingness to put themselves at personal risk for a greater cause is something that I have always admired. It is dangerous and difficult work and I would like to commend the men and women in our forces for their bravery and for the compassion that the Australian service personnel are renowned for in the field. I wish them all a safe return at the completion of their mission. To their families, friends and loved ones: my thoughts are with you at this extraordinarily difficult time in your lives.
I think it is fair to say that the thoughts of all members of the House are with the families as they await the safe return of their loved ones. Naturally, my thoughts and prayers are also with the family and friends of the 21 men who have lost their lives in this conflict. It is a terrible price to pay, and our nation is forever indebted to the men for that service. The honour roll in the War Memorial just down the road from here in Parliament House tells the tale of the thousands of young lives that have been lost in conflict in the relatively short history of our nation. That human capital that has been lost from our nation gives one pause to think exactly what those people could have achieved had they have been able to return to our nation and reach old age. What great achievements and discoveries might their lives have led to? The loss of human capital is one of the things I often reflect on when we have such young and brave people put in harm’s way. So we honour their memory and we must never forget their service.
It is also critical, whatever happens in this debate over the days, weeks and months ahead, that there be no condemnation of or any sense of alienation for the men and women who are currently serving in Afghanistan. Our nation made that mistake once in the past, as we have just heard from the member for Maribyrnong, in relation to the conflict in Vietnam. We made that mistake once in the past; it must never be repeated. The men and women on the front line have my enduring respect and they must be supported when they return. I take up the contribution from the member for Maribyrnong where he rightly raised concerns about the support for the troops on their return. Like him, I want to be able to look the soldiers in the eye and know that we supported them while they were in Afghanistan and also for them to know that we will support them as they readjust to peacetime, and also support their families. The promises that are made in this place and the fine words that have been spoken must result in deeds in our community.
I believe that the conflict in Afghanistan, although it has divided public opinion, has great support in our wider community and there is an acknowledgment of the tremendous service of our personnel. I want to reflect briefly on a lady in my own community who contacted my office in the wake of the deaths of two soldiers, Sappers Darren Smith and Jacob Moreland, in June this year. Jean Hey has two children serving in the Army herself. She wanted, as a mark of respect, to show their families that people cared beyond their immediate circle of family and friends. She initiated in our local community a campaign called ‘Leave a light on.’ The idea was to leave a porch light on until the soldiers were repatriated home. We hope that we do not have to do that again, but the Prime Minister has obviously made it very clear to us in her address to the nation that we are there for the long haul and we can expect more casualties. I believe that is something symbolic we can all do for our soldiers if we do have more casualties—leave a light on until the soldiers are repatriated back to our homeland. I congratulate Jean Hey in South Gippsland for that initiative.
This is an emotionally charged debate, and I agree that it is long overdue. We as members of parliament do owe it to the Australian people to explain our position on this particular issue and also to explain our role in Afghanistan and to publicly state our views. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment that there will be regular updates. I think she said there would be an annual update. I would suggest that a more frequent update may be appropriate. Perhaps every three to six months would keep the Australian public better informed.
I believe that over the past decade we have failed to make the case in a public sense, and I am not surprised that opinion polls reflect a waning of support in the wider community, particularly in the aftermath of any casualties. As much as it is an emotional debate, it is also a very complex debate and there are no simple answers. The decision for us to engage in armed conflict must always be taken with the utmost seriousness and after consideration of all the alternatives. I believe that was the case on this occasion. On balance, I am convinced that its involvement in Afghanistan was an appropriate step by the Australian government. It is an issue that I have thought very deeply about. I have no hesitation in telling the House that from time to time I have had some grave doubts and some serious reservations about our role in Afghanistan. With each death—like most MPs, I would think—I have asked myself, ‘Why? Why are we there and what are we achieving?’ I think that is only fair in the circumstances.
Like many others in this place, I have been moved to tears when our party leaders have spoken about lives lost in Afghanistan and the House has stood to attention as a mark of respect. It is for that reason that I must express my extreme dismay at one section of the contribution made in this debate by the member for Denison. I believe that the member made a very valuable contribution. He expressed a view which is contrary to many others and he expressed it with passion and all the energy he could muster. He was right to ask questions. He was right to raise his concerns and he was right to come to his own conclusions and forcefully argue that case. But his reference to other MPs sacrificing their souls for their party’s political self-interest was an appalling slight. It was the wrong thing to do and I am offended, and the House should be offended. We can argue our positions with all the determination we like, but we must demonstrate respect for each other. The member for Denison has been in this place for about five minutes and his lecturing and hectoring of others is unwarranted, unfounded and beneath contempt. He should apologise to all members at the first available opportunity.
The first member he should apologise to is the member for Eden-Monaro. In his contribution to the debate, Dr Kelly gave some insights from a man whose courage has actually been tested under fire. Dr Kelly told of watching men die in conflict, of losing friends and of washing their blood from his uniform. I say to the member for Denison: do not come in here and lecture other MPs about sacrificing their souls. Show us the respect that we have shown you.
Dr Kelly also referred to the contribution that previous generations of Australians have made on battlefields throughout the world, and I would like to quote from his speech:
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 agree with Dr Kelly that this is a test of our resilience and our fortitude in the face of extremism. It has been said many times that the world changed on September 11. Of that there is no doubt. It has also been said many times that the atrocities committed in Afghanistan by the Taliban are many and the treatment of women in particular is appalling and oppressive. I note the presence of the Minister for the Status of Women in the House. Having made the decision to participate as part of an international community effort which has been sanctioned by the UN Security Council, we have an obligation to the Afghan people to finish the job that has been started. I do not believe that now is the time to cut and run. That is exactly what the Taliban would be hoping for.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs also made a valuable contribution to the debate when he referred to the risk of terrorism attacks. I want to quote from that speech. He said:
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.
I raise those points because we just simply cannot assume that the risk of terrorism has passed and that there are so many people working around the world to remain vigilant to protect innocent people. Preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist training is another important consideration in this debate.
It is for all these reasons, and because of the fact that it is in Australia’s best interests to maintain and enhance its alliance with America, that I support our current involvement in Afghanistan. A strong alliance with the US is fundamental to Australia’s national security. While that should never be used or be seen as a blanket excuse to follow the US into battle, it is an important consideration in the context of the debate.
I would caution that just because I am convinced in this case about Australia’s continued involvement, that does not mean I am necessarily comfortable with our role. I suspect that like many Australians I would rather see our service men and women back on our shores as soon as possible, as soon as their mission objectives will allow. In a perfect world there would be no reason to take up arms in this manner, but in a perfect world Australians would not have been murdered in terrorist attacks. I can only imagine the worry and the uncertainty in the many thousands of homes throughout Australia who have loved ones currently serving in Afghanistan. I believe it is important for us to have this debate and it is important for our armed forces and their families to know that their mission has the overwhelming support of members in this place. As I said, I respect the members with differing views, but I think the overwhelming majority of members in this place have stated on the record their support for our current involvement in Afghanistan. I believe it is important for the armed forces, for the personnel on the ground, but also for their families and friends in the wider community.
I think it is also important that the government continues to keep informing the Australian public as the mission develops. As I mentioned previously, it is the one area where I believe we have let our community down. We have not been able to make the case in a way which is clear and concise so that people understand the mission, what our objectives are and what can be achieved by our work on the ground. This is not just about fighting. It is also about the work that is going on in the community to try and assist the Afghan people to govern in their own right in the future.
Having said all of that, it is hard to know what winning looks like in this conflict. We have to be realistic and acknowledge that Afghanistan is not going to achieve a model society at any stage in the near future, perhaps not in my lifetime, perhaps not in my children’s lifetime. It is widely accepted that the military can only do so much and that the war can only be won by the Afghan people themselves. We are effectively, I believe, buying more time for them to get their own house in order. It is inevitable that there will need to be a negotiated outcome, but it is far better for the moderates to be negotiating from a position of strength. I fear that leaving now will not give Afghanistan the best chance to achieve a peaceful, respectful, tolerant and modern society.
To our service men and women I can only say: the majority of members in this place clearly believe you are doing a difficult and dangerous job to the absolute best of your ability, and we are committed to supporting you in that role. You are there to help innocent people. You are there to protect us from those who would do us harm. Your government is indebted to you and I believe that we as individual members of parliament are also indebted to you. Our nation’s heart aches for your return.
It is widely accepted that the decision to commit a country to war is one of the most difficult decisions a government will ever make. The magnitude of this responsibility is indeed sobering, and it is significant and appropriate that this House takes time to reflect on the conflict in Afghanistan, on its impacts and on its future. Whether soldiers are engaging across borders or whether combatants are struggling for control within regions, there is an inevitable level of tragedy associated with any conflict. So of course it is absolutely right for us to assess why we go to war, whether our grounds are sound, whether there remains an ongoing task and at what time it is right to leave.
We went to Afghanistan, as the Minister for Defence outlined recently, for a range of reasons. We are there because we are strongly of the view that we cannot allow Afghanistan to become a breeding ground for international terrorism once more. Importantly, we are also there as part of the United Nations mandated International Security Assistance Force, and this UN Security Council resolution was unanimously renewed this month. Thirdly, we are there working with our allies, including the United States.
The abuse of women under the Taliban regime is not of itself why we committed to the war in Afghanistan, but I believe that it is another important reason why we should stay there. Last week I launched the United Nations Population Fund’s State of the World Population 2010 report. The report, From conflict and crisis to renewal: generations of change, detailed some shocking examples of the abuse of women in conflicts around the globe. We know that war frequently exacerbates gender based violence. As the UNFPA report stated, women are:
… disempowered by rape or by the threat of it and by HIV infection, trauma and disabilities that often result from it. Girls are disempowered when they cannot go to school because of the threat of violence, when they are abducted or trafficked, or when their families disintegrate or must flee.
But, as we also know from the UNFPA, conflict and crisis can also create opportunities for the empowerment of women and new avenues to address gender inequality.
We know from UN analysis that after conflict there is an opportunity for change, a chance for countries to be rebuilt, a chance to break cycles of crisis and oppression and replace them with structures that foster success and growth. This critical period provides space for the long-term development and empowerment of women that gives nations the best chance of being rebuilt with the genders on an equal footing and with rights and opportunities for all. This is no more so than in Afghanistan. We know that, through the process of rebuilding the country, Afghan women can challenge gender inequalities and that we must do everything we can to help them. To those that suggest we can do this without any military intervention, I say that we need to be realistic about exactly the sorts of forces that we are up against.
Afghan women are among the most vulnerable in the world. The life expectancy for women in Afghanistan is 44 years. Maternal mortality is the second-highest in the world due to a lack of access to and quality of prenatal and maternal healthcare facilities, early marriage age and high fertility rates. Literacy rates among Afghan women, especially in Oruzgan province where the Australian military efforts are focused, are estimated to be as low as 0.1 per cent. Afghanistan is rated the second-last in the world on the United Nations Gender Development Index, which measures inequalities between men and women in terms of life expectancy, literacy rates and standards of living.
These women do not suffer this disadvantage by accident or by neglect; they do so because it has been and it remains the will of the Taliban. Prior to the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, women were protected under law and increasingly afforded rights. Women received the right to vote in the 1920s. As early as the 1960s the Afghan constitution provided for equality for women. In the early 1990s women were 50 per cent of government workers and university students, 70 per cent of schoolteachers and 40 per cent of doctors in Kabul. But all of this changed when the Taliban came to power and immediately started to dismantle the status of women in Afghanistan. They instituted a regime that has been likened to gender apartheid, effectively thrusting the women of Afghanistan into a state of virtual house arrest. The Taliban locked women out of the universities, forced nearly all women to quit their jobs, restricted access to medical care for women, brutally enforced a restrictive dress code and constrained their physical freedom to move about the cities. The Taliban perpetrated hideous acts of violence against women, including rape, abduction and forced marriage. Some families tried to send their daughters to Pakistan or Iran in order to protect them. The Taliban ended education for girls, with girls over the age of eight prohibited from attending school. The Taliban required windows to be painted over so that women could not be seen from outside their houses. They burned health posters and they prevented doctors from examining a woman unless she was fully clothed. Women’s health was so appalling that childbirth could indeed be a death sentence.
Now, nine years have passed since the Taliban’s fall from power. We know that there has been some progress in restoring Afghan women’s rights but that the situation in Afghanistan does continue to be fraught. In 2008 Taliban insurgents were arrested for throwing acid in the face of schoolgirls in Kandahar. In 2009, 150 schoolgirls were hospitalised after three suspected gas attacks on their schools. In April 2009, Sitara Achakzai, a member of Kandahar’s provincial council, was gunned down outside her home—her murderers likely to receive the equivalent of $2,500, which the Taliban has offered to anyone who murders a council member. In September last year Colonel Malalai Kakar, a woman who has risen to become the head of Kandahar’s department of crimes against women, was assassinated. In August this year, five campaign staffers who were supporting the campaign of MP Fawzia Gilani were kidnapped and killed. So the Taliban are still a threat. They are still a threat to women, especially women who have the courage and the determination to claim equality and who are working to rebuild their nation.
We need to seize the opportunity arising out of Afghanistan’s post-conflict recovery to ensure not just that the country is rebuilt but that Afghan society is better, with women and men on an equal footing, with rights and opportunities for all and a foundation for a just and equitable society. We need to sow the seeds of long-term development and peace. We must continue to invest in the women of Afghanistan so that they can enjoy an unprecedented age of social and economic progress and empowerment.
There is a protective effect that arises from equality. The more equal the society the less violence that is experienced by its citizens. There will only be sustained peace in Afghanistan if we can help them to improve the status of women and engender equality across the community. And we are starting to see this. The Afghan police force is attracting recruits, particularly in Bamyam province in central Afghanistan. This is a special province, that of Habiba Sarabi, who was Afghanistan’s first female governor. This region now claims the lowest levels of violence and some women in the region have now been allowed to drive. Indeed, there is evidence that Australian support to Afghanistan is having a significant impact on the lives of Afghan women, that we are helping these women to break a cycle of crisis and oppression and replace it with opportunities for success and growth.
Over the past week, we have heard from many of our parliamentary colleagues about Australian initiatives that have been transformative in Afghanistan. The Basic Package of Health Services program, which Australia supports, has effectively doubled the number of functioning primary healthcare facilities across the country and led to a 26 per cent reduction in infant mortality. The Education Quality Improvement Program, which Australia supports, has seen girls’ enrolment in school increase from zero under the Taliban to over two million in 2009. Since April 2009 Australia has supported the school attendance of some 3,655 primary school students, including 71 per cent girls in seven provinces across Afghanistan through Care International’s Community Organised Primary Education program. We are constructing and fitting out a new provincial girls school in Oruzgan that will provide a secure learning environment for around 600 girls. Through the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan, which Australia supports, almost 440,000 Afghans have access to over 1.5 million microfinance services across 26 provinces, and 66 per cent of these clients are female.
For the 2009 elections, Australia supported the training of 132 Afghan female election observers. Contrasted with life under the Taliban only a decade ago when women were denied education, work, health care and movement, it is clear that our work is making a difference. Yes, we still have a long way to go, but we cannot allow the Taliban to continue to attack women and girls as they strive to improve themselves and their community. We cannot have them live in fear. We must support the creation of conditions that will allow for them to flourish and engage in the economic and social life of their nation.
The most compelling words that I believe I can offer to this debate on why we should remain in Afghanistan in fact belong to the women of Afghanistan themselves—the words, for example, of Dr Sakena Yacoobi, who runs the Afghan Institute of Learning, an organisation working with women to improve health and education in seven Afghan provinces. She said earlier this year that a military presence was needed for at last another five years ‘in a conflict where extremists deliberately poison the drinking water at schools to scare away the children’.
Dr Yacoobi, who ran underground schools for girls in the 1990s, says:
At this moment, I think it would be unfair for the people of Afghanistan—especially for the women and children, who have been suffering for 20 and 30 years—to just leave them and walk out. As soon as allied soldiers walk out and leave Afghanistan, the first blood shed will be the blood of women and children.
She says that for years women in Afghanistan have been abused and are very submissive, but, in reality, ‘the women of Afghanistan are very intelligent—brilliant’. She said:
… once you give them the opportunity … they are taking action and trying to solve problems on their own.
Similarly, Ida Lichter, in her book Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression, has said:
If foreign troops leave prematurely … much progress for women’s rights could be squandered.
We know that the women in Afghanistan are ready for change. The history of suffering and abuse under the Taliban is a deep horror but also a great motivator for Australia to contribute to creating the conditions in which these women can indeed thrive.
Given the service that we have demanded of Australians deployed in Afghanistan, I return to the central question of this debate: should Australia be in Afghanistan? Is our presence in that country justified? It is true that the Afghan people are the architects of their own society, but, given the history of this conflict and the danger that women still face, our role is to help to create the conditions in which this can be achieved. The rebuilding of Afghanistan cannot take place without advancing its women, who are a major social, political and economic resource for their country. We are not in Afghanistan simply to protect women from violence, but we are in Afghanistan to ensure that the people have the security and the civil stability which will enable women to become agents of change in their own country.
So how will we know when our work is done there? For us to be successful in our overall mission, one clear indicator will be that change must be felt in the lives of the women of Afghanistan. It must be felt by girls on their way to school. It must be felt by female health workers, teachers, public servants and politicians. I believe that this, absolutely, will be a true measure of our success. In contributing to this debate I also want to give credit and pay tribute to not only the Australians who have sacrificed their lives in this cause but also all of those men and women who continue to serve within the ADF and who are doing a fine job representing our country and a significant cause.
The debate about Afghanistan, to me, seems in a lot of ways to be a situation where members of parliament, whichever side they might be on, need to explain to the people of Australia why we as a government have made decisions which not everybody agrees with. But the consensus within the parliament, quite obviously, is that we need to be there and that we are doing the right thing in putting people’s lives very much at risk. I am talking about young Australians who are very good at what they do. I think it is incumbent upon us not just to be members of parties, members of government or opposition or parliamentarians; we actually have to lead in convincing people in our electorates and Australia generally about why that is.
The feeling is that the war is less popular, for want of a better word, than it used to be. I do not think there is anything odd about that, and I do not think that means that a great percentage of Australians do not want us to be there. Nobody wants to put a considerable number of young Australians at risk. Quite obviously, only a lunatic would think it was a good thing to have Australians overseas fighting for their lives. I do think it is incumbent upon us, though, to explain why we believe it is a good thing for them to be there for us and for the world at large. I think that is what it boils down to.
For me, there is no bigger decision that a member of government or member of parliament can ever make than to send our troops off into a war situation. There could be no other decision you would ever make that could compare with it. Both my parents, who are no longer with us, were veterans of the Second World War. They both spent almost five years of their lives in the Middle East and the Pacific Islands during the Second World War. They fought overseas, against an enemy that was not in Australia, and there are some comparisons with the situation today. People say that life is more complicated now. I doubt that that is true. I think that if we had been around in the forties, during the war, we would have thought that life was just as complicated as it is today. But the point is that both my parents went overseas because they thought it was better to deal with the threat to the world and Australia where it was, rather than waiting for it to come here.
Without doubt, the threat has already affected Australians very directly—let alone our soldiers—as we all know. There is no point in going through what happened in Bali and various places around the world. Australians have already been killed by the current threat. Terrorism may be less upfront, but it is just as deadly as any other war. For us as a country to deal with the threat that has affected us very directly already at its heart, as it were, rather than wait for it to land on our shores—as it inevitably will if we do not do anything about it—makes very good sense. We should deal with it in the same way my parents did 60-odd years ago.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, where the Taliban reign with al-Qaeda, I am one of the very few people outside the military who has had the privilege of going there. I was there for a week two years ago. I was there on Anzac Day. I guess I am speaking now to the people most affected by seeing their sons, their brothers, their daughters, their relatives there. I have spoken about the big picture and why I believe we should be there, but I think we need to speak to the people most affected.
On Anzac Day in Kandahar, which is the main base in Afghanistan where our troops stay before they go into Oruzgan province to the camp at Tarin Kowt, every single nation represented in Afghanistan, plus the Afghan National Army, came to our dawn service—not because it was a big day for them but because they knew it was a very big day for us. Till the day I die I will never forget being there at the dawn service in Kandahar with our troops and with the British, the Americans, the French, the Canadians, the Dutch and the Afghan National Army, who our people train. The various groups were all there. It was a very big moment.
It is in Tarin Kowt that our men and women are living it and going out into it daily. I think everybody who has relatives or friends over there in particular should be aware just how good and how well trained our troops are and how much they believe in what we are doing there. They are extraordinarily good. Our special forces and our mainstream forces, who are part of the reconstruction task force, are the two sides of it. As the people whose job it is to go out and seek the Taliban and deal with bomb makers and the Taliban leaders, our special forces are extraordinarily good at what they do. I have actually been to their selection trials in Western Australia, and no athlete has ever gone through what these blokes go through. So it was not a surprise to go there and find out how respected and how good our special forces are. It was a bit more of a surprise to go there and find out that, with regard to the mainstream Army personnel who work on the reconstruction task force—and we have got personnel there from all three defence branches, doing various things—and work with the Afghans, teach them how to build hospitals and schools, teach them trade skills and train the Afghan National Army, even the special forces say that what the special forces do would mean nothing without what the reconstruction task force is doing. That can give people comfort as to the moral rightness of us being there—and I do not mean the big picture, which we have already spoken about; I mean comfort that their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters are there for good reasons on a local level.
I was amazed when an ordinary soldier—well, he was Australian, so he was not ordinary; we had been there a few days and I had got to know him—said to me one day, quite out of the blue, ‘You know, if there’s one thing I could change in this world, it would be sharia law.’ I was rather taken aback, because he was not an intellectual, he was not a philosopher; he was a soldier, obviously a good one. Our military people over there know more about Afghanistan and the Taliban than the rest of us because they are talking to them and working with them. I thought it was an incredible thing that the thing that mattered most in this bloke’s life—and he was a bush bloke—was to get rid of Taliban law. It is not, as people think, just about women; it is a way of life. But, to Australians and others like us, it is the way it treats women that hits us in the face.
When I was there, at the hospital at Tarin Kowt—which is staffed by Australians, Singaporeans and Dutch, or it was then—the head of our hospital mission, an Australian doctor, said to me: ‘The other day we lost a girl who was brought in by the locals. By the time they brought her in we couldn’t save her. She died from what is a common, ordinary infection. They waited till she was nearly dead before they brought her in. If she’d been a boy, they would have brought her in very early. They didn’t think she was worth worrying about until it was too late.’ He was still incredibly upset by it. That sort of statement gives you an idea of just what it is we are dealing with. He also told me that about once a month they bring in a young boy who has lost his hands or whole arms because he has been forced to go and lay an IED that was not well constructed and it blew up on him. If there is one thing that gets you about this ‘modern’ terrorism, it is that old men send off young men and women and others to die—whether they are suicide bombers blowing everyone up or they are laying an IED—but will not do it themselves. Obviously, a lot of them are dying if they are bringing in a boy every month who is missing his hands. So nobody should feel that there is not a huge moral issue in Afghanistan, let alone us along with our allies trying to deal with terrorism at its heart and at its core.
I will never forget the week I spent with our troops in Afghanistan. I can only say to the parliament and also to the friends and relatives of everybody that is over there, and to the Australian people at large, that I do not think this is very different from our people going overseas to fight the Japanese and the Nazi threat during the Second World War, because, sooner or later, if we do not deal with this, it will come here. Yes, it means pain and grief for a lot of people, but it is something we have to do and I do thoroughly believe that. Let us hope it is dealt with as soon as possible. Thank you.
It is a good thing to debate our military and civilian involvement in Afghanistan. I welcome this opportunity to put forward my views and the views shared with me by the people I represent.
At the forefront of every Australian’s thinking about the war in Afghanistan must be the tragic loss of 21 brave men who lost their lives serving in the Australian Defence Force, men who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the beliefs and interests of our nation. In the nine long years that we have been engaged in Afghanistan, longer than our eight-year involvement in the war in Vietnam, 186 Australian Defence Force personnel have been wounded. With ten deaths since June, we have shared the grief and intimate loss of families, friends and comrades at funerals held in our communities. It has been a particularly sad time. For those most affected by this terrible loss, it is important that we acknowledge these events, extend our sympathy, express our gratitude and provide some serious reflections on the events that have transpired since our involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
In the community, the debate centres on several key questions: why are we in Afghanistan, what is our purpose or mission, how will we know when the task is done so that we can bring our troops home and what legacy will we leave the people of Afghanistan? There is no doubt that, in the minds of most Australians, our involvement in Afghanistan stems from the terrorist attacks that devastated New York nine years ago—an event indelibly imprinted on the psyche of the civilized world. Good people who saw that devastation wondered at the minds that could so coldly and clinically cause the deaths of their fellow men and women and bring about misery for so many more. Good people will always, and should always, take a stand against such evil, and that is what occurred.
In response to the September 11 attacks, the UN Security Council in December 2001 passed resolution 1386, legally authorising an international security force in Afghanistan—a mandate that has been renewed ten times since then, most recently on 13 October 2010 for a further twelve months, relying upon UN certainty that the situation in Afghanistan still posed a significant threat to international peace and security. At that time, the United Nations sanctioned this war as just and called upon all nations to contribute to the International Security Assistance Force in partnership with the Afghan government. Along with 46 other states, including 19 non-NATO members, we acceded to this call.
It is worth noting that this was in distinct contrast to the Howard government’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. That war was not supported by the United Nations and it was not supported by the Australian people. The United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, subsequently declared the US led war on Iraq to be ‘illegal’ and contrary to the text and spirit of the United Nations founding charter. I think that President Obama encapsulated the sentiment of the Australian people well when he said: ‘I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.’ That is why we opposed the Iraq war when we were in opposition, and why we committed to withdrawing our troops from Iraq at the 2007 election. And fortunately we delivered on that promise.
Whilst I do think it is important to be guided by the UN Security Council positions, we have a responsibility to always test for ourselves the tenets that underpin the UN position against our own knowledge of the situation in Afghanistan and against what we assess to be in the best interest of both the Afghan people and our own serving personnel. I hope that we will always get the balance right between self-determination and supporting our international alliances. I hope that we get that right in Afghanistan. But by joining the ISAF we committed to eradicating the threat to international peace and security posed by Afghanistan. As to the nature of that threat, clearly the control the Taliban gained in most of Afghanistan had made that country a safe haven for terrorists. Taliban control of people, resources and vast spaces put Afghanistan at the centre of Islamic extremist terrorism. This control provided the freedom for al-Qaeda to establish an extensive global financial network and an extensive terrorist training network in Afghanistan.
In my electorate of Newcastle we have felt keenly the consequences of that successful incubation of terrorism. On 1 October 2005, 22 people were killed and 84 injured in a terrorist bombing in Bali by individuals with links to Afghanistan. Three people from Newcastle were killed and nine more injured. Many more were traumatised, left confused and bereft. Two young men face life without their parents; a family faces life without its mother, wife and sister; and too many families battle with physical and emotional disabilities that impact still on their daily existence. I applaud their courage. They and I remain determined to protect others from similar terrorist attacks.
At a personal level, although my values always drive me to oppose war, my experience with the innocent victims of terrorism insists that we do need to take a stand with our international friends against terrorism. We cannot forget the atrocities of the Taliban, not least the hangings, shootings, amputations and stonings. We cannot forget the brutality of this regime. I do not want to see al-Qaeda re-establish their hold in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, and I want our efforts to signal to al-Qaeda that there will be no comfort for them there. The best way, of course, to remove that comfort is to strengthen the ability of the Afghan people to defend themselves against the Taliban and resist the presence of terrorist networks on their soil. Although some say al-Qaeda has found new homes to sustain their networks in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, and that our efforts in Afghanistan will inevitably fail, there is now indeed a greater global effort to combat terrorism wherever it emerges.
Recently I spent three weeks in Europe. I had not anticipated reading every day in the newspapers—in Italy, France and Ireland—accounts of terrorist activity uncovered or of attempts foiled by the international antiterrorism effort. We are much more discreet in Australia and some would say that we are much more sheltered in Australia. It was a salient reminder that there is quite a way to go in eradicating extremist motivated terrorism from our world and that every day we should acknowledge the success of our own Australian Federal Police and security agencies for the part that they play in keeping us safe.
Returning though to Afghanistan and the other reason why we are there, Article VI of the ANZUS treaty, invoked by then Prime Minister John Howard in October 2001 after the September 11 attacks, committed Australian military personnel to Afghanistan in support of our alliance with the United States of America. It has always been my belief that the alliance with the US is one based on honest negotiation, not blind allegiance. I respect the significance of the US alliance but I am not a supporter of the pre-emptive warfare stance adopted by John Howard in 2001 and would always hope that our decisions in these matters will be more informed and more considered than just that presumption. I am also sure that America will decide its path regarding withdrawal from Afghanistan, and I think that we should do the same.
That brings me to the mission we face in Afghanistan and how will we know when the task is done so we can bring our troops home. Veterans in my electorate of the Vietnam War have warned that we need to get out, that we should bring the troops home. They warn that we risk re-running the Vietnam War, that we do not always know who the combatants are and who the civilians are. Others are equally worried about Pakistan, citing the need to counter violent extremism in that country to ensure regional stability. On Monday, I note, the Melbourne Age reported that 49 per cent of Australians oppose our involvement in Afghanistan, while 45 per cent support our ongoing intervention there. This war has divided the community, but no matter what, as a party, as a government and as a people, we must remain committed to supporting our troops. Although we might frequently disagree in this parliament, each holding different views as to the legitimacy or the worth of our involvement in this war, we remain united in support of our troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
The Australian task force in Afghanistan is concentrated in the Oruzgan province in southern Afghanistan, working in partnership with forces from America, New Zealand, Singapore and Slovakia. Oruzgan is one of the least developed provinces in Afghanistan, and in this region the literacy rate among women is less than one per cent. Among men, it is only 10 per cent. This is in part because the Taliban prohibited women from working and they were withdrawn from the education system, with a resulting loss of 70 per cent of Afghan teachers. In areas under their control, the Taliban continue to restrict the rights of women, including their rights to freedom of movement, to political representation and to education. The implications of these policies, sadly, will outlast all of us in this current parliament. A generation of Afghan children will have grown up brutalised by this regime and lacking any education. Yet experience demonstrates that empowering women empowers communities.
Our mission in Oruzgan is tripartite. First, we are providing training and mentoring to the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade, to allow them to assume responsibility for the province’s security. Second, we are building the capacity of the Afghan National Police to assist with civil policing functions. Finally, we are helping the Afghan government to better deliver core services and create an environment in which the Afghan people can prosper socially, culturally and economically. In each of these areas we have already made progress. The 4th Brigade is increasingly expanding its operations in key population centres in Oruzgan, creating a safer environment in which the Afghan people can live and work. In partnership with civilian volunteers, our forces have assisted the Afghan government to create a more prosperous society. Since 2002, economic growth has averaged 11 per cent. Basic health services are now available to 85 per cent of the Afghan population, rather than the 10 per cent of the population under the Taliban regime. Since 2001, and I think this is particularly important for the future prosperity and stability of Afghanistan, primary school enrolments have increased from one million to around six million, of which two million are girls—girls who were prohibited from receiving an education under the Taliban. This has only been possible because of the presence of our forces in Afghanistan and because of our International Development Assistance Program administered by AusAID. Through AusAID we have provided $120 million in 2010-11 to support education, health, infrastructure and good governance. This is in addition to the more than $82 million that we already provided between 2007 and 2009.
The achievements listed provide some concrete measures of what we have achieved and put a more human face to Australia’s contribution. If those achievements are sustained by the Afghan people when we leave Afghanistan then that will be a legacy of which we can all be proud. But it must be asked: will the legacy that we leave to the Afghan people also be more civilian deaths than all terrorist attacks combined? If that were to be the only legacy then we would have visited upon the people of Afghanistan a much greater tragedy. General David Petraeus, the Commander of ISAF, has said that ‘every Afghan death diminishes our cause’, and I agree.
It remains my hope, and I believe the hope of all Australians, that we will succeed in bringing a higher degree of security and civility to the people of Afghanistan so that they experience safety and peace in their daily lives, providing for them the necessary foundation for achieving their individual and shared aspirations. Then we can bring our troops home with the knowledge that they and their fallen comrades completed their missions and served well the interests of the people of Afghanistan and Australia. That outcome would be the direct result of the efforts of ISAF to banish the insurgents and increase the capacity of the Afghan military and police to resist the rise or return of those insurgents. But perhaps heightened security and safety will arise from an accommodation struck between the Afghan government, the Taliban and partners to the UN Security Council, given that these talks are now underway. If that is the case, we must prepare ourselves because it will hardly look like democracy as we know it, but it will represent an increased degree of self-determination. As we saw from the parliamentary elections held in Afghanistan last month, democracy is terribly fragile, relying on the consent of the governed.
We have an obligation to the Australian people to fight terrorism at home and overseas. It is not easy, but we came to government in 2007 to make hard decisions about who we are as a nation. At home, here in Australia, we must continue to be an open, accepting and welcoming country, with strong international and intercultural ties. The threat of terrorism should not, and will not, diminish the resolve of this country to the values of freedom, liberty, equality and democracy, and will not diminish our commitment to a multicultural, tolerant Australia. I think it was Martin Luther King Jr who said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and that is the dilemma we face. We need to ensure that our region is stable, free from the threat of terrorism and just. May we continue to succeed in Afghanistan so we can plan the withdrawal of our troops and bring them home safely.
We parliamentarians tell the public that the 21st century struggle to overthrow the world’s first terrorist sponsored state—the al-Qaeda financed, Taliban run Afghanistan—is a direct consequence of the shocking mass murder in New York on 11 September 2001. This is only part of the narrative. We claim our long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s peace and stability is honourable because we are resisting those forces who wish to keep its people poor, its women ignorant, and we are making it a safe and modern democratic state that can deliver its own security. All this is true, but it is not the whole truth. Just as our schools do not teach that the German invasion of Poland adequately explains the causes of the Second World War, we should not limit our justifications for waging war to the emotive events of 2001. The war in Afghanistan, in which many thousands have been killed, would be completely out of moral proportion if we reduced its gravity to revenge for a few thousand people tragically killed in New York.
The seeds of the Second World War lay in the imperfect peace embodied in the Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent failure of Western nations to confront fascist adventurism. The seeds of this war in Afghanistan lay in the complacency since the fall of the Berlin Wall 21 years ago. The collapse of the Soviet empire provided greater collective security and liberty for humanity: the rapid expansion of democracies; greater access to human rights, technology and new markets and the reduction of nuclear stockpiles between former adversaries. The West may have been pre-eminent, but it failed to adequately deal with the hydra-headed struggles facing collective security: failed states led by rogue leaders, nuclear proliferation and threats arising from non-state transnational terrorism.
When the US retreated from its humanitarian work in Somalia, Islamic terrorists were emboldened. When Europe and the United Nations failed to respond to the Rwandan genocide, black-hearted leaders in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Burma and the Congo were invigorated. When the US and its allies kept Hussein in power after the first Gulf War our enemies were again emboldened. And when the US withdrew its engagement in Afghanistan in the 1990s it deluded itself that its strategic interests no longer applied to that part of the world. With all the benefits of hindsight we can say that the decision left the world with a dangerous vacuum. India, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran ran its proxy wars against each other’s and Afghani interests. By the 1990s, the Taliban-backed Wahhabists, the Pakistani security establishment and the battle-hardened Pashtun warlords had won out. It is a salient lesson to those in Australia’s strategic establishment who think American military presence in the western Pacific is outdated or undesirable. They only invite the central Asian syndrome to our region. The Taliban, financed and advised by al-Qaeda, ran a terrifying sharia regime so harsh that the Saudis and ayatollahs winced, and so intolerant of minorities that Balkan war criminals blushed. The international community shrugged its shoulders and presumed itself to be impotent. Then al-Qaeda awoke the world’s sense of outrage and justice in 2001.
This war is nine years old and is fought on many fronts, including against corruption, literacy, ethnic division, poverty, as well as Islamofascists. We are also fighting to reduce the destructive role of Pakistani and Iranian meddling. But there is one front closer to home we must consider. There is a minority of parliamentarians and those in civil society who put their hands on their hearts in a gross display of apprehension for the Afghan people and claim their interests can only be upheld through Western retreat and isolationism. Like Iraq, they erroneously claim our involvement is a quagmire, a lost cause. They fetishise the suffering of those in the Middle East as victims of Western adventurism. Their arguments are only designed to delegitimise all Western involvement among failed states to suit their weak and outdated ideological positions to oppose capitalism and imperialism. This attitude was evident in the speech by the Greens member for Melbourne in this place. All we have to do, according to him, is increase aid to civil sector institutions that foster democracy, sustainable development and human rights and the murderous Taliban will lay down their arms and preach peace to all. It is as naive as it is fantastic.
When we see so-called peace activists aligning themselves with the causes of violent Islamic radicals, they are inviting us to condemn their conspicuous compassion as moral myopia. With no regard for Western interests, let alone those among predominantly Muslim nations who want to live in peace and security, they prefer the ensuring chaos from our premature departure from Afghanistan to national and regional security. Their opposition to the war in Afghanistan is a thinly veiled self-hatred for their own society, for its successes and traditions. Fortunately, their war against Australia’s noble mission in Afghanistan is as shallow as it is transparent. I am confident that this war in Afghanistan was jus ad bellum and in bello, and will be jus post bellum.
When viable Afghan independence, with the capacity for its own security and accountability, has sufficiently taken root, then our work will have been done militarily. The argument that the war cannot be won and necessitates an early withdrawal is misplaced. Peace can also be achieved by inflicting sufficient damage on the Taliban that they realise that violent aggression is no longer fruitful. It is in this regard that we must acknowledge the work of our military forces. They are there to train the local forces. But, more significantly, they are there to remove the military leadership of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. As George Orwell is claimed to have once said, ‘People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ Our soldiers are not rough men and women, but the sentiment is true. Peace, human rights and a world free of terrorism will not be achieved by capitulation and appeasement.
No war is good, but some war is necessary; and, if so, leadership in a democracy demands an explanation of why it is the case. The continuing presence of our troops in Afghanistan will bring greater collective security to the immediate region and assist Australia’s long-term interests in defeating extremism in our own region. As a nation, we will continue to demonstrate the courage of our convictions that Afghani security matters for all humanity and that it is worth the sacrifices. The vast majority of parliamentarians, who support this mission, must now get behind the executive, our military commanders and our troops and let them complete their vital but perilous mission.
Sitting suspended from 5.44 pm to 5.49 pm
I appreciate the Main Committee giving me time to get here to speak in this debate on the ministerial statement on Afghanistan. I extend my gratitude and thanks to the Prime Minister for speaking openly and freely on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. I think it is important for all of us in this place to talk about our views and thoughts on where we are heading, what is happening in Afghanistan and how we feel about it. As members of this parliament—and some of us represent over 100,000 people in our electorates—I think it is important to have this discussion and to air the thoughts and views that we have.
Many members have already spoken about Afghanistan this week. Members have spoken of what Australia has provided in terms of military deployment, reconstruction and training work being performed in Afghanistan. I am sure all Australian personnel, military and other, are doing an excellent job under extremely difficult circumstances. I congratulate all who have been involved, especially those on the ground in Afghanistan. We can talk as much as we like about it, but we will never know what it is like for all those Defence Force personnel and others who are actually on the ground in Afghanistan.
We all regret the loss of Australian personnel. We have supported and continue to support all of our personnel. We thank the families of the brave and selfless soldiers who have paid the ultimate price for Australia’s involvement in this conflict.
It is difficult to speak on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan now and in the foreseeable future without being able to reflect on the detail of the deployment, the composition, the task, the allocation, the objectives and the time frames of the coalition as a whole. Without information from the ground—the detail of what in particular, for example, the US is doing towards various tactical objectives—it is hard to offer specific comments on the timely resolution of coalition activity in that country, but I suppose I can offer my own views in broad terms.
In my view, I think we should approve the concept of a sustainable nation-state of Afghanistan run by Afghanis, and we should do what we can to help them establish this ongoing state of existence. By ‘sustainable’ I mean defendable, a nation-state that is strong enough to rebuff the coordinated attacks of insurgents, as we have seen in the past, and strong enough to uphold its laws and bring those who break them to justice. We have had any number of commentators airing their views on the potential outcomes of engagement in that war—whether we can win the war, for example, or what will happen if we lose the war. Again, in my view, the only loss would be the loss of the nation-state of Afghanistan, such that it currently is, and all that has been established by people of Afghanistan over the last decade and all that they are working towards which would be laid to waste, burned to the ground and replaced by the whim of an inherently destructive, sadistic and ideologically perverse force.
Toward this end I do not expect there to be peace and tranquillity throughout the region immediately before or after our engagement in this particular effort comes to an end. It will end sooner or later and there will continue to be those with rifles or explosives and a desire to destroy, just as there are in many, many other countries around the world. That is something we cannot control. But I hope that Australia and the coalition parties continue to strive with renewed vigour and determination for the realisation of an Afghani military and security force capable of successfully dealing with and resolving Afghani problems as they arise over time. That is fundamental. Whether it be likely or unlikely in the case of Afghanistan; whether it is even assessable at this point, I cannot say. I am deeply concerned by the thought of a force assuming effective control over large areas of populations within Afghanistan instituting a purge of people, the hundreds of thousands currently supportive of the development of the nation-state as it currently exists.
I am also deeply concerned that the greatest letting of blood would come after the withdrawal of coalition forces, if that were to occur, prior to the Afghanis being ready to defend their state. The potential for human beings to be sickeningly brutal is common knowledge, and we saw it just a few years ago on our own doorstep, in East Timor and in other places. I recall Laurie Brereton was up in East Timor at the time and he witnessed hordes of frenzied people wielding machetes et cetera running around hacking people to bits, and we can all remember those horrendous pictures on our TV. We have seen systematic brutality around the world in many countries over the years including the deep and bloody trauma that occurred on the subcontinent after the British partitioned India and withdrew effective control. We saw what happened there. At that time the loss of one million lives occurred. So I deeply, deeply hope that Australia and other coalition forces persist with their support of the training and the development of effective Afghani military and security forces in order to prevent, as best any force realistically can, any bloodletting into the future. To this end I stress the importance of doing all we can. I stress the importance of all coalition parties doubling and redoubling their effective efforts to help Afghanistan develop the demonstrated and proven capacity to defend itself and make itself secure.
Of course we know this will take time. The front-line battles that continue to take place clearly show that much more is needed in combating the enemy forces prior to coalition forces departing for home. To those who say that our presence is just making things worse, I say that the obvious task is to progressively deploy the Afghani military as they are trained and as they are able to be deployed, whether there be 100,000 for 200,000, as many as they need. Their ownership of their defence of their state is what sustainable countries do, and that is the way to go, after all.
All participants in this debate would no doubt have done quite a bit of soul-searching in preparation for this debate. We have all been considering the situation specific to Afghanistan. There have also been the strategic considerations of problematic areas in other countries and some of those have been mentioned in this debate by other members. There have also been examples of other Australian deployments over the last decade or so, peacekeeping forces in our own region and the like.
I would like to briefly look at a number of questions about us—Australia, our values and where our values place us in the world and how they guide our engagement in countries around the world. Will Australia help impoverished, underdeveloped and developing peoples and countries improve their lot in life? Will Australia respond favourably to countries’ explicit requests for our direct assistance? Will we assist people to resist violent takeovers of their people, region or country? Will we oppose oppression in all its forms—oppression of people on the basis of their race, ethnicity, sex, political views or religious beliefs, and government by terror? Will we stand by and allow systematic extremist violence to be perpetrated against the innocent? Each of these questions is applicable to our connection with Afghanistan. To varying degrees each question is applicable to our engagement with other countries in the world and in our region. Each of these questions points to the type of country and people we are—our ethics, our values, our degrees of self-centredness and our active compassion towards others. So I would hope that we as a people and as a nation are secure enough in our society and in our place in the world to be able to give assistance to those less fortunate than ourselves or facing much greater threats than we do. I hope that we would do such things anywhere around the world to the best of our ability wherever assistance is needed. And we have many agencies that do this. Through AusAID, for example, we help nations in our immediate region and beyond in the areas of health and disease prevention, infrastructure, training and the development of skills necessary for their improved self-sufficiency, and it is good and right that we do.
On the question of responding favourably to countries’ explicit requests for our direct assistance, where assistance is sought to avert or respond to grave or disastrous outcomes, in all honesty I cannot see how, as a member of the international community, we can morally decline requests for our assistance. Whether we assist in response to the damage caused by tsunamis or other natural disasters, or in the conduct of a nation’s first election, as was the case in Cambodia some years ago, or in the establishment of a new and secure nation, such as independent East Timor, I believe we must provide help when it is requested, as we are able. This is especially the case in response to the third question. We should, I believe with all my heart, assist people to defend themselves from violent assault; help people to defend themselves, their region and their nation; and help people to resist violent takeover. Australia should oppose oppression. There is nothing more abhorrent and contrary to us and our values than sadistic, dictatorial rule. We should defend and promote the ideals for which we stand, share the freedoms we enjoy with those who aspire to similar freedoms, and support those around the world who similarly aspire to ongoing peace within a just society, free of systematic and barbaric violence against and denial of sacred human rights.
Before I commence my contribution on the motion to take note of the Prime Minister’s statement on Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan, I would like to acknowledge the contribution of my colleague the member for Hindmarsh, a very well considered presentation. I concur with what he said.
I have some difficulty in speaking about this. When I speak on issues in this place, I like to feel that I have a full array of knowledge, that I completely understand them. Because of the very nature of a military presence in another country, someone who is not directly involved cannot have all the facts. In that regard, I am no different to the other members of this place, but I do feel a level of frustration. I have discussed this issue with many of my constituents. I do not purport to speak today for all my constituents—there are a variety of opinions on this—but I think it is important that the people I represent understand what my thoughts are on this issue.
It is important that we go back 10 years to the terrible time of the attack on the World Trade Centre, where many thousands of people were killed, including some Australians, and, not long after that, the two attacks in Bali, where Australian citizens were killed and maimed by terrorists who were trained in Afghanistan. One of the problems with this is that we are getting further away from the issues of the day that framed the thought process that took Australia into this conflict. It is important that we cast our minds back. One of the most indelible images in my brain, apart from all the sights of Bali and the attacks on the World Trade Centre, is from a television report—I cannot remember when it was but it was some time ago—that showed a woman being stoned to death in a soccer stadium in Afghanistan. There may have been charges of adultery. I distinctly remember the images. The Taliban were stoning people to death in a public arena. We need to remember that that was the environment at the time when this decision was made.
As a free nation that was directly affected by people who were trained in Afghanistan, we did have an obligation. I was not a member of this place then, but I would like to think that we went to Afghanistan in the interests of Australia and not, as has been stated by some, to follow a world superpower. I believe that Australia at the time had enough interest of its own in going to Afghanistan. We have an obligation for stability in that region. Not only has Afghanistan been traditionally an unstable place but it adjoins Pakistan, and there has been much said in this debate about the threats that could unfold in Pakistan. It is important that we have a stabilising influence in that area.
We also have an obligation to the people of Afghanistan. My scant knowledge of the history of Afghanistan is that the Afghans are a people who have seen foreign armies come and go, and more often than not, when they go, the country is left in total chaos. Troops from Australia and other countries have worked hard over the years to gain the trust of the citizens of Afghanistan. I would hate to think that, if the troops were removed prematurely, those citizens would be caught up in a period of retribution. That would be most unfair, because a lot of them, from my understanding, have put their own safety on the line in making the decision to support a new Afghanistan, to support a new government and to work towards a clear future. A premature withdrawal would be detrimental to those people. That is the problem. Some people in Australian society would like a clear indication of a date for removal of our presence in Afghanistan. The very nature of our presence there means that we cannot indicate that. If we indicated a time when our troops were going to be removed, those who would like to see the old rule of Afghanistan reinstated and the instability return would have a date to work towards. I do not think that should happen.
I believe that we should maintain our presence there and that we should focus on nation building. I do not underestimate that task. I understand that there are issues with the government that is in place there, and I understand that when a country does not have full faith in its government it is very hard for objectives to be achieved. But I do think that the objective of a permanent peace in Afghanistan is an honourable one, and I certainly hope it can be reached.
Another reason for my standing here today is to give my support to the troops that are serving there now and to salute those who have in the past. In speaking with someone on this subject last week, I was surprised to find that some of our troops are on their seventh rotation in Afghanistan. That is a huge commitment by those individuals and their families and it is important that they know they have the support of this parliament and the Australian people. I am also aware of the importance—even given my limited knowledge in military matters—of the proper resources needed to do the job. It would be very frustrating for them to be restricted in their objectives by a set parameter of resources. Whilst I understand that this is a difficult situation to overcome, I would hope that they are given the full resources they need—whether it is in the form of physical resources or whether it is a necessary set of orders that enable them to do what needs to be done.
Finally, I would like to touch on the issue of the soldiers who have fallen and to address, in particular, the loss affecting one family—that of the family of Lieutenant Michael Fussell. Michael Fussell was a personal friend of my daughter and indeed, on his last weekend in Australia before going to Afghanistan, my daughter, together with a group of friends, farewelled him. I was also acquainted with Michael through his being the best friend of my nephew when they were at school together. I was at Michael’s funeral in Armadale and I have to say that going to the funeral of a young man—I think at the time Michael was 25—is a very sad occasion.
My thoughts go out to Michael’s parents, Ken and Madeline. Their son Dan, Michael’s brother, is in Afghanistan seconded to a British unit. I ran into Ken and Madeline as they were en route to Europe—as Dan is training there with his British unit—to spend time with him when he takes leave in his deployment. That family’s situation is repeated right across Australia and, while we might stand up here and speak in philosophical terms about it, those families are really living the reality every day. The Fussells are having to come to terms with the loss of their son, a bright young man who had his future ahead of him, a future that may not necessarily have entirely resided in military service—as young men like Michael Fussell can choose what they do with their lives. He had ability, drive and personality—a fact that was made clear by his friends at his funeral.
It is important that the soldiers who are there, and their families, know that they have the support of their government and their people. While the deaths of our soldiers are not the sole justification for continuing an engagement, I think it is important that we remember those sacrifices that were made. I have welcomed the opportunity to speak on this matter. While I believe that it is important to commit to staying the course, I certainly hope that our troops can be brought home sooner rather than later.
Like the member for Parkes, I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this debate. I have had the opportunity, both while in the chair and during the progress of the debate, to hear a great many very fine contributions—and I would like to put that on the record. All the contributors to the debate have genuinely—and in depth—considered the challenging issues facing any nation when it addresses matters of war. Such issues are amongst the most difficult any society has to struggle with, but even those in this debate with whom I profoundly disagree have, I believe, arrived at their views in a considered and very genuine manner.
The same is true of people in my own electorate who have contacted me on the subject. I am sure we have probably all experienced the differing views in our communities but I am very, very confident, from the conversations, letters and emails that I have had, that people are genuinely applying intellectual rigour, along with a well-intentioned heart, to what are some of the most difficult matters that can confront societies and communities. I do welcome the opportunity to make my own contribution to the debate.
I want to say at the outset that whilst I have listened to the argument as to why we should withdraw from Afghanistan, I do not agree with it. I firmly believe that we should remain alongside our allies to try to ensure that Afghanistan is able to escape from its long modern experience of war and its place as a safe haven for terrorism. I firmly believe that the majority of the people of Afghanistan, like the majority of the people of our nation, long for peace, and that they long for peace for their children. I believe that what we are undertaking there is a contribution towards achieving that for them.
Many people have outlined—and I want to put it on the record in my statement too—the circumstance in which we find ourselves in Afghanistan. I think it is important to challenge the view that is sometimes put that it is only a small group—the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia—fighting in Afghanistan. That is not the case. In this united effort of countries from around the world there are 44 other countries involved in this task, including Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Spain and New Zealand. There is a combined coalition force and some 120,000 troops from 47 countries in total. We are not alongside only our traditional and historical allies of the United States and the United Kingdom in this conflict, as is sometimes portrayed.
I think it is also important to remember that in 2001 the United Nations sanctioned this military intervention. I am a strong believer in the historical role of the United Nations, which arose out of the terrible world wars of the previous century, and the principles it put in place. Those were principles that said we would take actions to avoid war at all cost but that, when we needed to, we would come together with a common purpose and take military action. Australia has had a tradition of participating within the United Nations from its very inception, and I take that very seriously in our assessment of our international actions and our commitment to those actions.
United Nations Security Council resolution 1386 was adopted at its meeting on 20 December 2001. Among other things it called on its member states to contribute personnel, equipment and other resources to the International Security Assistance Force and authorised the member states participating in the International Security Assistance Force to take all necessary measures to fulfil its mandate. This resolution has been reviewed by the UN Security Council on 10 occasions, and the resolution has been renewed on each occasion.
I believe Australia is either serious about the UN Charter, especially its obligations for member states to defend international peace and security, or not. The International Security Assistance Force, of which we have been a part since 2001, with varying levels of engagement, is fulfilling a UN Security Council resolution and this fact should not be forgotten nor downplayed. Although there has been to some extent domestic electoral pressure within countries that are acting in Afghanistan under this mandate to withdraw forces, many of the countries initially involved in the conflict remain with us even though it is nine long years later. That fact should also not be forgotten.
The challenge and focus at present is quite often about, ‘Where to now? Why are we still there? What is our task?’ From my perspective, as I prepared for this debate I concluded that Australia’s objectives remain consistent with our first involvement nine years ago. We act in concert with our allies to protect innocent citizens from murder by terrorist activities, and many people have outlined the history of those since those tragic events in 2001. We act to fulfil our obligations as a founding member state of the United Nations, and we act to fulfil our obligations under the ANZUS treaty to assist a longstanding ally—the United States. I reject the claim that Australia in this instance is, as critics suggest, simply subcontracting its foreign policy to the United States. Australia has always stood up for itself, and I do not accept that this occasion is any different. I would point out as an example that this government, the then opposition, opposed the Iraq war. I supported that position, primarily because the war was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council. We promised we would withdraw Australian troops from Iraq and this pledge was fulfilled.
I do not underestimate the difficulty of the task. There has been much evidence presented in many speeches of both the challenges and problems in Afghanistan and the achievements and progress. I believe both of those stories can be and are true. I believe that what has happened positively in some areas has not been repeated throughout all of Afghanistan. I understand the size of those challenges. I understand the history that some have outlined of attempts to have foreign forces in Afghanistan and the less than sterling success of some of those. I understand fully the difficulty of the task that we undertake. But I do not judge the commitment to a task by its difficulty. I continue to believe that what we are doing is worthwhile.
Afghanistan is a complex country and it is in a strategic position in Central Asia. Its population of 28 million is split amongst a tribal structure which is best described as Byzantine. It is complex. I was able to hear the member for Werriwa’s speech and he gave an extraordinarily fluid description of the complexities of that tribal structure. I think we all understand the challenges that that in itself creates when you are trying to deal with a country such as Afghanistan. It is poor. It is underdeveloped. It has a history of violence. UNICEF estimates that 80 per cent of females and 50 per cent of males have no access to education. Information and news is conveyed by village elders, and tribal meetings establish who has the authority to speak for the community. It is beset by three groups responsible for savage violence—the foreign Taliban based in Pakistan, the local Taliban and gangs of criminals.
I have, as you may have noticed, tried to steer clear of the use of ‘war’ in my speech. War, in our traditional sense, implies two or more sides opposed by armed forces of more or less equal capability. War also implies that one side or the other will win by deployment and cunning of its military strategists. I think our modern struggles are more reflected by the developing notion of counterinsurgency that is complex and multistranded, and I think that is what we are engaged in in Afghanistan. After nine years I think we are realising that this is not a conventional war. Most of the ISAF casualties have been through the deploying of improvised explosive devices. The 14 September 2010 quarterly report to the UN General Assembly by the UN Secretary-General indicated that the reporting period recorded a rise in the number of incidents using IEDs by 82 per cent compared to the same period in 2009.
Many colleagues have cautioned in their contributions that we need to reflect on how this conflict really ends. I believe the new international strategy starts to address that very critical question. It has four key parts: counterinsurgency measures to win the hearts and minds, transition to the Afghan government taking responsibility for its own security, negotiation with moderates to develop and establish a political settlement, and engagement with Pakistan.
In the few moments I have left in this debate, I want particularly to make a point about something that is close to my own heart and that has been reflected in many speeches. I profoundly believe that societies are transformed into free, functioning and democratic societies by education, at the end of the day. I think all of these other tasks are important and, as I have indicated in my speech, I believe that military action, including the training and raising of security forces in that country to do its own tasks, is important. But at the end of the day I believe—not surprisingly, as an educationalist—that education is what transforms society in ways that last. I am encouraged by the progress in Afghanistan along that line.
Infant mortality has decreased by 22 per cent since 2002. Where we just say a statistic and do not really understand the reality of this sort of infant mortality, this is a really difficult issue for many, many families and the suffering is significant. Getting more children to survive past five is an aim of many local community organisations in developing countries, and no more so than here. The Prime Minister outlined in her speech, and many others have also made the point, that primary school enrolments have increased from one million in 2001—and, as many have indicated, one million boys only at that time because girls were not entitled to an education—to nearly six million today. Two million of that six million are girls. None of them would have had an opportunity to go to school previously. And I know that an educated girl—as I am sure the opposition whip will agree—can be a powerful force for transition in societies and communities.
The UN Secretary-General’s report I mentioned earlier also indicated that a total of 97,145 Afghan refugees have voluntarily returned, with UNHCR assistance, so far in 2010. That includes 91,583 from Pakistan and 5,515 from Iran. If we want people displaced around the world from Afghanistan to voluntarily return to their homeland, we have to give them hope, and part of that hope is education. We should also not underestimate how force protection is important for aid workers and other civilians in Afghanistan. The UN Secretary-General made the point that attacks against aid workers continued and they represented a worrisome trend impeding the delivery of humanitarian assistance. I think the work that our aid workers do is often underrecognised. I would like to pay tribute in this speech to the aid workers in Afghanistan, but I also believe that they need security to go about their task.
In conclusion, I believe that Australian ADF personnel—as has been so eloquently expressed in this House, including by the opposition whip, whose speech I heard, and by the member for Parkes—have much to be proud of. And those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice leave behind families who will only have pride in the efforts that they have put in on behalf of this nation. They are fulfilling an important obligation under the UN and the ANZUS treaty. While we need to constantly examine the nature of our role, and our performance of it, I continue to believe in the purpose of that task.
Many views will be heard in this debate but the most important message is to our enemy. So to those who seek to terrorise and impose an ideology on us and our friends, our message is clear: know that, with all our might, our country and this parliament will continue to provide unquestionable support to our troops. Our country is forged on principles that arm us with the determination to defeat our enemy—principles of decency, perseverance, respect and resolve. These are some of the characteristics in the make-up of our men and women in uniform. And that, in the main, is why our nation can be confident of success. Importantly, these are characteristics we share with our main allies: the people of the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Canada, amongst others. We can be proud of our friendship with those nations and others, and we take the opportunity to strengthen, not diminish, that relationship. We reaffirm that commitment today.
Our troops are right to be in Afghanistan and they were right to be in Iraq. It is right that they were in East Timor. It is right that they will participate in future missions that are in the national security interests of this country. Given the troubled history of Afghanistan, only long after this chapter has closed will we be armed with all the facts that will enable us to form a true judgment of the current offensive. The men and, in particular, the women of Afghanistan deserve to live a free life and to at least give the next generation a chance. For generations they have lived in troubled times. They have lived with hope and despair and they must today be questioning whether our current occupation will stay the course; whether their future should be viewed more optimistically or whether a return to the barbaric behaviour of their oppressors is imminent.
In January 2002 I was in the United States for a Young Leaders Dialogue and I took the opportunity to visit New York City. It was indeed my first trip to New York and to the country. Right across the country people were reeling from the callous attacks only four months prior. Viewing the site where the Twin Towers had stood was sobering, and the feeling of heightened patriotism was palpable right across the country. People around these debates often conveniently forget the impact on the American psyche of those early days.
One person who understood that sentiment well was John Howard. He was, of course, on the ground at the time of the September 11 atrocities, and there is no question that this shaped his response and ultimately the response of our country. But importantly it strengthened our relationship with the United States. Our relationship with the United States and the way in which we view the world and the way in which we will do so in the future is absolutely crucial to this debate. When Robert Gordon Menzies signed the ANZUS agreement in San Francisco in September 1951 it embodied much of what our two nations are about, the history that we shared together and the way in which our history will be made in years to come. Our two countries share common purposes and that is part of the reason why we are fighting alongside the Americans in Afghanistan at the moment. We have to recognise that our future is dependent in many ways upon those strong security ties with the United States and the United Kingdom, with other NATO allies and with people within our own region. We have to recognise that it is in our national interest to be in Afghanistan alongside our friends. As part of this debate, the need for that continued presence will be underscored to the Australian people.
We have to fight terrorism at every turn. We have been blessed in this country that we have not been given up to the same atrocities that occurred in September 2001. We were of course touched by Bali, and at other times around the world Australians have been killed in callous terrorist attacks. So we have one eye on that current danger but also one eye on what might lie ahead. Many people make predictions about what the next 50 or 100 years will hold militarily in our region or by way of security risk to our country, but in the end nobody knows. The insurance that we have in place, the peace of mind that we have knowing that we are allied with some of the best people in the world, must be recognised as part of this debate.
We have to recognise that this is a debate about the Afghanis and their future and the future of many people within the region, not the least of whom being the Pakistanis. There is great volatility in that country right now and there will be in the future, particularly if we were to have a premature exit from Afghanistan. We have to recognise the incredible importance of security in other parts of the Middle East. We have to make sure that we protect the interests, and the security interests in particular, of our friends in Israel. We have to make sure that we fight terrorism at every turn, particularly where the breeding grounds have been in the past and where they will germinate in the future if we do not continue the course that we are currently on.
We have to make sure that this remains a bipartisan position in our country. Many people on both sides of this debate and from both sides of this parliament have expressed different views, but in the end there is an abiding bipartisan approach to our military and strategic interests, both in the present day and into the future. We have to make sure that the Labor Party continues its fine tradition of support of the situation that we find ourselves in with our allies. I believe one of the current threats in our country as we look forward over the next decade or two is a lurching to the left, which I think would be a grave mistake by the ALP. If they were to believe that, for political purposes, they will be drawn to the left by the Greens—and this is very much a contemporary debate—that would be a great mistake for the Labor Party, past, present and future. That is a debate that they will have internally. These are issues that have received bipartisan support and they must do so in the future. Nobody should bring into question those alliances and nobody must abandon what is ultimately going to be in the best interests of our country.
Much of this debate is centred on the men and women in our uniform in Afghanistan and the enormous sacrifice that many of them have made but, importantly, that their families have made as well. I have a large presence in my electorate of Defence Force families in areas like Eatons Hill and Albany Creek, around Bray Park, Warner, Samford and otherwise across the electorate. These are thoroughly decent people and families. As I said in my opening remarks, they embody much of what we are as Australians. They are proud to see their mums and dads go off to fight for and defend their country. They are of course anxious, as loved ones, about the safety and security of those that they hold near and dear, but in the end they are comforted, at least to some degree, in knowing that these are fine people and the finest that we can put on the front line to defend the interests of this country by fighting terrorism where it breeds and making sure that the long-term safety of our country is intact. We talk to these families and we see them on occasions at local schools. We see them as part of the RSLs and sub-branches, like the Bray Park sub-branch and the Kallangur sub-branch of the RSL within my own electorate—the fine people who have fought in past conflicts, who support their brothers and sisters in the current conflict, who will always have at the core of who they are what is in the best interests of this nation and who will always defend the right of our country to engage in conflicts which are in the long-term interests of this country. So, whilst this debate is about the present conflict in Afghanistan, it is very much about what is going to serve us well into the future.
We need to make sure that our focus remains on the needs of our troops in the field. We need to make sure not only that they receive the best training in the world but that they receive adequate resources, and that is of course something that both sides of politics support. We supported it when we were in government and I know the current government supports it as well. Where there are problems and glitches from time to time, where there are extra demands made, then we should be generous in our approach to granting those extra resources, because these are men and women who fight in our name. They fight to protect who we are. They fight to protect who we are going to be into the future. So I want to say to those young students right across the electorate who have mums and dads in Afghanistan at the moment: be very proud of who they are. It is difficult when they are away from you for so long, but know in your hearts that the work that they are doing in Afghanistan makes us as a nation very proud. As a son or daughter of one of those serving men or women you too should be equally proud of who your mum or dad is and the work that they do.
It is tragic that we have lost lives in Afghanistan and in recent conflicts in Iraq and other parts of the world. That is the sad reality that goes with having to defend one’s nation and one’s honour. So we need to ensure that we maintain a level of respect in this debate whilst always honouring the great character of those men and women who don the Australian uniform. We have to make sure that ultimately we as a parliament and as a people are acting in the nation’s interests. I believe very strongly that by our presence in Afghanistan we are doing two things. Firstly, we are fighting terrorism and the evil scourge that it is, not just for the betterment of our own country but for countries in the Middle East as well. Secondly, we are strengthening our relationship with the United States, which is incredibly important for the future of this country.
Nobody 10 years ago could possibly have imagined the terrible circumstances that played out in September 2001 in the United States and the countless terrorist attacks since on embassies or national assets around the world. We need to make sure that we stay the course, that we do not discredit those who have lost their lives in Afghanistan by leaving early. I strongly believe that if we were to cut and run from Afghanistan now, as some advocate, we would not be doing the service required to those people who in recent months and years, since our engagement in this conflict, have given up their lives and made the ultimate sacrifice.
In closing, as I said at the start, ours today is a very strong message to the enemy of this country and to the enemy of friends of our country. We will not be persuaded to change the course from what is right. As a nation we have always stood for what is best in humanity. We want to provide a bright future for the people of Afghanistan. We want to provide certainty for people as best we can, not only in the Middle East but around the world. I believe we are making a significant contribution as a country and I believe that into the future our country will be well served by our action in Iraq and also in Afghanistan. If we are to provide a brighter future, particularly for women in that region, then it is absolutely essential that we redouble our efforts and make sure that we continue the bipartisan approach. That is something that I am personally committed to and that I know the coalition is thoroughly committed to. We will not give in to those who seek to destroy what we are.
At the commencement of my contribution to this debate, I would like to place on record my thanks to the Prime Minister for her statement on Afghanistan and for committing to make a similar statement to this House each year that we are involved in the Afghan conflict. The worrying thing about this commitment is that the Prime Minister expects the war to continue and that Australian troops will be fighting there for some time to come. I would like to place on record my thanks to our Australian soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Their commitment to our country makes us all proud. Our troops have my full support, and I am not questioning our alliance with the US. However, I question our involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan.
I ask myself: how has our presence in Afghanistan made either it or Australia a safer place? I am afraid the answer is that it has not. Civilians are still being killed, wounded and traumatised. Australian soldiers are dying. Twenty-one young Australians have lost their lives and a further 156 soldiers have been wounded. Even more have suffered trauma and psychological damage. I put on record that I do not apologise for the position that I am taking in this debate. But in taking this position I must say that I fully support our troops and the veterans who will come back to Australia after this war.
The conflict has not led to a decline in militant Islamism, nor less death and destruction. Rather, it has led to more civilian deaths and more devastation in a country that struggles to feed its people and has the worst child and maternal health outcomes in the world. It remains a country where 28 per cent of the population are illiterate and where corruption is rampant. An article by John Kerin in the Australian Financial Review on 19 October this year highlighted the inconsistencies in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. He pointed out that the Karzai government is one of the most corrupt governments on earth and that the only more venal government is Somalia’s. I question that we are sending our troops to protect such a government. I ask: is it worthy of our protection? I question a government that oversees state organised drug-running, fraud and bribery and one that reportedly maintains power through election fraud and violence. I refer to that same article, John Kerin’s article in the Financial Review, where he states:
An election in late September was riddled with fraud in up to one-third of Afghan provinces. Both Hamid Karzai and his brother Ahmed Wali were accused of trying to fix the result.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups made good on their promise to disrupt the elections by mounting rocket attacks and intimidating election workers.
The attacks led to the closure of 1000 of the 6000 polling stations.
I feel that that really puts into question the level of democracy that exists in Afghanistan. It would appear that it is a government that mirrors the Taliban and that Australians are involved in a conflict that is propping up a corrupt government to prevent another corrupt government coming to power, in the hope that this corrupt government is less inclined to direct terrorism towards Australia and our allies.
I question whether it is worth the loss of life, the devastation and the destruction in a country that has a long history of being plagued by conflict and civil war. Afghanistan is a dysfunctional society. Our intervention has not changed this, nor will it in the future. I ask: are the lives of the Afghani people any better as a result of our involvement in the war in Afghanistan? The answer is no. Is the world a safer place? The answer is no. Is there less likelihood of a terrorist attack? The answer is no. If this cannot be achieved through the conflict, how then can it be achieved? I strongly believe that it can be best achieved by winning the hearts and minds of the Afghani people, by improving literacy, ensuring better health outcomes, addressing the issue of food shortages—by spending money on aid, not bullets.
Australia’s commitment to the war in Afghanistan commenced in October 2001 with the deployment of a special forces task force which was withdrawn in November 2002. Up until 2005, Australia maintained a relatively small presence in Afghanistan. Since 2005, however, troop numbers have been boosted, and currently we have almost 1,500 soldiers deployed under the International Security Assistance Force. The sacrifice of all these soldiers is to be admired, with special thought given to the 21 Australian soldiers who, tragically, have been killed in the conflict.
A division having been called in the House of Representatives—
Sitting suspended from 6.47 pm to 7.21 pm
The terrorist attacks on September 11 were a terrible tragedy, a horrible event that shocked the international community. The response by the United States was a natural path in retaliation against the deaths of 3,000 American citizens. Australians will remember the horror of the Bali attack in 2002 and the many Australians who were killed there. However, the legality of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan is questionable. I refer to a statement by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, where they say that ‘central to just war theory is the protection of innocent citizens, the preservation of life and the supremacy of human dignity, in addition to a high probability of success and that the use of force is the absolute last resort’.
The war is in its ninth year and 2010 is arguably the most violent year yet with the growing Australian death toll. Abandoning the Afghan people would only prove doubts over the legality of the war true; however, if Australia were to formulate a timely and reasonable exit strategy to withdraw its troops, we would not be abandoning the Afghan people but quitting as some contributors to this debate have suggested.
According to a study commissioned by the Australian Council for International Development Afghanistan working group, the Australian defence budget at approximately $1.2 billion is estimated to be 10 times that of the Australian aid budget. By withdrawing the troops Australia would not be giving up; it would be an opportunity to expand our foreign aid efforts to Afghanistan and the region while not putting any more Australian lives at risk. In particular there would be an opportunity to support the cause of non-government organisations like Caritas Australia who are known for their close relationship with the Afghan communities. The Australian Council for International Development has also called for a decoupling of Australian aid and defence spending. On 1 October 2001, in his address to a special week-long session of the General Assembly on terrorism, United Nations then Secretary-General Kofi Annan said:
As we summon the will and the resources to succeed in the struggle against terrorism, we must also care for all the victims of terrorism, whether they are the direct targets or other populations who will be affected by our common effort. That is why I have launched an alert to donors about the potential need for much more generous humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan.
During 2008 the life expectancy at birth in Afghanistan was 44 years. This is close to half that of Australia. The war has contributed to this low life expectancy. According to recent United Nations reports to the UN in New York by the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations, the civilian death toll is up by 31 per cent this year due to an increase in insurgent attacks. Indeed much of the death toll is unknown and will never be known. It is impossible to come to an exact figure of how many people have lost their lives, but estimates suggest a figure in the vicinity of 44,000—and they are civilians.
Afghanistan ranks 181 out of 182 countries in the UN Human Development Index as corruption runs rife within the Karzai government, highlighted by the outcome of the recent election which I touched on earlier. The continuing deployment in Afghanistan is often justified on the grounds that it is supporting stable and democratic government. I question whether the Karzai government could be described as either. All reports show that it is a government that is rife with corruption and that it is perpetuating many of the problems that have been long seeded in the Afghan society. Al-Qaeda is virtually non-existent in Afghanistan in 2010, and with the diminishing influence of al-Qaeda on the Taliban it is time for diplomacy and to negotiate with the Taliban. This will help end the bloodshed, will actively promote the cause of democracy in the region and end the culture of corruption within the Afghan government.
The Australian community is becoming more and more sceptical about our prospects of success and increasingly doubtful about the merit of our involvement in Afghanistan. If our constituents do not support putting Australian lives at risk, we should endeavour to bring our troops home safely. The Netherlands left Afghanistan earlier this year and Canada has announced plans to withdraw its soldiers from the country next year. The purpose of our involvement was to prevent further terrorist attacks and to halt the spread of terrorism. Arguably, Australia’s involvement has increased the terrorist threat to Australia. If that is the case then it is time to consider our exit strategy from this war where there can be no winners, only loss of life and destruction. A time frame for the withdrawal of our troops needs to be set and a discussion as to how this will occur needs to commence. New strategies need to be developed that will lead to Afghanistan becoming a functioning, viable society where extremism is a thing of the past.
The Prime Minister, in her statement to the parliament, highlighted our aid commitment to Afghanistan. I believe this is the answer to terrorism. By improving people’s lives and lifting them out of poverty and fear the need for fanaticism and radical solutions will be removed. I conclude by thanking the Prime Minister for allowing this debate. I put on record the fact that I question our involvement in this conflict, but whilst questioning our involvement I give my unconditional support to our troops.
Debate (on motion by Ms Rishworth) adjourned.