Tuesday, 16 November 2010
Report from Main Committee
Order of the day returned from Main Committee for further consideration; certified copy presented.
Ordered that the order of the day be considered immediately.
Mr Speaker, thank you for the call and thank you for the opportunity to make a contribution to this debate. I start by acknowledging the great, heartfelt sadness that 10 families must have felt on Remembrance Day. There were 10 new names added to the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. All those 10 outstanding Australians gave their lives in the service of our country doing what our nation asked of them in Operation Slipper in Afghanistan. Sapper Jacob Moerland, Sapper Darren Smith, Private Scott Palmer, Private Timothy Aplin, Private Benjamin Chuck, Private Nathan Bewes, Trooper Jason Brown, Private Grant Kirby, Private Thomas Dale and Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney all made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan over the preceding 12 months. Their contribution, their courage and their selfless service of our nation is captured on the honour roll at the War Memorial. That brings the number of Australian lives lost in Operation Slipper to 21, and there are more than 150 people who have been wounded, some very significantly, under Operation Slipper.
I raise that because it is something I spoke with some children about on Remembrance Day at a service in Mount Eliza. It is a very real example that the good fortune we enjoy in Australia needs to be protected, and our duty is to preserve and carry forward those great gifts of freedom and liberty of opportunity that we enjoy. Where we see an opportunity to make a contribution as part of the international community we should consider our good fortune and recognise our responsibility to help others. I raise that in the context of our history as a nation. We have done that in the past, it has served our nation well and it has served humanity well. We also need to do that now. It is just one of a number of reasons why Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan is, in my mind, entirely justified. It is just and it is one that we should persevere with.
In addition to that there is the unavoidable truth that tragedy has been inflicted on Australian citizens through the most heinous acts of terrorism and violence by people whose talents were developed in Afghanistan. It is also worth recognising that a failed state in that region of the world where nuclear capability is present presents enormous problems for all of us. A functioning, regional architecture and opportunities for citizens of that region are our best antidote to not see potentially enormous and unthinkable things happen from the crumbling of civilisation, civilised discourse and governance in that part of the world.
The other thing we should also bear in mind is that, when we reflect on our own good fortune, we pay the respects that are very hard earned and well deserved on commemorative occasions like Remembrance Day. It is important to wonder to ourselves what might occur if we did not participate and recognise the enormous cost borne disproportionately by the family members of those whose loved ones have already suffered so much and by those who continue to suffer from injury, illness or impairment as a result of their service. If that sacrifice was not made what might happen?
I am happy to account for my contribution as a minister in the defence portfolio and as Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, where my duty from sun-up to sundown and through most of the night was to care for those doing extraordinary work on behalf of our nation. But had they not been doing that work, had other likeminded countries not recognised not only the threat that was present in Afghanistan but also the consequences of that threat—consequences that had already played out most horrendously—what would have happened? Would we have left that role to someone else? Were we suggesting that because we were not a combatant in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would spare Australian citizens the heinous acts of terrorism that they perpetuate around the globe? Would we be content for others to step up and see that the cost of their actions was somehow appropriate yet our willingness not to contribute was reasonable given the international concern that inspired the engagement in Afghanistan? I think for all of those questions the answer is that if we did not turn up we would be regretting that inaction and we would be paying the cost of it—and that cost would be paid for a long time.
Al-Qaeda is nothing like the outfit that was in Afghanistan previously. Al-Qaeda is a global terrorist organisation; it seeks to end Western influence and attack Western values and it seeks to ensure that that influence and those values do not take hold in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda pursues its mission with extraordinary acts of inhumanity and heinous crimes against people to drive home its objectives. They are now not able at will to come into and leave Afghanistan to develop that lethal terrorist capacity. They have been pushed out of Afghanistan. It is already an extraordinary achievement that that training ground, that incubator of terror, is now no longer present in Afghanistan, where entry and exit was so porous. It was frightening to see the number of people who went and learned their evil craft in Afghanistan.
The Taliban, though, is a coalition of political, military and tribal organisations that basically wants to run Afghanistan. It has more of a domestic focus. Those in the Taliban are keen to impose their will on the people of Afghanistan. They are trying to exercise the weight of oppression to control the population, not the weight of their argument. They use the calibre of firearms to persuade people to follow their direction, not the calibre of the leadership or the quality of the ideas they put to the people there. They continue to represent a threat, and they continue to symbolise the reason for our engagement—they are a threat to the physical security of people in Afghanistan and beyond.
Afghanistan is referred to as a military engagement. That is but one phase of where we are at in Afghanistan. I think the Prime Minister, when talking about a decade-long engagement, could have articulated more precisely that this engagement will change over time—it will adapt to new circumstances and threats of the kind that al-Qaeda represented and that the Taliban, to a lesser extent but still at great cost of life, now represents. As that threat is removed, pushed back like a tide of evil and danger whose goal is to maim and kill others to gain a foothold of influence and power, we need to maintain our efforts. We need to make sure that our perseverance in a security and military sense does not wane and allow that tide to come in again. If that tide comes back into Afghanistan, anything else we seek to achieve in Afghanistan will not be achievable.
Children do not go to school when they are terrified about walking down the street or terrified that they will be the subject of a random bombing attack designed to cause fear and intimidation and to terrorise a population into following an alternative strategy on the direction of the government not because it is in the citizens’ best interests but because the fear is so great. People do not go to health clinics when the resources in that clinic are not safe and secure and when medical practitioners risk their own lives simply by venturing out into those community spaces. Literacy does not improve when there is not the opportunity to engage in education. Livelihoods do not improve when the place is so dysfunctional that there are no prospects of any kind of economy taking hold.
Women in Afghanistan need the opportunity to make a full contribution to lift the country’s opportunities and prosperity and to shape a better future. Women need to be involved and they need that opportunity to participate. I have often said that if women are not being fully engaged in developing fragile countries and economies they are tackling the challenge with one arm tied behind their back. Yet in the Taliban’s view of the world women do not have that contribution to make. At the Telstra Business Women’s Awards presentation the other night I heard story after story about the remarkable contributions of women, and that reinforced my view of how much poorer countries like Afghanistan will be if organisations like the Taliban have their way.
We need to pursue a position of strength to try and secure a negotiated peace settlement. You cannot negotiate from a position of weakness where it has already been proven that threats and intimidation, force and violence may be used as part of the artillery. We need to be in a position of strength to negotiate a political settlement. It is encouraging news that more conflicts now end in negotiated settlements than in military victories. It also turns out that wars that end in negotiated settlements last three times longer than those that end in military victories but are nearly twice as likely to restart within five years. So if we are to negotiate a peace settlement and put Afghanistan on a positive footing with their future being shaped by Afghanis, we need to recognise the risks of the threat re-emerging—that is why I use the analogy of keeping the tide out.
As a state emerges—it is past being a fragile or a failed state; it is now in a state building mode—safety and security are basic preconditions, otherwise nothing else will be achieved. That is why a military presence is justified but it needs to adapt and recalibrate as the domestic forces begin to provide that basic security, and that makes everything else possible. As that state is secured, we then get on with state building. The elections in Afghanistan might not pass the test of being free and fair by our standards but they were an expression of the people’s will and that Afghanis can shape their own future. Their systems of democracy will improve. There is no question that corruption is a cancer on the work going on in Afghanistan but, sadly, it is not alone. We have seen it in other countries, and we have to work persistently to overcome that.
It is also worth recognising what the international literature says about fragile states, failed states and state creation: it is a long-haul business. As the military’s presence declines and a security-policing presence emerges and as objectives of livelihoods develop, services are put in place, schools are built, education and health services become available and there is the full participation of citizens, the tool kit needs to change and adapt. But that is going to take a long time. Even the recreation of fragile states—we are not talking about building from the ground up—is extraordinarily expensive to support.
Under the previous coalition government, I was involved in the development of a white paper which provided some information about the cost of fragile states and how, on average, they remain fragile for half a century. You do not need to look too far to see this. The work with countries in our own neighbourhood has seen Australia continue to be involved with fragile states. Opportunities need to be supported through aid and development, and good governance is needed to support the continuation of that work—and we have been at it for decades. I also invite people to look closer to home. Australia have a recognised competency in dealing with the fragile and failed state recovery mode. We have some experience. We did it in East Timor, we did it in Bougainville and we are still at it in the Solomon Islands. We have developed some competencies around that space. The need to get local governance working and to see people want what that offers is a key precondition.
The Afghanis will welcome our support but, as a friend of mine who has done a number of deployments said, they need to know you are for real. You need to do what you say you are going to do to be valued by the Afghanis, and you need to stay the course. We have that reputation. But to get the Afghan people working collaboratively and in a synchronised way with our international efforts, we need to keep face with the Afghan community. That is a cultural precondition. We need to do what we say we are going to do. We need to see this through. We need to make sure that the support is there and that the Afghan people can turn their efforts towards a partnership with the international community and know that those partners will hang around. This builds respect and credibility; it builds preconditions for a recovering state in Afghanistan. But this is going to take decades, and we need to be prepared to make that commitment.
I join with many members on both sides of the House and on the crossbenches to speak about Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan and, in particular, the deployment of the Australian Defence Force throughout Afghanistan. I welcome the school students who are in the galleries today and also the members of our community. It says a lot about our democratic parliamentary system when we can have such a significant debate in this House, with our community watching on.
I thank all those who have spoken before me and who are still to speak both in the House and in the Senate for their contributions on this important motion. Their contributions have been thoughtful and delivered in a way that is within the spirit of the debate. Many speakers before me, including the Prime Minister, have spoken of the heavy burden that the federal government must carry in making a decision to send our young men and women to war. The war of today is in many ways very different from the wars that our forefathers had to fight in the past. However, as we know, the war of today carries the same risks to the lives of those who choose to defend our country. If we, as a democratic society, accept that we must defend our nation, its people and their way of life then we must accept that we cannot defend our nation only from our shores. The risks to our nation can come from far away.
Terrorist acts have taken the lives of so many Australians, and we have seen those lives lost in acts of terror on foreign soil. New York is 15,989 kilometres from Sydney, Australia. Despite this distance, I am sure many Australians who were watching their televisions or listening to their radios when the devastating attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York occurred on 11 September 2001 will still recall exactly how they felt. I remember dropping my daughter off to day care, just thinking about the tragic loss of life. Later that day, I heard from my South Australian colleagues in the AWU that one of our past AWU officers had been in the World Trade Centre at the time. Andrew Knox, aged 29, was on the 103rd floor of the north tower when the plane hit. The last we heard of him on that day was that he and other work colleagues were heading to the roof, waiting to be rescued. Andrew was one of 10 Australians lost that day. Since that time we have witnessed other terrorist attacks that have taken Australian lives.
The lives of 88 Australians were taken in Bali in 2002 and four Australians were killed in the second Bali bombing in 2005. Our embassy has been bombed in Jakarta. We saw the loss of one Australian and others injured in the London bombings on 7 July 2005. In each of these cases, the terrorist groups involved had links to Afghanistan. Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan is not about any one individual; it is about all individuals. It is about defending our right to live without fear and defending that freedom.
The Prime Minister outlined the two vital national interests in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan: firstly, to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists, a place where attacks on us and our allies begin; and secondly, to stand firmly by our alliance commitment to the United States, formally invoked following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
This House has heard from many that al-Qaeda, prior to 2001, was able to establish itself as an extensive global financial network that enabled it to exercise effective control over the Taliban. Al-Qaeda were able not only to train under the safety of the Taliban government but to finance and plan the attacks on foreign soils on innocent people.
There are people in my communities and in communities around Australia who question our involvement in Afghanistan, who question what has been achieved. Since 2001 we have seen the removal of the Taliban government and the fracturing of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda cannot hide under the safety of a Taliban government and they cannot openly conduct their operations nor establish training facilities.
We have heard from others, in reply to the Prime Minister’s statement, talking about the actions of the Taliban regime—the brutality that it forced onto its people and the power that it wielded with such ferocity and terror. Women were subjected to acts that we in Australia could not even fathom, let alone let our minds wander to the thoughts of our daughters being subjected to such treatment—abduction, forced marriage, rape or being sold into sexual slavery. Women were prohibited from working or gaining an education.
Importantly, we do not go in to this war alone. This action was taken as part of a broader strategy across nations. The International Security Assistance Force was created in December 2001 after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The International Security Assistance Force works under a United Nations Security Council mandate. ISAF’s mandate has continued to transform to match the shifting needs of Afghanistan and its people.
In London in January 2010, the international community—including over 70 nations and international organisations—reaffirmed its resolve to work with the Afghan government to defeat international terrorism. Importantly, the conference emphasised the need to transfer ‘ownership’ for security, development and governance to the Afghan government, and the need for sustained international commitment in these areas.
In June 2010, US General David Petraeus assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force. As recently as 13 October this year, the United Nations Security Council unanimously renewed ISAF’s mandate for a further year. In July 2010, around 70 nations and international organisations met in Kabul, where participants welcomed the Afghan government’s determination to work with the other nations to achieve governance, strengthen their own military operations and to renounce violence and links with international terrorist organisations.
I welcome this debate because a government, having made a decision to send our defence personnel into combat, must regularly assess the situation to ensure that the objectives are achievable and the decision is justifiable. I believe that the member for Eden-Monaro said it best, in speaking in his reply to this statement. Dr Mike Kelly said:
This parliament is situated on an axis that ensures we are always in sight of the Australian War Memorial. There is no mistake in this, as it was intended that it be a reminder of the consequences of political decisions and that they should not be taken lightly. It is also a reminder that this nation has made great sacrifices throughout its history in the cause of peace and freedom.
The executives of governments who have made these most challenging decisions do not do so lightly, and we have heard that from many in the executive of the current government in their addresses to this parliament and also from those who held executive positions in the previous Howard government. Nor do we, as elected representatives, take decisions about the service of our men and women lightly, whether it be in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world.
In the midst of a war, it can be difficult to recognise the real and tangible positives that are occurring in Afghanistan through the work of ISAF together with the Afghani people. There are, however, tangible positives that have already been achieved. These include positive steps in the areas of health and education—areas which, as Australians, we take for granted as being a basic birthright. Primary school enrolments are at six million today, up from one million only nine years ago. Importantly, two million of those enrolments are girls—something not just unthinkable but illegal under the Taliban rule. The transformative power of education is today sowing the seeds in these young Afghani boys and girls who will blossom in the years to come. The power and dignity an education can give to an individual should never be underestimated and the value to Afghanistan as a nation is incalculable. In the area of health, we have seen a 22 per cent decrease in infant mortality in six years and an immunisation rate that is between 70 and 90 per cent. These are achievements that our nation should be proud of.
We must continue to support those who serve this country—those who do so voluntarily, with great risk and great sacrifice. Remembrance Day was marked across our nation last Thursday. There were a number of services across my electorate of Petrie. At one service, two serving soldiers spoke incredibly movingly of their recent service in Afghanistan. They spoke of the toll of the loss of their fellow soldiers, and the pride they feel at the job they are doing in Afghanistan and the positive changes they can see their work doing.
I would like to finish by acknowledging the tremendous efforts of our serving defence force. To the Australian Defence Force personnel, the Australian Federal Police personnel and the civilian personnel who serve in the combined team in Oruzgan we say, ‘Thank you.’ To the 21 Australian soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since 2001 and to the families left behind, we say: ‘Thank you. Your husbands, sons, and fathers will not be forgotten.’ To the 129 soldiers wounded: we acknowledge your service and your sacrifice.
And even to the explosives detection dogs that have died protecting our troops we say, ‘Thank you.’ One of those dogs was Herbie. Herbie died with Sapper Darren Smith and Sapper Jacob Moerland, both from the Brisbane based 2nd Combat Regiment. These men and Herbie died from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in June 2010. On 29 October this year, the Peninsula Animal Aid shelter in my electorate was presented with a plaque by Bonnie’s Dog Obedience and Care Centre. Herbie had been adopted by the Defence Force from the shelter two years earlier.
I end as I started: the decision to send our men and women to fight on foreign soil is taken with a heavy heart. It is, however, a decision that a democratic government, elected by the people, must make in the best interests of our nation. Having made that decision, the government must ensure that our nation, its people, are always grateful for the service that is given and never forget those who have served.
More than 200 years ago it was Edmund Burke who said to the electors of Bristol, ‘Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgment, and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ On matters of judgment, nowhere is this more important than on issues of national security. I therefore feel privileged to have this opportunity to share with the House my judgment in support of Australia’s current military mission in Afghanistan. In doing so, I am conscious that within both my electorate and the broader community there are dissenting voices. This is understandable—war is a blunt instrument. It can be deeply unpopular and brings with it great pain and suffering. But there are times when neither a heavy human cost nor fragile public consensus should deter us in our task. There are times when we must take hard decisions, stare down the detractors and steel our resolve. But, most importantly, there are times when we, the public’s representatives, must elevate the debate, articulate our goals and explain to the community at large what really is at stake. Today’s war in Afghanistan is such a time. We must remember why we went there.
On September 11, 2001 the world changed forever. I call it our ‘JFK moment’. My parents’ generation could always tell us where they were when they heard JFK had been shot. My generation can always tell you where they were when they first learnt of 9-11. It was a brazen, sophisticated and terrifying attack on the US mainland that has redefined how we think of our security needs. No longer do we fear Red Army tanks rolling over western European borders and ending life as we know it; rather today it is the plain clothes al-Qaeda terrorist walking undetected into one of our major cities carrying a dirty bomb in their briefcase that strikes the deepest and most fearsome chord. This permanent, fundamental recasting of the nature of the security threat is the real lasting impact of 9-11. We must never forget that the brutal slaying of nearly 3,000 innocent civilians in 9-11 was planned by al-Qaeda from their safe haven in Afghanistan. We must never forget that 10 Australians were among the nationals of 77 countries that died that day and we must never forget that since 2001 more than 100 Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks overseas and in each case the perpetrators had links to Afghanistan.
At the time of 9-11, Afghanistan was positioned at the axis of the global terrorist movement. The United States and its allies could no longer put at risk their citizens by tolerating the status quo, and they did not. With the backing of United Nations Security Council resolution 1386, adopted on 20 December 2001, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force was established. With the support of a unanimous resolution of the Australian parliament, articles 4 and 5 of the ANZUS treaty were also formally invoked. This was the first time an Australian government had invoked the treaty in the 50-year history of our alliance with the United States. Soon after, nearly 1,300 of Australia’s finest men and women in uniform were deployed. Our troops were withdrawn by the end of 2002 as the Taliban were defeated in Kabul and the pointy end of the conflict was at a close. International attention would soon turn to Iraq and only in the latter part of 2005 would Australian special forces make their way back to Afghanistan.
In 2006 Australia sent a reconstruction task force to the southern Afghanistan province of Oruzgan as the mission morphed into assisting the country in its rebuilding phase. Australia continues its critical role in Oruzgan, helping to train the 4th brigade of the Afghan National Army and strengthen the capabilities of the Afghan National Police. With 1,550 troops in the field, Australia is now the leader of the provincial reconstruction team in Oruzgan, and in the past year we have lifted our civilian contribution to the country by 50 per cent. Australia has committed nearly three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars in development assistance to Afghanistan since 2001.
We should be proud of the significant contribution but at the same time we should recognise that the mission in Afghanistan is truly a global effort. Today’s coalition force of more than 120,000 troops comes from 47 different nations, including 19 non-NATO members. Significantly, there is buy-in from the Islamic world with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Pakistan all having attended the Kabul conference in July. The global jihadist movement is as much a threat to their regimes as it is to ours, and their involvement in helping to resolve the conflict is a timely reminder that our battle is not with Islam but with an extremist ideology that has sought to hijack Islam for its own totalitarian ends.
Given the length and depth of Australia’s commitment over so many years to this distant conflict, it is legitimate to ask: why should we stay the course? Indeed, you could not find two any more different countries than Australia and Afghanistan. With its landlocked mountainous landscape, its drug trade dependent economy and literacy levels around 30 per cent, Afghanistan has seen more than its fair share of suffering over recent decades. But now the people of Afghanistan have begun to get their first glimpse through the window of hope.
The military and civilian contribution of ISAF has made, and is making, a difference. And Australia is critical to this effort. A free press and an elected parliament are in place. Trade-training schools are churning out local graduates who in turn contribute to the rebuilding effort. Australia has been involved in 78 school reconstruction projects and the allocation of 950 micro-finance loans. New hospitals and health centres have been built and new transport infrastructure—roads and bridges—are fostering commerce. And tens of thousands of Afghani police and military have been trained to enable an eventual transition to local forces to guarantee domestic security.
When it comes to the size and structure of Australia’s military commitment, the government should be guided by the expert judgment of our leaders in the field, and in this respect I support Tony Abbott’s words in this debate that our 1,550 personnel in Oruzgan should be seen as an average maintained over time rather than a limit never to be exceeded irrespective of the requirements on the ground.
We must be under no illusions for in Afghanistan there is no overnight cure. Progress is gradual and hard fought and there are continuous setbacks. Disturbing allegations of corruption in the Karzai government are the most recent manifestation. But we cannot be deterred, as the commanders tell us we are making ground and we know the cause is too important to fail. The US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, said recently that ‘winning in a counterinsurgency campaign means making progress, and in that regard we are winning.’
Were Australia to prematurely withdraw from Afghanistan, we would be sending the worst possible message to the people of Afghanistan, to our steadfast ally the United States and to all those with the intention and wherewithal to harm our citizens and our interests. We would be betraying our basic instinct as Australians to see out a tough fight even if it means taking blows along the way. And what would we leave in our stead? An even more fragile country in the invidious position of being overrun by the Taliban and used once again as a safe haven for the global terrorist network. The instability this would bring to neighbouring nuclear armed Pakistan should alarm every free-thinking leader across the world.
But most tellingly of all, were Australia to exit before the job is done, what would one say to the families of the 21 Australian soldiers killed in action and the 152 wounded in action since 2001? These 21 brave men have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country and we owe it to them to stay the course. I have been very fortunate to get to know Felix and Yvonne Sher, the wonderful parents of Private Gregory Michael Sher. The Shers and I belong to the same Jewish congregation in Melbourne and we all live close by. Greg was tragically killed in a rocket attack in Oruzgan on Sunday, 4 January 2009. A member of 2nd Company, 1st Commando Regiment, he had been in Afghanistan for only six weeks and celebrated his 30th birthday only four weeks before his untimely death. Like his fellow fallen comrades, Greg left behind a loving partner and an adoring family.
Greg’s commitment to his country knew no bounds. He was an Army reservist who had also served as a medic in East Timor. He is the only Australian reservist to have been killed in Afghanistan. Greg’s father has told me how proud his son was to be a member of the Australian Defence Force—a legacy upheld by Greg’s brother Steven, a member of the RAAF Reserve, who hopes to graduate as a lieutenant in a few weeks time. The military was like an ‘extended family’ for Greg, and Felix talks proudly of how the acts of mateship continue to this day, including one fellow soldier naming his son after Greg just a few days ago. On the day Greg was killed in Afghanistan, his mates built an aluminium Star of David to locate above his coffin, respectful as they were not to see him have a cross above his head as he was transported home. Despite all the pain the Sher family has gone through, Felix wants it to be known that Afghanistan remains a cause worth fighting for. These are his words to me just last night:
We cannot withdraw until the momentum for peace, prosperity and the protection of women has reached the point where Afghanistan’s future can be secure. To do otherwise would make the contribution of our soldiers to have been in vain. It would also provide the Taliban with an opportunity to fill the vacuum and provide a fresh harvest of new recruits.
The decision to take a country to war is the hardest decision its leaders can take. Having made that decision for all the right reasons in 2001, we now have a duty and a purpose in seeing it through. I conclude where I began. It is my judgment that our military and civilian commitment to Afghanistan is in pursuit of a just cause, is in Australia’s long-term national security interest and honours the bravest sacrifice of our fallen soldiers.
I welcome this debate on Afghanistan. It is certainly not before time that we are discussing in the national parliament our part in a war that has been running for nine years; that has cost Australia $6 billion; that has involved the loss of 21 Australian defence personnel and injury to more than 150, some very serious injuries; and that we discuss the paths that lead from our current mission into the future—the future of Australia’s involvement, the future of the international effort as a whole and the future of Afghanistan. Before proceeding further, I want to pay tribute to the Australian troops who are and who have been in Afghanistan, and to express my condolences to the families of those who have died as well as to those who have suffered injury as a result of their service to this nation.
The gravity of our involvement requires that the purpose and costs of Australia’s commitment are well understood and scrutinised and, yet, as General John Cantwell, the Australian officer in charge of our mission in Afghanistan, said recently:
I do fear that Australians in general don’t understand what we’re doing here …
This government and this parliament are responding to that view and I commend the Prime Minister for her clear, detailed and heartfelt statement that commenced this debate, and also for the new commitment to instigate a parliamentary consideration of our role in Afghanistan at least once a year for every year that our role continues. It is a meaningful improvement to Australia’s national parliamentary conduct and governance.
In my first speech I called for the introduction of a War Powers Act that would require parliamentary consent before Australian troops are sent overseas to war. I note that a number of contributors to this debate have also endorsed this approach. I believe it is very odd that a decision by an Australian government to change policy, even minutely in some cases, requires the passage of legislation through the parliament, yet the decision to commit the nation to war—to send our armed forces to put their lives on the line and to be prepared to take lives—remains within the sole discretion of the Prime Minister and the cabinet, without any requisite involvement of the parliament. This is done through the exercise of prerogative powers—by convention rather than pursuant to the Australian Constitution, which is silent on the matter.
Blackshield and Williams have quoted the view of noted English legal scholar Sir Frederick Pollock where he said:
Prerogative is nothing more mysterious than the residue of the King’s undefined powers after striking out those which have been taken away by legislation or fallen into desuetude—
that is, disuse. I note further the UK House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution’s report entitled Waging war: parliament’s role and responsibility of 27 July 2006 which concluded:
… the exercise of the Royal prerogative by the Government to deploy armed force overseas is outdated and should not be allowed to continue as the basis for legitimate war-making in our 21st century democracy. Parliament’s ability to challenge the executive must be protected and strengthened. There is a need to set out more precisely the extent of the Government’s deployment powers, and the role Parliament can—and should—play in their exercise.
In my view that statement applies equally to Australia and there is every good reason to properly consider the introduction of a War Powers Act to ensure that the decision to commit troops overseas to war, and indeed to continue in war, are decisions given the full weight and scrutiny of the Australian parliament.
I would like at this point to acknowledge the tireless advocacy on this issue of Ian Maguire, a semiretired solicitor from Blackheath in New South Wales, who writes regularly to me and to other parliamentary colleagues on this subject. As almost every contributor to this important debate has pointed out, Australia is in Afghanistan as a consequence of the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States and our involvement was properly effectuated through bilateral and multilateral processes. Australia joined the United States in Afghanistan according to our obligations under the ANZUS treaty, which was invoked for the first time as the formal means of securing our participation in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
I commend the statement made by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in this debate and the minister’s longstanding commitment to the probity and integrity that is delivered through Australia’s re-engagement with and observance of multilateral processes. As the minister noted, Australia’s alliance with the United States is without question our most important relationship and our role as an instigator, shaper and member of the United Nations is in my view the most important contribution we have made to international relations.
For me, as a former United Nations staff member, the fact that the International Security Assistance Force was properly sanctioned through an appropriate United Nations process is of great importance. It is what distinguishes our presence and our purpose in Afghanistan from the poorly justified, planned and executed excursion to Iraq. The UN Security Council renewed the ISAF mandate as recently as 13 October. It is clear that the illegal and harmful war in Iraq distracted from the effort in Afghanistan—indeed, it set it back substantially. I do not believe this is a reason to leave Afghanistan, but I do think we need to be honest about the environment in which we are now operating.
The new Taliban is resurgent and well-funded by drug crops, and supported from Pakistan. The security situation both inside and especially outside of Kabul is highly unstable and dangerous, and the government led by Hamid Karzai is generally acknowledged to be corrupt and dysfunctional, operating a system of patronage networks. I am grateful to Professor Amin Saikal, Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University, for his insights into Afghan society, which he describes as a mosaic of different ethnic, tribal, cultural and linguistic groups with close ties to neighbouring countries. Despite these differences, Afghans are strong and proud people who have suffered over many years from foreign interference and from weakness of the state.
Professor Saikal notes that the establishment of a presidential style system of government now entrenched in the Afghan constitution has only exacerbated these factors. It has resulted in a system of patronage and personalisation rather than institutionalisation of politics. In some ways, it has also helped the elevation of one tribal group within Afghan society (the Durrani Pashtun) to the detriment of other groups, including the Ghilzai Pashtuns—from where most of the Taliban originate—and the non-Pashtun ethnic groups inhabiting northern, central and western Afghanistan such as the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and Hazaras.
I note further the comments in this regard of Professor William Maley, Director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at ANU, that ‘while corruption is a very serious problem, it should more be seen as a product of a dysfunctional set of incentives created by aid flows in an environment of weak institutions than the moral weakness of individual Afghans’. It is recognition of this institutional fragility and fragmentation that leads to the acknowledgement that military means alone will not resolve this conflict. The Soviet experience in Afghanistan as described by Professor Paul Dibb, former deputy secretary of Defence, is testament to the futility of pursuing such a course.
It is clear, however, that the ISAF military intervention is a significant component in establishing the leverage needed to achieve a political solution, which must include an emphasis by donor countries and international entities on helping to rebuild the institutions that are part of better governance and greater political stability. Fulfilment of these core, or survival, functions of the state would improve the authority and legitimacy of the state in the eyes of its population.
Negotiations are now underway for a political settlement. Such a settlement will not only need to be inclusive of the wide spectrum of Afghan society but also require a regional consensus including Iran, Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia. In particular, as has been noted by Professor William Maley, Pakistan, as the incubator of the Islamic extremist Taliban forces, will need to discharge its duty as a sovereign state to prevent its territory from being used for mounting attacks on a neighbouring country.
I would also argue that much more attention must be devoted internationally to combating the root causes of terrorism. As I noted in my first speech:
… you cannot fight a war on terror without also fighting a war on disadvantage, discrimination and despair. Security, development and human rights are inextricably linked. Tackling poverty in our region through the Millennium Development Goals is part of a wider strategy to deal with terrorism, climate change, pandemics and refugees.
A key rationale of the international mission in Afghanistan is the need to repel the attack upon our democratic values and beliefs that is represented by terrorism. We must therefore be careful to ensure that our own actions and words are consistent with these democratic values. One of the most powerful organising tenets for al-Qaeda and other outlets for Muslim extremism is the belief—widely held in the Muslim world—that we do not consistently apply our values and beliefs, particularly in relation to the rights of the Palestinians. Settlement of the long-running Israel-Palestine conflict would go a long way towards removing a central recruiting tool of Muslim extremism.
While much of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan is unquestionably motivated by the extremist cause, I note the view put forward in an interview on Lateline by former Marine Captain Matthew Hoh, who resigned from his post in Afghanistan with the US state department, that for as long as we are involved in combat operations the insurgency will have life. It is true that to a certain extent the relationship between an occupying force and an insurgency is mutually reinforcing. Meanwhile, the civilian population remains caught in between, often cruelly exploited by the insurgents and sometimes shown insufficient care by the occupying forces.
In a recent article the Guardian described a survey carried out in Afghanistan which found that although few Afghans spoke warmly about the Taliban they felt the international forces were equally brutal towards civilians, and often indiscriminate. As the Guardian article notes, these issues have been recognised by Western policy makers and reforms have been made to address them, such as tactical restrictions on air strikes that risk civilian deaths. On the other hand, for example, night-time house searches, which result in fewer deaths but cause offence and terror, have increased; international forces often hire or subcontract unaccountable Afghan guards for security support; and many incidents involving civilian harm are dealt with in a non-transparent way, especially where special forces are involved.
The article concludes that for any resolution of the conflict to be sustainable it needs to be built on trust. The good news is that, despite the negative views expressed, most Afghans surveyed still wanted foreign troops and international engagement in the country. This is a key factor for the ISAF mission in going forward, and I am heartened by the efforts being made to avoid harm to civilians and moreover to work with local communities on the provision of vital infrastructure like roads, hospitals, schools and irrigation systems.
I believe that any Australian who looks closely at our operations in Afghanistan will take pride and pleasure in the reconstruction efforts, whatever else they may feel about our role in the war. According to the Lowy Institute, the percentage of the population with access to basic health care has increased from nine per cent in 2002 to 85 per cent in 2008. Of the six million Afghan children enrolled in primary education, two million are girls, when there were none in 2001. The Prime Minister is absolutely right to say that nothing represents progress more than those two million Afghan girls learning to read.
I also take heart from the perspective of an Australian friend and former UN colleague with whom I worked in the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, Tony Preston-Stanley, who has recently worked on the ground in Afghanistan. He too highlighted the importance of education:
I can tell you from personal observation that there are people there who see this as the way out of feudalism, and the only real hope of some future for their grandchildren. There are many examples out in the middle of nowhere of families desperately trying to educate their children against all sorts of odds. I have seen them under trees, in ratty tents and on the floor of a two-room village mosque. On my bad days it is those little faces and the efforts of their communities and teachers that give me reason for saying we need to help this country for a while yet.
I am in agreement with the Prime Minister that whatever the nature of the Australian military involvement in Afghanistan in the future, Australian civilian aid for humanitarian and development assistance will be needed for at least a decade and its nature and composition may change. The institutional and governance areas noted earlier would be a natural fit for expanded Australian contributions.
I note the research that has been carried out by the Afghanistan Working Group of the Australian Council for International Development, ACFID, into the obstacles and opportunities that exist in the area of development assistance in Afghanistan. ACFID has called for increased public transparency of Australia’s development assistance to Afghanistan as well as for Australia to play a key role in ensuring that strong Afghan participation, including by women, is a condition of funding in order to ensure Afghanistan develops its own capacities.
I note further the comment of Oxfam’s Executive Director, Andrew Hewett, in a recent article in the Age that ‘military-led projects quickly become a target for anti-government elements’ as well as concerns expressed by the outgoing head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, Sir John Holmes, earlier this year about a blurring of the distinction between the work of soldiers and aid workers when the military engages in humanitarian aid delivery, which may be putting the humanitarian workers in danger. In 2008 alone, 260 humanitarian aid workers in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Sudan were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in violent attacks. In order to address these concerns, every effort should be made to separate the roles of military and aid work, and local and civilian constructed development should be preferred wherever possible.
There are no easy answers in Afghanistan, but it is essential that the international community, in collaboration with the Afghan government and its people, continue to work together for a solution. I have already spoken about the ways in which the delivery of aid might be approached differently, as well as the need for a political settlement that is inclusive of the many sections of Afghan society and involves regional consensus and cooperation.
However, I am concerned that whatever political conclusion is ultimately reached does not worsen the already unacceptable position of many groups within Afghan society. There is one very large group—namely women—who have a great deal to fear in a political solution that trades away the observance of fundamental human rights as the price of Taliban participation in an outcome. If the Taliban return to power not only will women suffer enormously but also the non-Pashtun national minorities, including the Hazaras, will be subjected to brutal discrimination, as they were when the Taliban were in power from 1996-2001.
I would like to end with a quote from William Maley’s book The Afghanistan Wars:
Here, the peoples of the wider world, who have witnessed agonizing waves of war sweep over the people of Afghanistan, bear a special responsibility. An old Kabul proverb—Kuh har qadar boland bashad, baz ham sar-e khud rah daradstates that there is a path to the top of even the highest mountain. With characteristic determination, the Afghans are now striving to reach that summit. They should not be left to climb alone.
In the end, I too believe that we should not leave the Afghans to climb alone.
Right now, somewhere in the world, an Australian soldier stands defiant against an enemy he most likely cannot hear or see. Right now, somewhere in the world, a protestor courageously rallies against government oppression knowing full well the brutal consequence of their actions. Right now, somewhere in the world, a baby is being born into poverty and whose parents will love, nurture and teach that child because they believe that there is still hope in harsh times. They are brave people. They are prepared to fight for what is right, to stand up and be counted. We ought to live by their example.
Our world is not perfect. It never will be. Those lucky enough to be brought up in countries in which democratic freedoms are almost taken for granted do not have to worry about military regimes which rule with unjust and unquestioned force. Military regimes which ensure free elections are but a forlorn hope. Our world, sadly, is not the same place it once was. But if military dictatorships were all with which we had to contend, at least we would know what we were up against.
Terrorists do not play by any rules of engagement. They strike at any time, anywhere and with fearful and deadly outcomes. Often they are suicide bombers who have no regard for their own lives let alone the life of anyone else. These same people who perpetrate such destruction against innocent lives are given direction from someone—someone who heads an organisation which deals in death.
It is important to remember why we are presently at war. In 1996 Osama bin Laden moved his terrorist operations from Sudan to Afghanistan on the invitation of the Taliban. When the Taliban took control in that country later that year, bin Laden’s own power was consolidated and an alliance formed between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. This association led to the atrocities by al-Qaeda on 9-11, the deadly attacks against the United States of America—indeed, against the free world—on 11 September, 2001. The terrible images of the aeroplanes hitting the World Trade Centre and then the collapse of those twin towers are burned on the consciences of all.
Within a month, the US and its allies retaliated and a war began. Despite its terrible nature, casualties and cost, conflict and war can be justified under certain circumstances. Self-defence has always been the foremost reason. Assistance to an ally acting in self-defence is also a convincing reason. Protection of a third country or group experiencing a threat from an aggressor is also a credible reason. Our commitment in and to Afghanistan meets all three criteria.
Australia has always answered the call in the preservation of civilised society, be it against imperialism, fascism, communism or, today, extremist Islamic terrorism. One hundred and eleven of our fellow Australians, along with thousands of others, have become the victims of the callous, random and senseless terrorist attacks orchestrated by extremist Islamic terrorists.
Remembering that each was an innocent human life cut all too short, on top of those murders are the many more injured or maimed. Australians have been killed and wounded in Bali, in the World Trade Centre and elsewhere at the hands of terrorism—awful, mindless, barbaric terrorism.
The Taliban is financed by drug crops and from bad and mad elements within Pakistan. If 9-11 stripped the world of the relative peace which existed prior to those plane hijackings, then the Bali bombings one year and one day later robbed Australia of its innocence in the general unease in which we all now find ourselves. Of the 88 Australians killed, the Riverina lost three wonderful young men in the unprecedented attack eight years ago. These three men were locals and were on well-deserved holidays, like so many others caught up in this senseless tragedy. Shane Walsh-Till from Coolamon was a cricket club-mate of mine and a fantastic fellow. David Mavroudis was a neighbour and Clint Thompson from Leeton was also highly regarded in his community.
Sadly, there are many of us in this place who can stand and talk about those from their regions whose lives were taken in an instant on that fateful day. It is all the more reason why we should stay the course in Afghanistan now. I feel a personal connection and a sense of responsibility for the families in my electorate that justice is done for the loss of their sons.
Wagga Wagga is a tri-service city for defence training bases with the Australian Army at Kapooka, the Royal Australian Air Force at Forest Hill and also a Royal Australian Navy base. Blamey Barracks at Kapooka is the recognised home of the soldier with the many thousands of Australian Army recruits each year doing their initial training there. The Riverina’s commitment, therefore, to the defence of this nation and upholding the rights of people across the world to live with freedom and respect is as great, if not greater than, any Australian region.
Some in politics and the general public have argued that they do not wish Afghanistan to end up a drawn out stalemate. Within the Riverina, there are dissenting views about our involvement in Afghanistan. This is understandable. No-one wants another Vietnam. But for us to openly declare an exit strategy would be like telling our enemies to sit tight and simply wait until we eventually go away. There is an old Afghan saying: ‘If you have the watches, we have the time.’ You should never tell your enemy when you are going to quit. Time lines should not be deadlines because warfare is dynamic—it constantly changes. We have to run this race the necessary distance and keep the faith—faith to get the job done, faith in the US and Australian and allied forces to win this fight, faith in the Anzac spirit to again deliver.
Today, in the face of the evil of terrorism, which could strike again at any time, good men and women from all over the world have put up their hands to ensure this evil will not triumph. For them, doing nothing is not an option and we salute them. We remember them. Their sacrifice, their service and their valour is our security.
The threat of radical Islam is real. There are, on average, 1,800 separate terrorist attacks each year perpetrated by Islamic extremists. A lot of them are directed at their own, but many, too, are directed at Westerners—tourists, business travellers, innocents. Afghanistan remains one of the hotbeds from which this evil is delivered succour. Ours is a worthy cause—it is just, although it is heart-rending.
Afghanistan remains the cradle of terrorism, where terrorists continue to be recruited. This is where they are trained and this is where they should be, must be and will be stopped. To date, we have lost 21 of our own and endured more than 150 soldiers with injuries. Each and every Australian feels a personal connection with the wives, husbands, partners, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters of the fallen. Our condolences are expressed to them, our prayers remain for them and our gratitude will be eternal. We rally together and support one another. To walk away now would be an insult to the families and soldiers whose deaths may well be seen to have been in vain.
I end with an old proverb, yet a timeless truth: ‘For evil to triumph, all that is required is for good men to do nothing.’
I welcome this opportunity to debate the issue of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. I see it as an opportunity to publicly highlight and discuss the many complex issues surrounding our commitment, the situation we find ourselves in as a nation and the situation in which the world finds itself in dealing with issues like Afghanistan. However, while it is an opportunity to highlight and discuss, we also have to understand that we are not going to reach too many conclusions.
It is also a subject that is very hard to cover in the time that is available to an individual speaker—15 minutes, particularly if it is me speaking, can sound like forever, but the bottom line is that it is a short period of time to cover what are some manifestly complex issues. I am going to try to avoid some of the detail covered by many of the previous speakers and just focus on a few points. In doing so, I can hopefully add something relevant to the debate.
There are some points which need to be made at the outset. I do not want to descend into cliches, but they are points which I think all sides of the House agree on and which, I believe, the Australian community also agrees with. One of these points is simply the general question of support for our troops in the missions that we have given them and the undertakings that they fulfil on our behalf. The bottom line is that the Australian Defence Force is a professional and very skilled force; they are amongst the very best in the world. They go with our best wishes, with our prayers and with our hopes for their safe return. However, we know that, for some, safe return is not what has occurred and so we again express our sympathy for the families of those who have lost loved ones, for the individuals who have come back grievously wounded and for the families of those individuals. They will have to deal with that situation for the rest of their lives.
When I was a minister in the defence portfolio area, I had the duty of attending several funerals for soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan. Those occasions were very challenging for me as a minister, as a member of parliament and as a representative of the Australian community. I found it challenging to see the very open and raw grief of those who had lost a loved one in trying circumstances. I have to be honest with the House and say that one thing I will not miss, no longer being a minister in the defence portfolio area, is attending funerals of that nature. I am a typical bloke—I do not handle that sort of stuff very well. To be at those funerals and see the very open, heartfelt grief of the families is something that I found very difficult.
But in speaking to members of some of the families and in speaking to some of the men and women who have come back from Afghanistan, including at those funerals, the overwhelming view that has come through has been that the work being done in Afghanistan is working, that objectives are being met and that achievement of those objectives is making a real difference to the communities that we are seeking to assist in Afghanistan. The view that has come through very clearly from those sources is that activity needs to be maintained and that we can be confident that we are moving in the right direction.
One of the difficult things about being a politician is having to sit in judgment and it is not something I feel particularly confident about with respect to some of these issues. Despite having some knowledge from a short tenure as a minister in the defence portfolio, I do not pretend to be an expert or to have all the answers. Nor do I believe I have a clear and detailed understanding of all that is being done. However, I do feel able to raise a series of questions that I would urge the government to take on board and to consider as part of what we do as a nation in future—not only with regard to Afghanistan now but also with regard to other locations where we may end up having to put our people in harm’s way. We know from post World War II experience that we can expect there to be other locations and times we are called on to honour an alliance and other times when the international community of which we are part needs to play a role. I think we need to look at what has happened in Afghanistan to see whether that points us in some directions for dealing with those issues in the future.
As a starting point: should we be there or should we have gone in the first place? I think the answer there is: yes, it was a just cause—the circumstances after September 11 meant that action needed to be taken. There were certainly numerous attempts made to try to get the Taliban to see sense with respect to what was occurring in Afghanistan, but they fell on deaf ears. So I think the initial involvement was certainly clearly in Australia’s interests and in the world’s interests because of the nature of that regime.
Should we stay there? That goes to questions like whether we can win, what that actually means and, if we can win, how we can do it. Part of the debate that has been going on, both in the chamber and in the community, is around those sorts of questions. People are asking what is required, what victory is, how that victory can be achieved, whether it can be achieved at all and, if so, at what cost.
I think that goes to the key question: what are we seeking to do there? Others have spoken in more detail about the nature of what we are trying to achieve in those environments, the circumstances for ensuring a safe Afghanistan for the local community and the development of security mechanisms which will allow the Afghan defence forces and police to be able to secure the environment, avoiding a situation where it regresses to a base for terrorism and, hopefully, in time dealing with issues such as the enormous international problem of drug running that has many of its origins in Afghanistan.
My view is that we cannot judge Afghanistan by our own standards. What we would see as being a safe and secure environment is not going to be what we end up with in Afghanistan. What we see as being a modern society is not what we are going to see coming out of Afghanistan. The sorts of values which relate to Afghan society are very different to those of our own. However, can we see movement in the right direction? Can we see achievements that will lead to a safer location? Yes, we can—but how long will it take and what do we as a nation need to do as part of ISAF to achieve those outcomes?
I think we need to recognise that there have been mistakes made in the past. Frankly, with the benefit of hindsight, we can point out a litany of mistakes made in the original involvement in Afghanistan, in what occurred there in the aftermath of September 11 and in what has occurred since then. For a start, the fact is that we got out. We say it is a conflict which dates back to 2001. It does, but post the initial invasion there was a period of some three years where Australia’s involvement was minimal and the overall involvement of international forces was well and truly toned down from what it had been initially.
In 2004 I visited Afghanistan with the now Minister for Foreign Affairs, the member for Griffith, who was then the shadow foreign minister. At that time we had one member of the ADF in the country. We spoke to a number of senior figures in the Afghan government—President Karzai and also the foreign minister at that time, Abdullah Abdullah, who was the opposition leader in the recent election—so there were certainly different views from within Afghan society. The view that came through to us at the time was that the international forces had vacated the field before there had been a proper opportunity to build on the initial success of the invasion, and that of course was because the focus turned to Iraq. That in itself caused issues for the situation in Afghanistan. The nature of the deployment when it was ramped up around 2006 also produced problems. I now think that there is scope and reason for some optimism around what is occurring under the current leadership of General Petraeus, but again we have got to see if it works and we have got to test that.
When we look to the future and to what we are doing in this situation, often these questions come up: should we leave, when should we leave and should we set a date? I would like to make one or two points. Firstly, open-ended commitments are dangerous, but so are time lines. The problem with time lines has been mentioned by earlier speakers: they flag your intentions and set a date. But the problem with open-ended commitments is that they do not necessarily allow you to properly evaluate your progress and, if you are not, frankly, making progress, adjust what you do or re-evaluate your commitment. Our objectives need to be concrete, achievable and measurable and they need to be articulated and assessed on a regular basis. We need to make sure that we are bringing the Australian community and the international community with us when we are part of a coalition like this and we need to be in a situation where, wherever possible, we articulate very clearly how we are going and where we are going.
We also need to understand it is not just about military assets; it is also about a civilian aspect—providing support. The issue of hearts and minds is very important. We can protect hearts and minds through force of arms and we will need to do that. But the bottom line is that if we overprotect or if we are not sensitive in the context of that protection there is a danger that we will lose those hearts and minds over time—and there is evidence of that to some extent in Afghanistan.
The issue of support beyond the military needs to be considered very seriously. I know the government is doing more work in that area. I know an AFP component has been increased slightly. There is also an issue around the environment in Afghanistan and what civilian assets you can deploy in a safe manner. I would urge the government and the international community to look seriously and to a greater extent at what can be done with a more holistic approach, which will ensure that we provide the military support to protect and also the civilian support to provide better outcomes within the Afghan community. More work can be done there, and it is important that it is done. We need to recognise that mistakes have been made and also that they will be made, and we need to work to adapt from and learn from those mistakes in the future.
There has been quite a bit said about the context of the Australian community and ensuring that people understand what is going on and that there is support. Lieutenant General Peter Leahy had a proposal for parliament to approve troop deployments. I do not necessarily think that is what is needed. I do think there is a need to regularly assess what is occurring and a need for the transparency that comes with a parliamentary debate to ensure that there is that debate within the broader community.
I bring to the attention of the House a document that relates to Canada, which I was provided with by the Australian Council for International Development. Canadians produce a quarterly report to parliament which goes into the details of their engagement in Afghanistan. I would urge members to have a look at it. It provides a context for where they are up to in Afghanistan and it also lists their priorities and reports progress against those priorities. I think an approach such as that would be a good step forward, although I also welcome the commitment by the Prime Minister to a regular statement to parliament. There are also issues beyond that. There are the questions about how and when we deploy, about the nature of our force structure and whether it will meet our needs into the future.
I think there are some key questions that need to be considered within the defence area. This is a difficult and tense environment for our troops. We have to not only make sure that they very clearly understand that we have their interests at heart and will provide them with the support that they need but also as a nation look to the question of where we take this involvement into the future. We have to set objectives. We have to understand what are realistic outcomes and be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances. In an uncertain world post-Cold War we cannot afford to just stay the course because the course has been set. We need to be clear about what we seek to achieve and work to achieve it. We also need to be prepared to recognise when our objectives cannot be met or when the cost of meeting them is just too great.
I do not believe we are at that point yet. However, we need to be aware that if that point does come then we must recognise it and act accordingly. I commend the work of our troops. I commend the work of the defence forces in what is an incredibly difficult and challenging environment. The complexities of these issues will be with us for years to come, but we must at this stage continue.
Last year, together with my colleagues the member for Curtin and Senator Johnston, I had the great privilege of visiting our troops in Kandahar and in Oruzgan province at Tarin Kowt. Brief official visits are only ever going to be at best a superficial introduction to the challenges facing our troops, but the visit did leave several indelible impressions. We were struck by the enthusiasm, commitment and professionalism of all our troops. There was no mistaking that they believed they were engaged in an important, just and historic mission and that it was manifestly in both the interests of the Afghan people and of Australia that they were there.
The challenges they faced were very apparent. The terrain we saw in southern Afghanistan was a vast mountainous desert: steep, rocky ranges with thin slivers of irrigated cultivation and settlement running along the rivers on the valley floors. This topography makes travel from one settlement to another extremely difficult—unlike in Iraq, which is mostly flat and has many good highways. It also means that there is often only one route in and out of a settlement, typically the road up and down the valley. That brings me to the other sinister challenge of the improvised explosive device or IED, which has claimed the lives of so many of our diggers and their allies. This is the weapon of choice of the Taliban and its sophistication is improving all the time. We saw many examples of IEDs, with some fashioned out of unexploded munitions from this and previous wars; others made with readily obtained chemicals, including fertilisers. The ingenuity of the bomb maker is very evident in Afghanistan and the technology of the IED has improved as rapidly as our techniques for identifying and disarming them.
Our special forces who conduct carefully targeted operations against Taliban leaders and strong points endeavour to avoid the IEDs by travelling across country or using helicopters and avoiding the roads and settlements until they reach their target. They are not always successful in that endeavour. However, in a counterinsurgency war such as this the most important role for our forces is to train and mentor the Afghan security forces so they can win the confidence of their own people. At the same time, our forces must themselves win the confidence of the people of Oruzgan province and to do that they must work with them. This is the role of the training and mentoring task force. Working with and in the community they are especially vulnerable to IEDs, especially when they are on foot outside one of our Australian designed mine resistant vehicles, the Bushmaster.
Together with all members I record my admiration, once again, and my thanks to our forces in Afghanistan for their courageous service. In particular, we give thanks to those 21 Australian soldiers who lost their lives in that country; wearing our uniform and under our flag. Others have been gravely wounded. Their families know that this nation, this parliament, will never forget that service and that sacrifice.
The question we are debating is whether we should continue to remain a part of the United States-led coalition in Afghanistan. Should we bring the troops home? It is right that the parliament is debating this issue. The bipartisan support for our commitment in Afghanistan has had the consequence that the case for remaining has not been made often enough nor has it been tested in debate. Democracies from the time of Pericles have been debating the conduct of wars, for thousands of years, and this war and this parliament should be no exception.
The debate began with two fine speeches from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister made a profound point when she said that our troops offer their lives for us. They embrace wartime sacrifice as their highest duty. In return we owe them our wisdom. Our highest duty is to make wise decisions about war. I agree. Our troops need to know that they are fighting there not because we believed it was the right thing in 2001 or 2004 but that it is the right strategy today and tomorrow. The Leader of the Opposition made an equally profound point when he said that those who advocated our withdrawing from Afghanistan could not do so without at the same time advocating that the United States and its other allies do the same.
We should not be naive about the war in Afghanistan. We did not invade because we wanted to liberate the Afghan people from the tyranny of the Taliban; we invaded because the United States had been attacked by al-Qaeda, whose leadership had planned that deadly assault from bases in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was urged to surrender the al-Qaeda leadership. It refused to do so and consequently the United States and its allies invaded. The initial assault was successful in the sense that the Taliban regime was overthrown and the al-Qaeda strongholds destroyed. However, Osama bin Laden evaded capture and al-Qaeda quickly regrouped in Pakistan.
Colin Powell had cautioned President Bush about the consequences of invading Iraq by referring to the warning that the Pottery Barn offers its butter-fingered customers: you break it, you own it. And so it is that if a great power invades a country and overthrows its government then it inherits the responsibility of establishing a new and better government for its people. The truth is that, after the invasion, the war in Afghanistan was neglected as the United States focused more and more resources on the conflict in Iraq. As Michael O’Hanlon noted recently in Foreign Policy, by the end of last year it was clear that the Taliban had nearly as many fighters in the field as they had before 9-11 and considerably more than they had in 2005. The Taliban was winning the war.
President Obama was left with little choice but to embark on, as his predecessor had done in Iraq, a thorough counterinsurgency strategy involving a near trebling of US forces, which was designed not simply to kill and capture Taliban fighters but to provide a secure environment for the Afghan people, for long enough to enable the Afghan government to develop the capacity to provide both ongoing security and adequately efficient and honest government. The most difficult task we and our allies have in Afghanistan, therefore, is that of nation building. Every tactical success, every victory on the battlefield, every Taliban leader killed or captured will be of little enduring value if there is not a strong Afghan government to take responsibility for their own country and the safety of its citizens.
With lessons hard learned in Iraq, the United States government has developed a thorough counterinsurgency doctrine. Authored by General Petraeus, the manual notes:
At its heart—
is a struggle for the population’s support. The protection, welfare and support of the people are vital to success.
David Galula said:
Essential though it is, the military action is secondary to the political one, its primary purpose being to afford the political power enough freedom to work safely with the population.
As a consequence, the manual notes:
Military efforts are necessary and important to counterinsurgency efforts, but they are only effective when integrated into a comprehensive strategy employing all instruments of national power. A successful—
operation meets the contested population’s needs to the extent needed to win popular support while protecting the population from the insurgents.
Once the insurgents lose the support of the people, they cannot survive. In this context it is important to bear in mind the fluid identity of the insurgents. As David Kilcullen reminds us, they are not a standing army. Their ranks are swelled by resentment towards the Afghan government and indeed towards foreign armies, especially if their activities cause loss and damage to the local population. These are Kilcullen’s accidental guerrillas. Equally, as an effective counterinsurgency strategy restores order and a competent national government resumes control, many of those insurgents stop fighting. Over the course of this year there have been many tactical successes. Taliban leaders are being killed or captured, their administration has been challenged in provinces where they have been in barely challenged control for many years.
However, at the strategic level, there are two very significant problems. First and most importantly, the Afghan government has simply failed to develop the capacity to deliver adequate security and efficient government in many, if not most, areas of the country. In a counterinsurgency strategy, the host government should be the solution not the cause of the problems exploited by the insurgents. The notorious, systemic corruption of the Karzai government, however, is more often than not perceived as the problem. The Taliban has sought to respond by offering an alternative government—harsh and violent to be sure; often perceived as the lesser of two evils. Improving the calibre, competence and honesty of the Karzai government or its successor is probably our most important and difficult task in Afghanistan.
Second, our allies’ long-term commitment is somewhat questionable. The Netherlands forces have been withdrawn from Oruzgan, and other nations, including the Canadians, Poles and Italians, have set dates to withdraw, although on Friday I note Prime Minister Harper announced a more prolonged timetable for withdrawal. President Obama’s surge, announced in late 2009, was accompanied by a commitment to start withdrawing forces by mid 2011.
The Taliban believe they will win the war not because they think they can defeat us on the battlefield but because they believe that public opinion in America and its allies will not permit their forces to remain in such large numbers for long enough to enable the Karzai government to acquire the capacity to administer their nation themselves. Withdrawing from Afghanistan now would, quite simply, deliver the country back into the hands of the Taliban. It would constitute a humiliating defeat for the West and a glorious triumph for the Islamist jihad. Those that advocate withdrawal cannot credibly dispute that this would be the consequence, but they argue that we are better off cutting our losses rather than postponing an inevitable defeat.
The truth, however, is that the new population-centred, counterinsurgency strategy has only just begun. We are fighting a new war which began in earnest late last year. Already we are seeing real progress in building up the Afghan security forces. Michael O’Hanlon noted:
The quality of training is up too largely—
in the Afghan security forces—
because teacher to student ratios have more than doubled. … In the Afghan army, the better of the main security institutions, 20,000 recruits are in training at all times, and the force is on pace to reach its interim goal of 134,000 soldiers by this fall. … The rate at which new recruits are joining the force is now twice the rate at which soldiers are leaving.
In terms of civil society, I might note that the Afghan parliament has a higher percentage of women MPs than our own. So there are some positive signs.
While the Afghan engagement has been a long one, in reality, we are fighting, as I said, a new war which commenced from the end of last year when President Obama took the advice of General Petraeus and General McChrystal to undertake a surge along the lines of the one that had been successful in Iraq. A successful end to the war is not going to look like victory in a conventional war. Truth be told, conventional wars have been few and far between. Wars of counterinsurgency are the norm nowadays. Just as the military effort is secondary to the political effort in counterinsurgency strategy, so is the end game in this exercise, essentially, a political one.
Already there are negotiations with some elements of the Taliban which are being facilitated by the United States. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, observed in response to criticism of this approach:
You don’t make peace with your friends.
A satisfactory outcome to the war would be one in which a stable government was able to provide security and reasonably honest administration across the country in which democratic institutions, however inadequate by our standards, nonetheless, allowed Afghani men and women to live in peace and security. Most importantly from our point of view such an outcome would see a government which would not ever again permit al-Qaeda to base itself in Afghanistan and wage war against us from there.
This goal will certainly be very difficult to achieve but, if we and our allies were to pull out now, it would have absolutely no prospect of achievement. Our mission is not to stay in Afghanistan forever; our mission is not to leave Afghanistan; our mission is to leave Afghanistan in peace and security. And before we can leave on those terms we must give the new strategy the chance to succeed.
I begin by congratulating the member for Wentworth on a very thoughtful and measured analysis of the war in Afghanistan, and I would like to associate myself with his very significant contribution to this debate.
On 11 September 2001 we all learned that the world had changed forever. Since that time we have been engaged in an international fight against terrorism. Who could have imagined the horrific cold-blooded murder that took place on 11 September 2001 in the United States of America? Who could have thought that such a cold-blooded, callous and cowardly assault by al-Qaeda on America could occur? We cannot allow the perpetrators of that murderous attack and those who have continued to terrorise the world to escape justice. Those attacks on America were an attack on us, so we must support the USA. We must drive the terrorists out of Afghanistan and we must bring peace, freedom and democracy to the people of Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan have suffered enough. We have a duty to protect their rights and we have a duty to defend their dignity.
It is timely to quote from the report card of the Council for International Development in relation to Afghanistan. What a sorry report it is. It states:
- Afghanistan ranks second last—181 of 182 countries on the UN’s human development index.
- An estimated 42% of the population are living below the poverty line, up from 33% in 2005.
- An additional 20% of the population are hovering just above the poverty line, highly vulnerable to shocks and fluctuations in household income and consumption.
- There is a high prevalence of chronic and rapid-onset natural disasters in Afghanistan (including seasonal floods, droughts, earthquakes, avalanches and landslides). When combined with ongoing conflict this makes Afghans extremely vulnerable to shocks and stresses.
- Poverty in rural areas is higher than in urban settings, with 47% and 27% of people living below the poverty line respectively in 2007 …
- Less than 30% of people have access to safe drinking water and over 90% do not have access to proper sanitation.
- Afghanistan is the most food insecure country on the planet according to the Food Insecurity Risk Index 2010. Climate change further exacerbates the precarious, agriculture-based livelihoods of Afghans.
- In every development indicator women are disadvantaged compared with men.
As I said, that is a very sorry report on Afghanistan from the Council for International Development. We must stay the course in Afghanistan, and we must bring peace to the people of Afghanistan. All of us in this place strive for peace and security for all people in the world. That is absolute. We all support the troops fighting in Afghanistan and we pay tribute to their courage and bravery. We honour the 21 young men who have paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of freedom and democracy for the people of Afghanistan, and we pray that they have not sacrificed their lives in vain.
Terrorism came to our doorstep a little over 12 months after September 11 when 88 Australians perished in the first Bali bombing. Four more Australians were killed in the second Bali bombing three years later, and our Australian Embassy was attacked. Terrorism in our region is real and we must fight against it here and with our allies in Afghanistan. Who better in this place to say why we must remain in Afghanistan and finish the job for the people of Afghanistan than the member for Eden-Monaro? Here is what Dr Mike Kelly said in this place on 21 October 2010 when he concluded his magnificent speech:
I understand what we are asking of our men and women in Afghanistan and their families. I have seen the devastation of war in Somalia, Bosnia, Timor-Leste and Iraq, watched men die, lost friends and washed their blood from my uniform. I have shed tears over broken bodies and, together with coalition colleagues in recent times, tried to console families. I do not support the continuation of our commitment in Afghanistan lightly. If you were to ask the troops themselves, they would tell you that they think they are making progress, they want us to keep faith with them, as do the families that I have spoken to. We should not leave Afghanistan because it is hard. We are in Afghanistan because our national interests are engaged and because it is the right thing to do. What the government has outlined is not a prescription for a blank cheque but, as things stand at this moment, we believe it is worth our perseverance, and persevere we must.
I have not served in our defence forces, so I can only imagine the great challenges, the sacrifices and the hardships our defence men and women are facing today, particularly in Afghanistan. I was very moved by Dr Kelly’s words, and I believe that those words encapsulate the debate on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan that we are having in the House at this time. I believe that our presence in Afghanistan will make the lives of Afghan men and women and their children better in the long term. I believe that our presence in Afghanistan will ultimately make the world a safer place. I conclude by thanking our dedicated and able defence personnel and their families for their sacrifices for us and for the people of Afghanistan, and I pray for their safe return.
On 12 October 2007 I stood in the courtyard of the Australian compound in Bali, with the task of representing the Australian government at the 5th anniversary commemoration of the 88 Australians who lost their lives in the Bali bombing of 12 October 2002. On that day I met the brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters of those who had been lost in the Bali on October 12. Their loss was profound. It was put to me that five years had been both the longest of times and the shortest of times. The additional three years that have bridged the gap since then would also feel like both the longest of times and the shortest of times. These losses were the human face of the Australians who had been ripped from loved ones. They represent the cost, the tragedy and the task we face in an ongoing moment of great global challenge.
When we step back a year to 11 September 2001, it is to the genesis of what we face today. It is the defining moment in the last two centuries of global history. It was the moment when the notion of security switched most tangibly from the classic power confrontations during the First World War, the Second World War and, in particular, the Cold War to asymmetric threats from terrorist groups and particularly from an extremist sect within the Islamic world. That moment changed our task, our role and our lives. By now, I would have expected that we had faced worse challenges and worse outcomes. We have had Bali, London and Madrid. But the horrors of September 11 have not been followed by the level of violence against our societies that we might have expected. The reason is that there has been a profound, concerted and widespread international effort to confront the causes, the leaders and the carriage of those acts which would destabilise not just our society but the Islamic world itself at its core.
I also note that, in addition to the 88 Australians whose lives were lost in Bali and the other 100 or more Australians whose lives were lost as a consequence of the terrorism which followed from 11 September 2001, 21 beautiful young Australians have given up their lives in the pursuit of achieving a lasting solution of peace and security for the people of Afghanistan and the people of the broader world. There are no free passes for anyone. The price that has been paid has been profound, real and tragic and the echoes of those losses will pass through generations of Australians. In my own family, a great-uncle, Colin Alexander Grant, lost his life on the Western Front during the First World War. Over the next 50 years, his parents, my grandfather and my mother never lost feeling the impact of that tragedy. For the families today, their losses will last throughout their lives. We offer our profound sympathy and most profound ‘thank you’ for the courage and the commitment of your sons, your brothers, your fathers or your husbands.
What then is the global threat which we face? I want to put this challenge into its grandest context. The goal of the Wahhabist movement, which developed most profoundly in Egypt in the postwar period, is nothing less than an Islamic caliphate. It is a 100-year goal. It is a fantasist’s objective but it is nevertheless a real and abiding motivation for those at the heart of the Wahhabist movement who seek to distort and pervert an otherwise beautiful faith. They seek a global world under Islamic rule of its most extreme and barbaric form, as was evident under the Taliban. And they are patient. The 30-year objective, the generational objective, is to establish a beachhead in one of the great Islamic states of the world. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia are all part of the push towards a long-term caliphate, and the goal is to destabilise and fragment these countries and ultimately to secure control.
I do not believe that the movement will be successful in any of these countries. But it was successful in one place—Afghanistan—and we should never lose sight of that fact. The Wahhabist movement, driven through the agency of al-Qaeda and manifested in the form of the Taliban, assumed control of one of the poorest countries of the world and, from that country alone, was able to carry out and lead the attacks of September 11. They trained the architects, such as Hambali of the Bali bombings, and contributed, through the network of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, to London, Madrid and the numerous attacks throughout the Islamic world.
Their immediate task, the immediate objective, is to fragment and destabilise an Egypt, a Saudi Arabia, an Indonesia or, in particular, a Pakistan, and thereby assume control of a more powerful state and have a stronger base as part of a longer global objective. However wild that idea may seem to us, it is real and it has profound consequences for security in a world where asymmetric capabilities are able to lead to catastrophic consequences.
That also brings me to the issue of a great security threat which is abiding and with us today—the dirty bomb. The dirty bomb is the risk that we all face and it will be with us throughout our lives. So long as there are nuclear weapons in the hands of states which are at risk of fragmentation, the nightmare possibility remains of a perversion of some of those materials, the conversion to a dirty bomb and the detonation in one of our cities. This is not fantasist material. In 2002 and 2003 there were warnings of future attacks on UK cities and on Spanish cities, and sadly these attacks came to pass in almost identical form to those warnings. I believe today that that same threat remains tangible, real and germane. That is why we face a profound and abiding security task.
Our task in Afghanistan has been and remains twofold: firstly, it is to guarantee that Afghanistan is not a safe haven—and I agree with the words of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on this, and indeed have proposed such terms for a long time now. It cannot be a safe haven now and it cannot be a safe haven in the future for al-Qaeda or its governmental manifestation, the Taliban. Secondly, we must ensure that Afghanistan is not allowed to become a wedge into regional security and thus lead to the fragmentation of Pakistan or the destruction of democratic rule there. That can occur either through the complete breakdown of order and security in Afghanistan or through the mass flow of population across the border. Both of those risks are profound. So that remains our task. That remains our purpose.
Coupled with that is the high human objective of doing all that we can to secure and advance human rights within Afghanistan itself. This is a noble, real and profound task and one which the West has taken upon itself on many occasions over the course of the last 60 years, with great cost to itself but with a genuine and elevated sense of common humanity and purpose. It is never easy; there are always costs of action and costs of inaction. In this case, we believe that the costs of inaction are greater.
This brings me to the issue of progress. Progress is about both success and an honest accounting of failure. The progress we have seen in Afghanistan is real. We have 1,550 Australian troops in Oruzgan. We are helping to train the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army. We are part of 120,000 international troops—on the way to 140,000—and of 20,000 local recruits in training at any one time, rising to about 134,000 local soldiers and 109,000 police. So real security progress is underway.
I would note that we have also seen educational and health progress. In particular we have gone from one million students in school in 2001 to six million today, and two million girls in school compared with none in 2001. This was a society based not just on some form of gender inequality but on a brutal repression of females and a brutal repression of educational opportunities for women in Afghanistan. There is much to be done there but that development is real, profound and significant.
The honest side of the accounting, though, must call us to say that there have been significant failures. The democratisation process has advanced in fits and starts and there are real questions over much of the conduct of the recent election. Secondly, there is clearly endemic corruption in much of the government and in much of the society. That corruption must be rooted out, and the Karzai government has failed to take the steps necessary to ensure that the corruption disappears. We must never be apologists for what is occurring now—real progress but deep failures to date.
This then brings me to the question of where we should go from here. I am deeply cognisant of those 21 families who have lost sons, fathers, brothers and husbands in Afghanistan. We have three options. We can withdraw, straight up. But that will create a vacuum in Afghanistan with a profound and tragic set of human consequences. There will be bloodshed, there will be the eradication of opportunities for young women and girls, and there will also be a great security vacuum which will see destabilisation in Pakistan. That is a consequence of nightmarish proportions and one which should send shudders down the spine of anyone who looks at the great global challenge of security. If Afghanistan falls then there will be profound issues for security in Pakistan; there can be no question of that.
The second option is the endless blank cheque, which is simply unacceptable. Along with many in this House I believe there must be a third way, which is conditionality—a progressive draw-down once security has been obtained in return for greater development of democratic participation. We must seek to hive off and to shatter those elements of the insurgence who will never be accommodated from those who can be part of a democratic future, much as has occurred in Northern Ireland and Bougainville. I am realistic about the future but optimistic about the potential and resolved in our commitment. We have a great challenge; it is one which the world must meet. I support Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan and I commend the motion to the House.
There is no such thing as a good war, but there is such a thing as a just war. That is how the war in Afghanistan began. We are in Afghanistan because our ally the United States was attacked. Under the terms of the ANZUS treaty that meant we were attacked. Each signatory to that treaty recognises that an armed attack on any of the parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety.
Self-defence has been accepted through the ages as a legitimate reason for waging war. It is recognised in article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, which says:
Nothing … shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.
And it is worth remembering that the ANZUS treaty is not a blueprint for war; it is a document designed to try to ensure peace. In its opening, the signatories reaffirm:
… their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all Governments.
But that desire was shattered on September 11, 2001 in the terror attacks on New York and Washington. The next day the Security Council unequivocally condemned in the strongest terms the horrifying terrorist attacks and said it ‘regards such acts, like any act of international terrorism, as a threat to international peace and security’. The solidarity many in the rest of the world felt for the United States was expressed in the pages of the French newspaper Le Monde on 12 September under the headline ‘We are all Americans’. The article asked:
How can we not feel profound solidarity with those people, that country, the United States, to whom we are so close and to whom we owe our freedom, and therefore our solidarity?
It was also prescient in dismissing the false justifications that would be made for the attack, saying:
None of those who had a hand in this operation can claim they intend the good of humanity. Actually, they have no interest in a better world. They simply want to wipe ours off the face of the Earth.
Like Australia, NATO would invoke its treaty, with each of its members agreeing that the attack on America was an attack on them all. It is easy to forget, in the wake of all that has come since, that in 2001 much of the world saw America’s cause as just when it sought to strike out at the forces that attacked it.
Al-Qaeda claimed credit for that attack and it was protected by Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. We are in Afghanistan because our ally, the United States, rightly sought to defend itself by ensuring Afghanistan would never again be a base for the export of terrorism. We are in Afghanistan because we need a stable future for that country if we are to ensure a stable, peaceful future for ourselves.
But mistakes have been made and this war has dragged on longer than it needed to. For too long the United States and Australia were distracted by the war in Iraq, a war which could not be justified no matter how repugnant the regime of Saddam Hussein. But the reason for going to Afghanistan was just. And the reason for staying is just. Having waged war in Afghanistan, there is a moral imperative on the United States and its allies to try to stabilise the country and make it secure enough to plot its own future.
There is no argument that we should leave. The argument is over when we should leave. I believe that to withdraw now would leave Afghanistan with little hope of a peaceful future. There is no perfect vision of the future but the best advice is that it will take another two to four years to get the Afghan troops and police to a level where they can ensure the peace. I believe Afghanistan deserves that time. I believe in our continued commitment to Afghanistan and its people. I believe that our commitment is the right thing for the continued security of our allies and Australians at home and abroad. And I believe our commitment is the right thing for the Afghan people and their future. But the military commitment cannot be open ended and both President Obama and the Prime Minister have signalled that it will not be.
I am advised that our commanders believe that it has only been in recent years we have got the mix of strategy and troops right. The current surge has to be given a chance of success. Some here have argued that the military should be withdrawn and aid should be increased. But how can aid be delivered without security? Hopefully, soon the Afghan army and police will be in a position to secure their country, and then the nature of our commitment should change. As the Prime Minister has signalled, we must have some commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan for at least the next decade, but the nature of that work will differ over that time.
Some here also say that al-Qaeda has vanished from Afghanistan and with it the reason for continuing to fight. But an unstable Afghanistan threatens the region and the world. Al-Qaeda could return or one of its offshoots rise in its place. It has also been noted that it is not good enough to say that the Taliban presided over a brutal and appalling regime and that if removing governments that abuse their people were our goal then we would be at war all over the world. That is true. But that was not the reason for going to Afghanistan. As I said, we went to defend ourselves. But that does not mean that the good things that have happened in Afghanistan should be allowed to unravel. And for all the horror of this war, some good has come of it.
If this war is to have any long-term benefits for the people of Afghanistan then we need to give them a chance of a decent future. I am all too aware of the tragic history of Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion in 1989 to the mujaheddin insurgency and the 1994 takeover by the Taliban, whose brutality towards the Afghan people was unspeakable.
I do not for a moment believe that this is a simple issue easily broken down into sound bites. Afghanistan is a complicated place with very little black and white. We cannot forget it is a nation that has been continually at war for decades and routinely at war for centuries. We cannot forget that, prior to the commitment of Australian and allied forces, every aspect of civil society had been eroded and Afghanistan was being used as a place to train people in acts of terror.
It is well known that Afghanistan under the Taliban provided a safe haven and training ground for terrorist groups. But this is not the only crime perpetrated by the Taliban. When the Taliban came to power in 1994, they adopted a self-serving and narrow interpretation of Islam that stripped Afghans of rights and forced them to live in fear. In 1998, the Physicians for Human Rights reported that every Friday night:
… the Taliban terrorizes the city of Kabul by publicly punishing alleged wrongdoers in the Kabul sports stadium and requiring public attendance at the floggings, shootings, … beheadings, and amputations.
But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Many in the House are well aware of the Taliban’s treatment of women. In 2001, Human Rights Watch found:
Taliban decrees have greatly restricted women’s movement, behaviour and dress and in fact virtually all aspects of their lives …
Violation of dress code, in particular, can result in public beatings …
These decrees have had a significant negative impact on women’s lives. The rate of illiteracy among girls in Afghanistan is now over 90 percent.
The restriction on women’s mobility has meant that women do not enjoy satisfactory access to health care.
This report is filled with many individual examples of brutality against women and the oppression of their rights such as the story of Majida Akbar, a 17-year-old girl who could not get medical help for her sister-in-law who was in labour, or that of Durani Hussain, who speaks about her desire to get an education so she can read the letters from her brother.
Unfortunately, these relics of the past are still witnessed today in those areas still terrorised by the Taliban. In March of this year, CNN reported on the experiences of 19-year-old Bibi Aisha, who had her nose and ears cut off at the behest of a Taliban court for dishonouring her husband. In 2008, according to CBS News, Shamsia Husseini had acid thrown on her face for trying to go to school. Yet despite this Shamsia told CBS:
I will fight these people by continuing to go to school. Last time they threw acid to stop me, but even if they hit me with bullets, I will not stop going to school …
Shamsia’s suffering is as real as her courage and determination. I acknowledge the significant difficulties being faced from a resurgent Taliban and an Afghan government that at times is slow and weak. Elements of it are clearly corrupt.
But while progress is slow, there has been some progress. That progress has to be given a chance to take root. That is why I am encouraged by Zolaykha Sherzad, Hassina Sherja and Nilofar Zia Massud—three Afghan women who now operate a thriving textile and clothing business that employs hundreds of Afghans. I am encouraged by the six million children who are now enrolled in school—two million of them girls. I am encouraged by the fact that 85 per cent of the population now has access to basic health care compared to just 10 per cent under the previous regime. And I am encouraged that in 2010-11 Australia will provide $106 million in development aid to grow the capacity of the Afghan government. That adds to the education programs we have given to schoolchildren on health and hygiene education. That adds to the education programs we have given to Afghans on landmines.
We have heard the names of the Australian soldiers who have been killed while serving their country, and my thoughts and sympathies go to their family and friends. Words cannot adequately express the loss those families must be experiencing. I pay tribute to their professionalism, dedication and sacrifice, and offer my sincere condolences to their families.
I also wish to honour those Australians who are currently serving or have served in Afghanistan. Without the sacrifices offered by Australia’s soldiers and civilians overseas, none of the achievements in Afghanistan would have been possible. Afghanistan would still be a place where people live in fear, where brutality is the norm and where terrorism is core business.
We must continue to support the commitment to Afghanistan. To do otherwise will place our own security and that of our allies at risk. It will also condemn the Afghan people to a future that relives their brutal past. This is not an easy mission, nor should it be an open-ended one. We must have clear goals and plans, but I believe our continued involvement is the right and just thing to do and I urge all members of this House and all Australians to support it.
I do not view this through rose-coloured glasses and I do not pretend for one moment that this will be an easy journey or a short one. We have already heard from the Prime Minister about the long-term commitment of Australia to the region. I commend her candour and openness.
Rebuilding a nation that has spent so many years, so many decades, in conflict—when generations of Afghans have only known violence—is not an easy thing, but it is the right thing. It is the just thing. It is not just the right and the just thing for the Afghan people. It is the right and the just thing for our allies and it is also the right and just thing for our country.
It is fitting that this continued debate should occur in the month of November, when we honour our soldiers who have fought in all conflicts throughout Australia’s history. While Australia is a young nation compared to the rest of the world, we have been steadfast in our determination to protect freedom, tolerance and democracy—sacrificing our nation’s sons and daughters so that we might live in a world of peace and prosperity.
On 11 November, I attended a remembrance service of the Camberwell City RSL. We paused to reflect upon the Australian lives lost in war and to honour the sacrifice of those who have given their lives in recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. These Australians are continuing the legacy of the Anzacs and the Australian soldiers who have fought since. As I laid my wreath at the Surrey shrine in Surrey Gardens, I thought particularly of the 21 young soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan to protect us. I thought of their families who now have to go on life’s journey without them and the terrible human tragedy for their families and our country. There is a memorial in Ferndale Park in my electorate of Higgins to one of those 21 brave soldiers: Private Greg Sher. As President Calvin Coolidge once said:
The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.
And that is one of the reasons this debate is important. We should not forget what our soldiers have done to defend Australia and humanity abroad. We must bear in mind their great sacrifices and ensure that what they fought to achieve is protected and fostered.
In many parts of the world, a woman leaving home can be a death-defying activity. We should understand that as Australians we are privileged to live in a country of peace and security, and that our children do not have to witness regular acts of violence. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of some parts of the world where people have been forced to accept violence, subjugation and terrorism as an inescapable and inevitable part of their lives.
Our mission in Afghanistan can be categorised by three things: to stop Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists; to train Afghan security forces so that they can provide for their own security; and to honour and protect the US alliance, which is in our national interest. Our national security is in our national interest.
After the horrific attack on civilians that was September 11, it became clear that the Taliban in Afghanistan had allied themselves with terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda and therefore posed an international threat to the security of all nations. The Taliban enforce one of the strictest interpretations of sharia law in the world. Their perverted interpretation of Muslim teachings is diametrically opposed to the mainstream Muslim world. They are an isolated and culturally regressive group of people who pass down a congenital extremism that holds no place in a civil world. In many ways, they represent the antithesis of civilisation. Their barbarism, especially against women, is well-known.
In terms of Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan, our troop numbers are relatively modest compared with some of our allies. We have 1,550 Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan, compared to 9,500 from the United Kingdom and 78,000 from the United States that form the core of the coalition. Nevertheless, Australia’s contribution is absolutely vital and has taken on some of the most critical security tasks in that region. Importantly, Australia has been directly involved with the training of the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade in Oruzgan province, which will assume responsibility for security in Afghanistan.
Australia not only are providing security to the region but are helping to build the future of Afghanistan since the defeat of the Taliban regime. We are providing important aid and services to the people in the region, and helping them to rebuild during tumultuous times. Australia have increased our civilian contribution and increased the AusAID commitment by nearly 50 per cent to $106 million in 2010-11. We are also providing important funding for mine clearance, agriculture and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. This builds on the first Reconstruction Task Force that was deployed by the coalition government in 2006. Importantly, we have assisted in the establishment of democratic institutions in Afghanistan. Although governance issues continue to pose a problem, we can be proud of the fact that, with our allies, we have put in place the machinery for free and fair elections. The coalition must continue to work to improve Afghanistan’s democracy. It may never be perfect by our standards, but it is an important start.
Australia have a stake in the success of Afghanistan. We need to be there to see it through, so that one day the people of Afghanistan can take their place amongst the free. And there have been some successes. For a start, al-Qaeda no longer has safe havens or training camps in Afghanistan. According to the Australian Defence Force, the Afghan National Army reached its October target of 134,000 personnel almost two months ahead of schedule. Likewise, the Afghan National Police reached its target of 109,000 personnel three months ahead of schedule. The Afghan military and police are gradually assuming greater responsibilities. These signs are promising as we work towards a self-sustaining government in Afghanistan.
I have listened carefully to the speeches made both here and in the other place in this debate. In this context, the Greens, supported by some Independents, have put forward a bill in the Senate requiring the parliament to vote on any decision to deploy Australian troops overseas. They go so far as to suggest that there be a conscience vote by members of parliament before troops are deployed overseas. I believe that this is a dangerous and flawed proposal that overturns the established process, which has always been in the hands of the executive government. It is right that the executive government of this country be responsible for the deployment of troops, be it for the defence of Australia’s borders, for the safety and security of other nations or for humanitarian missions overseas. These decisions must be made by the executive, who are vested by the Constitution with the powers to make decisions relating to our defence forces both here and abroad.
In the case of Afghanistan the decision was made by the previous coalition government in 2001 to contribute soldiers to fight extremist forces who had established a network of cells for the purpose of carrying out terrorist attacks on Western nations. The Australian government’s response in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States was planned in conjunction with our allies, in particular the United States. It is wholly appropriate that such plans be carried out by our executive government and that the government of the day be allowed to carry out important work in the nation’s interest, particularly when that work involves a rapid and timely response to international developments.
Australia’s response to extremist forces in Afghanistan was appropriately planned and coordinated by the government. It was a response that involved bipartisan support from both the government and the opposition—bipartisan support that continues today. This does not preclude public debate on the issue of our involvement in Afghanistan, either inside or outside the nation’s parliament. As this current debate shows, public discourse continues to be strong on this issue and the people of Australia take an active interest in our military activities abroad. Nor is the parliament prevented in any way from holding the government to account on this or any other issue. But ultimately the decision must be made by the government that has been elected by the people to act in the interests of the nation. If this cannot be the proper role of our government then there is little else that it can be responsible for.
The people of Australia rightly expect that the government will make these important decisions. This is what governments are elected to do and what our Constitution provides they ought to do. The Greens’ bill is nothing more than an attempt to erode the power of executive government and to prevent it from making the important decisions that it can and should make in relation to our military. It is a contrived bill that attempts to draw into question the democratic mandate given to the government of the day to respond to international developments that affect Australia’s national interests. It is an attempt to draw into question the ability of the parliament to discuss and debate Australia’s overseas commitments. For these reasons I believe it should not be supported by the parliament.
I conclude by quoting a great thinker. As Aristotle said, ‘We make war that we may live in peace.’ This is the object of our troops and commanders in Afghanistan: to fight a war that we do not want for the purpose of securing peace for the region and our world. We must always bear this in mind.
This is a very difficult issue to speak on for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that we are talking about war, and with war comes destruction, carnage and death. It comes at great cost in both human beings and resources. Australia has now been at war in Afghanistan for nine years, and I think the debate we are having in the parliament now is something we should have had from 2001 onwards in relation both to Afghanistan and to Iraq.
I remember the terrible days of 9-11, when the world stood with the citizens of the US and saw in horror terrorism played out in its most brutal form. The world, including Australia of course, supported action to combat that terrorism and those who had perpetrated the crime. Our involvement, along with many other countries and the UN, with the US in Afghanistan was supported not only by the population of Australia but by the international community. Indeed, it was regarded by most as a legitimate, legal and just war.
The intention most immediately was to attack the cause of the terror that had been perpetrated on September 11—to find and subjugate al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The ruling Taliban’s refusal, in the main, to participate in rooting out al-Qaeda and other terrorist elements in Afghanistan at the time proved to be the reason international forces went into Afghanistan, and most people in Australia supported that action. Unfortunately after 2003, when the so-called fight against international terrorism was diverted to Iraq, the original purpose in Afghanistan appeared to be lost. Indeed, it entered into a strategic vacuum. That original intention was basically neglected until 2006 and indeed even further, to 2008.
The international community experienced different conditions in Afghanistan after 2003. In essence, we saw the resurgence of the Taliban and increased military activity, both tribally and nationally. Australia has played its part in seeking to tackle terrorism wherever and however that is possible. One of those means is to provide our contribution to the international forces currently in Afghanistan. Some 1,500 Australian personnel engaged in those activities in Oruzgan Province in particular are facing hostile activities from the Taliban specifically and from other hostile elements. We have lost too many of our young people in this fight against terrorism, in supporting a fledgling democracy in Afghanistan and in helping to reconstruct this battle-torn country.
Indeed, 21 of our soldiers have been killed and 152 have been wounded in these operations. The Australian public has legitimately asked: what are the reasons for our presence in Afghanistan today? Have we accounted for al-Qaeda? Research would indicate that that depends on how you define al-Qaeda. The general conclusion is that al-Qaeda has morphed to other countries and established itself more substantially in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, and that it uses Pakistan as a staging post for a number of its activities.
What else has emerged is the resurgence of the Taliban while we were participating in the strategic vacuum of Iraq. Now we have a group of people who are ideologically motivated and bring to bear on many of their fellow Afghans little more than suffering, particularly for minority groups and females. They are part and parcel of what is Afghanistan today. There is more and more reason strategically and tactically to accept the fact that, if there is to be such a thing as a ‘victory’ in Afghanistan, for both common sense and humanity, we have to deal with the Taliban in more than just a military way. We need to work with elements of the Taliban, to bring them to the negotiating table, to be part and parcel of what has, in the end, to be a political solution to the troubles of Afghanistan. I believe that trend will continue to emerge.
In the meantime, what is our role? The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and many others in this place eloquently and adequately set out both our rationale and the strategy and tactics that we seek to employ in Afghanistan. The first was to try never again to make it a safe haven for terrorists. It could be argued that this fight against terrorism merely redirects terrorist groups to other areas. Indeed, there is strong evidence that many terrorists reside in Pakistan and that unless we deal with the realities that face us and the Realpolitik of what is going on in Pakistan, no effort is going to have any substantial effect. We need to tackle that issue as a community of all nations, auspiced I believe through the UN and supported by the US. We have to deal with the Afghanistan issue as a region.
What a lot of people forget is that something like 50 nations are involved in Afghanistan in some form or another, providing support militarily, culturally, economically and socially. Until we deal with Afghanistan as part of a region being fed by terrorist activities from the outside, I do not believe we can ‘win’ in Afghanistan. That is in no way meaning to denigrate the work of Australia and its allies in Afghanistan to date. We have to be very honest about what has been happening there. The Australian involvement in Afghanistan is considerable. We are in a very serious and hostile area militarily as well as socially. Australia’s troop deployment and our support for social, culture and economic development in the region are considerable.
There has to be some end point to this conflict and to our involvement. Nobody denies the reality that we are supporting the United States, our ally, in its objectives in Afghanistan. We will continue to do that. As an ally, we will provide material and non-material support for that cause, but at some stage there has to be an end and we need to work towards providing the substance to reach that end.
The decision has been made that in order to have a political solution you need to up the military involvement to try to drive the Taliban and other players to the negotiating table. That is the policy, the strategy, being adopted at the moment. But it is absolutely crucial that, whilst we do that, we also meet our humanitarian obligations to the people of Afghanistan and, in Australia’s case, the province of Oruzgan in particular.
One of the most difficult conundrums in all of this is that many scholars of this region, particularly scholars of its culture, its history and the various tribal and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, claim that it is the presence of foreign troops and foreigners in Afghanistan that causes most of the dissent and stops people from coming together to try to negotiate a way out of this—that it in fact brings them together with the most disparate and militant elements. So what we think is homogeneous dissent against foreign involvement is, in fact, people coming from different parts of a spectrum of dislike of the foreign presence.
So there is the conundrum: the longer we stay, some would argue, the worse it is going to get. However, how do you leave without leaving a complete and utter mess? That is the conundrum we are working on. Nobody denies that it is a problem—it is—but we have to deal with it by working genuinely and constructively to make the lives of those who are going to be left behind better.
I think the only solution is going to be a political solution and I think that political solution will be driven not by the gun but by the region. There are players intent on pursing their own political purposes in Afghanistan. Until we expose those players and bring them to the table to work out how to arrive at a consensus for Afghanistan, I do not know how we are going to extricate ourselves from there in an honourable way. What I can say, however, is that we need to stay the course, as long as in doing so we pursue our original objectives and as long as we do so in a humanitarian way. We are at war, with all its very serious consequences, and I wish our forces and our personnel well in very dangerous times.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate about our nation’s involvement in Afghanistan. I think it is a timely debate and right that we justify our Afghanistan commitment to this parliament given that last month marked the ninth anniversary of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan and we have seen a number of changes over that period. Last week, on 11 November, Australians commemorated Remembrance Day in honour of those who have died or suffered for Australia’s cause in all wars and armed conflicts. As I participated in commemorative services in my electorate of Bonner, the observation of two minutes silence—one minute for those who returned and one minute for those who did not—touched a chord for many gathered there. I believe that a third minute of silence could also be observed to acknowledge those currently serving and defending our nation in various theatres around the world.
In line with those commemorations, I would like to start by outlining my support and admiration for Australia’s Defence Force personnel. I pay tribute to those thousands of men and women who serve and have served in Australia’s Defence Force, at times in very dangerous and hostile environments. In particular, I acknowledge the 21 Australian soldiers who have lost their lives in Australia’s service in Afghanistan. I salute the ultimate sacrifice those soldiers made in defence of Australia’s national security. I also acknowledge the 152 soldiers who have been injured during Australia’s mission in Afghanistan. I honour your service to date and I know that many of you have continued or will continue to serve our great nation upon your recovery. I also support and admire the families and loved ones of our Defence Force personnel. I understand the concerns that many families of serving personnel have when their loved ones are serving overseas and I empathise with the enduring anguish of the loved ones of those soldiers who have lost their lives.
In assessing Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan over the last nine years and indeed our future commitment, it is important to remember that our mission, and the sacrifices that have been made, is in defence of Australia’s national security. Australia’s national security is articulated through the achievement of a number of objectives, the first of which is freedom from attack or the threat of attack—that is, our capacity to protect our citizens and interests at home and abroad. Our national security was put at risk when terrorists attacked the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001. In that attack, 10 Australians lost their lives. Our national security was again significantly put at risk when 88 Australians were killed in the first Bali bombings. Similarly, the death of eight other Australians in subsequent terrorist attacks in London, Kuta Bali, Jimbaran Beach and Jakarta continued this sad trend.
Our troops are committed to Afghanistan because all these attacks have been proven to be linked in some way back to the freedom of action that terrorist forces enjoyed in Afghanistan. We must remove these safe havens for extreme terror groups capable of extending their influence into Australia’s region and thereby further impacting on our national interests.
However, our mission is twofold. While we must remove safe havens for terrorist groups, we must also engage with the society that has proved to be, often unwillingly, a breeding ground for terrorist groups and assist the building of a stable Afghan state through a combination of military, policy and civilian effort. This is one of the most fundamental aspects of Australia’s mission and one that I support wholeheartedly. I appreciate that progress in this strategy will be very gradual and that advances will be achieved day by day, village by village. It is a slow process, but one that we must follow through so that it will lead to the successful restoration of normality in a country where normality has been a foreign concept for the past 30 years.
I know that there are some voices advocating immediate or near-future withdrawal, but I believe that this is not in any way a viable option. It is not viable for Australia’s national interest and it is not viable for Afghanistan’s security and stability. The irony of this alternate strategy is that an incomplete mission in Afghanistan will see the resurgence of the Taliban, a repressive regime that has operated off the back of the heroin trade. It is highly corruptible and is known as one of the worst human rights violators of recent times. An incomplete mission in Afghanistan also has the potential to send the message to other terrorist organisations which cooperate with and look up to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, particularly in our South-East Asian region, that we are not serious about defeating terrorism and protecting our national security.
The coalition has never taken this commitment lightly. I support Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan and I support the work we are doing, through our alliance with the United States of America and under the auspices of the United Nations, to defeat terrorism at its source, deny terrorist organisations a training ground and support a democratically elected government to ensure that Afghanistan can never again become a haven for terrorism.
I was not going to speak on this motion, because I thought there were many others who would have much better knowledge, but I realise the significance of the motion and its importance to our nation. The decision to go to war and to commit troops is probably the greatest decision that any country can make, and to represent one’s constituents is something that one needs to give good consideration to. I have discussed our commitment in Afghanistan with many people in my constituency. Some have family who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan in recent times. Of course some of them are very proud that their family members are doing their job in the name of Australia, but some of them have certainly shown some concern in asking what is being achieved, how long we will be there and when our troops could be coming home. So it is necessary for us to give consideration to those questions for the broader Australian community.
We are at the end now in Iraq, except for work that we do through the United Nations. But in Afghanistan we still have things to do and matters to conclude, and some of those issues need to be given much consideration. You cannot understand Afghanistan unless you understand its history. It is an amazing history that goes back for centuries and centuries. Physically, it is a landlocked country with borders shared with many equally old and interesting nations. Its terrain is very dry, dusty and mountainous. It is very hot in summer and very cold in winter. I imagine it is not a very easy country to live in. It is certainly not an easy country in which to carry on a conflict against any of the people, who of course know the terrain better than Western trained soldiers.
Afghanistan is right in the middle of a trading route that was of strategic importance. It links oil and other commodities which Western countries want. Afghanistan’s history, its internal political development, its foreign relations and its very existence as an independent state have largely been determined by its location at the crossroads of central west and South-East Asia. Waves of migrating peoples poured through this region in ancient times, leaving a human residue to form a melting pot of linguistic groups. In modern times as well as in antiquity, great armies passed through the region, establishing at least temporary local control and often dominating Iran and northern India as well. Although there were many flows of different people through the country and a flourishing trade route existed, Afghanistan did not really become an independent nation until the 20th century.
Previously, because of its location, great rival powers have tended to view the control of Afghanistan by a major opponent as unacceptable. Sometimes the Afghanis have been able to use these circumstances to their benefit, but more often they have been caught in the middle of power struggles and have suffered grievously for it.
Such an example can be seen when just after the Second World War the Afghani government was attempting to raise funds for its infrastructure program. The US refused to lend general support to a five-year program in 1957 and said it would only provide funds for projects, so the Afghanis improved their relations with the USSR and played off the two powers. People who travelled through the area in the late sixties were able to travel on a beautiful new highway running from west to east, half built by the US and half by the USSR. The markets in Kabul at the time were full of both US and USSR military surplus stores as both sides plied the country with goods.
Great powers have considered Afghanistan’s internal politics only in terms of how they can achieve their own strategic interests, rather than considering it as an autonomous country with sovereignty. It has also been the case that whichever central government has been in power in Afghanistan it has been unable to establish effective and permanent control over the numerous peoples of that society. It is only in response to a foreign invasion or as part of an army inside or outside the country that many diverse groups have found a common cause. So without delving deeper into the whys and wherefores of the present struggle, it is quite plain to me that there is no easy answer to ensure that the Afghani people will find an acceptable solution while there are many interests at stake. We have to understand history to know that we should learn by it and not take on the reasons of why things were done in the past.
Wars also displace people. I was in Iran three months before the US declared war on Iraq for the second time. I visited the United Nations’ refugee camps in Iran and saw how many of the Afghani displaced people were being processed in those camps. They were encouraging many to return home by providing families with a jerry can of water, a few clothes and other possessions and then bussing them 200 kilometres inside the Afghani border. This was before the bombs were raining down in Afghanistan. It did not take much imagination to see how many of them might risk a leaky-boat trip or other dangerous trips to try to make a life in a less risky environment.
We were talking to the Iranian government at that time about nine Iranians that we wanted to repatriate. They said that they had 2.4 million Afghanis to try to cope with and therefore they were not very interested in our problems. I did not agree with Australia’s involvement in Iraq because it was likely to have unwanted consequences at home, especially as war displaces people and it was not in Australia’s strategic interest. The reason for going to Iraq was based on erroneous information and we were sucked in with many other nations. When we think that there are 43.3 million displaced people in the world, many on the move because they cannot survive in their own countries, it makes you realise how lucky we are in Australia and that we are not the only country trying to control its borders, trying to come to grips with people trying to come here by various means.
I do not think we should be so naive to think that by continuing an aggressive military presence we will bring peace to Afghanistan. Afghanis will need to build their country themselves, with help from other nations and of course from Australia. I think we can help and should help, but through more peaceful means. I think Australia should continue to help train, help resettle villages, help bring water and infrastructure and help bring better health and education to both men and women there. One is moved by reports of the many thousands of children being involved in education, especially girls. These are the things that will build the future of Afghanistan. But I do not feel we should try to sort out the issue of who is running Afghanistan. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from the brave women there who have to try to continue their lives, bring up their children and influence those in power to allow them equal rights and justice, as they deserve.
How long should we remain in Afghanistan? I really do not know. If we can help in the social development of that country then I think we should keep a presence there. But I do not think that we can be there without having that proper motive and of being able to look towards Afghanistan building its own future. What is the time scale? That has to be developed. We have to try to work with the other nations that are there endeavouring to build Afghanistan.
I salute our young people in the forces over there, doing what they can to make this remarkable country a better place, and I grieve for the families of those that have lost loved ones there doing their job. I believe it is now time to look hard at the future of this nation and at what we are doing to bring the factions of this nation together for a peaceful nation. I wish all those involved the best in those endeavours.
Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted and the resumption of the debate is made an order of the day for a later hour this day. In accordance with the resolution agreed to earlier, the matter stands referred to the Main Committee.