House debates

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Ministerial Statements


9:23 am

Photo of Stephen SmithStephen Smith (Perth, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I thank the House.


The government is committed to providing regular reports and updates on Afghanistan, including to the parliament.

This is my third report to the parliament this year.

On 7 February this year I presented an update on transition in Afghanistan. As this process gains pace and we look towards the very substantial drawdown of the ADF in Uruzgan at the end of this year, it is appropriate to again update parliament and the Australian people on progress towards transition.

This update follows on from my visit to Afghanistan on 2 June.

Afghan-wide T ransition

Progress continues to be made on transition across Afghanistan. Australia welcomes the announcement yesterday of the fifth and final tranche of transition, which will see Afghanistan's final provinces and districts enter transition. With the inclusion of these final districts into the transition process, Australia welcomes the achievement of the so-called 'Chicago Milestone', where the Afghan National Security Force officially takes the national lead for security responsibility for all the districts in all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, all of which have now entered transition.

Throughout Afghanistan, the Afghan National Security Force is growing more competent and capable. The Afghan National Security Force participate in all operations and are in the lead in 95 per cent of these—from routine tasks, including combat service support missions, medical evacuations and route clearance operations to high-level tasks such as special operations. The ANSF indigenous training capability is increasingly developing with the ANSF delivering up to 90 per cent of their own training.

In keeping with this trend, on 11 April this year, the Australian-led Artillery Training and Advisory Team (ATAT) officially completed its mission to establish a fully autonomous Afghan National Army School of Artillery and the ADF personnel relevant to that training mission have returned home.

Australia ' s 2014 Role

In 2014, the Australian commitment to Afghanistan will include a commitment of around 75 personnel, including instructors and advisers, support staff and force protection at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Kabul, together with our British and New Zealand colleagues.

In Kandahar, the ADF will continue to provide advisory support to the 205 Corps of the ANA through an adviser and force protection complement of over 50. The ADF will also maintain its commitment of 10 advisers to the Logistics Training Advisory Team in Kabul.

Australia currently has over 100 staff embedded within a range of ISAF headquarters. The embed commitment in 2014 is expected to evolve as ISAF prepares for the post-2014 train, advise and assist mission. A possible Special Forces role remains contingent on government consideration and consultation with the United States and ISAF over Australia's possible post-2014 Special Forces role.

Post-2014 NATO-led Mission

At the Chicago summit in May 2012, ISAF nations and the Afghan government agreed to work together to establish a new NATO-led post-2014 mission to train, advise and assist the ANSF. We are well down that path. At the recent NATO/ISAF defence ministers' meeting in Brussels on 4 June, the concept of operations for the post-2014 train, advise and assist mission was endorsed by defence ministers. Operational planning for the post-2014 mission will continue to develop through the remainder of 2013.

Australia ' s post-2014 role

Australia is prepared to maintain an ADF presence in Afghanistan to support stability and security after the completion of nationwide transition at the end of 2014. Australia will continue to provide training and advisory support to the ANSF through the NATO-led train, advise and assist mission to Afghanistan. Under an appropriate mandate, Australia is prepared to make a Special Forces contribution, either for training or for counter-terrorism purposes, or both. The actual size and scope of Australia's post-2014 ADF contributed is yet to be determined.

As well, Australia will contribute $US100 million annually for three years from January 2015 as part of international efforts to sustain and support the ANSF beyond transition, a continuation of the $US200 million Australia committed in 2009 to help sustain the ANA in Uruzgan Province over the five years from 2009 until the end of 2014.

The National Security Interest

In my first statement on Afghanistan to the parliament as Minister for Defence on 20 October 2010, I said, 'Therecan be no more serious endeavour for any country or government than to send its military forces into conflict.' To send its men and women in uniform into harm's way, a country or government must have a clear national security interest reason to do so.

Lessons from Afghanistan

Australia's national security interest in our commitment to Afghanistan—past, present and future—is clear: to prevent Afghanistan from again being used by terrorists to plan and train for attacks abroad on innocent civilians, including Australians in our own region and beyond.

The Use of Military Force

Our experience over the last 10 years in Afghanistan has highlighted some important general lessons for the use of military force. It has reinforced the well-known point that it is the easiest thing in the world to get involved in major commitments, but it is substantially more difficult to get out. That is why, when a government makes a decision about a military intervention, it must very, very carefully consider whether that intervention is required in a country's national security and national interests.

In the case of Afghanistan, there was strong international community and bipartisan domestic support for the intervention in Afghanistan, mandated by the United Nations Security Council in December 2001. If there had not been a continually renewed United Nations mandate for Afghanistan, the international community, in my view, would have withdrawn years ago.

Progress in Afghanistan was substantially undermined as a result of Iraq, which was not the subject of a United Nations mandate and which did not have bipartisan domestic support either here or internationally.

International community focus shifted from Afghanistan in the latter half of 2002, in the lead-up to the Iraq War. This allowed the Taliban to regroup in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and reassert and rebuild its influence in southern Afghanistan from 2003 through 2005. As a result, from 2006 onwards, ISAF forces faced fierce opposition from a resurgent Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Focus shifted back to Afghanistan in 2008.

The subsequent surge of international troops and resources into Afghanistan and the sharper international focus led to the transition process and where we are today, but the regrettable fact is that valuable years, a half dozen years, were lost to the Afghanistan mission as a result of Iraq.

International decision making

From the earliest days, the government was forthright in demanding a place at the international table when key decisions were made on Afghanistan. My ministerial predecessors Ministers Nelson, Fitzgibbon and Faulkner did very valuable work on that front. Australia insisted that strategic level decisions on Afghanistan were taken by the International Security Assistance Force, not just by NATO.

While the government was prepared to put our men and women in uniform into harm's way to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism, we were equally determined to ensure that from 2008 Australia was part of the decision-making process for the international community's strategy on Afghanistan.

Strategy and Mission

In Lisbon in November 2010, leaders from Afghanistan and ISAF countries agreed that a conditions based transition to Afghan led security begin in 2011, with the aim of completing transition by the end of 2014. The international community agreed at the Chicago summit in May 2012 to continue to fund, train and support the Afghan National Security Force post transition, and to consolidate and build on the security gains of the transition strategy.

The international community also committed to supporting Afghanistan's development in the long term, including through the signature of long-term strategic partnership agreements. Long term support to Afghanistan, its institutions and its security forces are an important signal to the people of Afghanistan, the Taliban and the region that the international community will not walk away from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

This long-term support is an important safeguard against the inevitable pressure the Taliban will seek to bear on Afghan institutions of state and the Afghan National Security Forces with transition to Afghan led security responsibility. Similarly, a continued special forces contingent will be important to maintain an active deterrent against the re-emergence of international terrorists.

These two elements—long-term international support and continued special forces assistance—will be important both to sustain the transition to Afghan security responsibility and to ensure the viability of what the international community has achieved in Afghanistan.

If, following the transition to Afghan security responsibility, Afghan institutions and the Afghan security forces were to collapse, or Afghanistan was again to re-emerge as a base for international terrorism, the Australian public would rightly question whether stabilisation operations and humanitarian interventions were worth the cost in lives and resources.

That is why Australia has committed to the long-term support of Afghanistan and is prepared to maintain an Australian Defence Force presence in Afghanistan to support stability and security after the completion of nationwide transition at the end of 2014. That is why I have stressed that under an appropriate mandate, Australia is prepared to make a special forces contribution, either for training or for counterterrorism purposes, or both.

The requirements of Australia's adherence to the rule of law in Afghanistan, our approach to civilian casualties and our detainee management framework, are exacting. They have however stood the ADF and their well-deserved reputation in good stead and allowed the ADF to retain the pride and support of the Australian people in the job they are doing.

Our international reputation, our credibility and our reliability as a partner as a result of our experience in Afghanistan have been enhanced consistent with the finest traditions of Australia and the ADF in combat or warlike operations: first class fighters, and respectful of international law and highly conscious of the rights of civilians and locals.

Afghan-led Peace and Reconciliation Process

I said to the House in my 7 February 2013 statement that Australia has long supported an Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process, recognising that conflict in Afghanistan will not be ended by military force alone.

Australia welcomes the opening of an office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations between the Taliban and the High Peace Council of Afghanistan as part of an Afghan-led peace process.

Australia also welcomes the fact that United States representatives will meet the Taliban in Doha for talks aimed at achieving peace in Afghanistan.

These talks will necessarily be long, complex and inevitably subject to setbacks, but efforts at peace and reconciliation must continue.

Awards from Operations in Afghanistan

Australia's contribution to Afghanistan has seen great acts of bravery. Australia's highest military honour, the Victoria Cross for Australia, has been awarded to three outstanding individuals for their acts of exceptional courage: Trooper Mark Donaldson, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, and Corporal Daniel Keighran.

Operations in Afghanistan have also seen the award of the Battle Honour Eastern Shah Wali Kot to the Special Air Service Regiment and to the 2nd Commando Regiment for their outstanding performance during the Shah Wali Kot offensive in Afghanistan from May to June 2010. Eastern Shah Wali Kot is the first Army Battle Honour awarded since the end of the Vietnam War.

On 10 May this year it was my privilege to attend the presentation of the Eastern Shah Wali Kot Battle Honour to the Special Air Service Regiment at Campbell Barracks in Swanbourne, Perth. Today I will have the privilege of attending the presentation of the Eastern Shah Wali Kot Battle Honour to the 2nd Commando Regiment in Holsworthy, Sydney.

Australian Battle Casualties

Australia ' s mission in Afghanistan has come at a substantial price. We have lost 39 ADF members and 254 personnel have been wounded in action to date.

We have achieved much in Afghanistan. We still have much to contribute.

Today in this p arliament, we pay tribute to our wounded warriors and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. We will not forget them.

I take this opportunity to table a paper in conjunction with my ministerial statement and I seek leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Fadden to speak for 13 minutes.

Leave granted.

I move:

That so much of standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the member for Fadden speaking in reply of my ministerial statement for a period not exceeding 13 minutes.

Question agreed to.

9:37 am

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence Science, Technology and Personnel) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the minister for providing his final update to the House for this parliamentary sitting. I thank the minister for his consistency in keeping the House informed regularly throughout his term as the Minister for Defence. He has done so quite openly and quite forthrightly.

Yesterday, the long war in Afghanistan reached another historic milestone. NATO and coalition forces formally announced the handover of the final provinces and districts to Afghan security forces. President Hamid Karzai described the announcement as a historic moment for his nation and the fulfilment of one of his greatest desires. Whether the President's desire will be met in the future is now fully and totally up to him, his government and their security forces. NATO and coalition forces, including substantial elements of the ADF, have done an enormous amount of heavy lifting over a very long decade. The ANA and the Afghan National Police, the ANP, are as equipped and as trained and prepared as they could be. Now is the final moment of the testing. Now we determine whether Afghan forces and the people of that country are able to rise up and realise their self-appointed destiny as a nation in the full concert of others around the world.

The minister was right to recap on the just and right way Australia entered the war—to face the realisation of extreme Islamic terrorism head-on and to stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends and other allies around the world. Terrorism is a threat that cannot and must not be negotiated with. It must be faced; it must be defeated.

This was the war that saw the ANZUS alliance activated. And we are not fair-weather friends; tens of thousands of Australia's finest men and women have poured through Afghanistan on continuous rotations. We have provided the third-largest special forces contingent within that troubled country, with numbers and numbers of our special forces soldiers rotating through on up to nine separate occasions.

Ours has been a long and tough fight. We have provided substantial air, land and sea assets. As a nation we have provided the largest contingent of forces per capita; a phenomenal feat, not just as a non-NATO country but for any nation. We have not weathered great political storms that have seen other governments fall and forces withdrawn. The government and the opposition have stayed shoulder to shoulder in ensuring that a legitimate, right and just fight against those who would seek to do us harm was adequately and appropriately responded to.

It has been a long road in this fight against extreme Islamic terrorism. We deployed forces in response to the barbaric acts of September 11 in late 2001. Apart from a hiatus in 2003-05, when Australia's contingent was two lone engineers, we have maintained a consistent and strong presence. We have paid an exacting price: 39 Australians killed in action; 254 wounded in action, including a special forces soldier in the last 24 hours, after a heavy landing of a Black Hawk; numerous bravery awards given to our fighting men and women, justly deserved, including three Victoria Crosses.

Of course I will join the minister today when the 2nd Commando Regiment receives the Army battle honour for eastern Shah Wali Kot for its heroic fight in the May-June period 2010.

The future now is Afghan security forces securing their own country, especially the difficult southern provinces and the districts that they will operate independently—under independent command, with independent force dispositions from the end of the year. Australian forces will come home from Uruzgan at the final parts of this year and early next year. And there is every indication that Uruzgan province will not have a coalition footprint post withdrawal as it has not yet been named as one of the 10 provincial areas where coalition forces will remain.

The 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army has been trained by the finest soldiers in the world: the men and women of the Australian Defence Force. They will operate in a province where there will be no coalition footprint to assist. They will truly have to realise their long-held dream of autonomy and security independently. Our military is proud of what they have been able to achieve. They have trained the Afghan forces to the highest possible standard. I am confident the 4th Brigade of the ANA will rise to the challenge.

The coalition will continue and will maintain its strong bipartisan support to the government on Commonwealth operations in Afghanistan right through to the election. I have been proud over the last three to four years, as the only member of the coalition shadow defence team here in the House of Representatives, to have put strong voice to that bipartisanship for our combat operations. It may surprise the Australian people to know that bipartisanship is not so much the minister and I at the dispatch box standing shoulder to shoulder; it mostly involves closed-door meetings, phone calls, joint flights, like that which the minister and I will do today to join the 2nd Commando Regiment, and keeping each other informed as to where we are going. Bipartisanship starts privately; it exhibits its face publicly. We have not wavered during some of the darkest days in this parliament when our casualties were high. The bipartisanship will continue through to the election and, regardless of the result, it will continue post election from the coalition's point of view.

In responding to the minister's forced disposition post withdrawal, can I simply back up the minister with his view that post September, if the nation does elect a coalition government, they can be assured that we will continue with the planned withdrawal of the bulk of the combat force and that we will honour the agreements the concert of nations have put together in terms of future boots on the ground. That includes our long-held support to 'Duntroon in the desert'—because there is no way I am letting the Poms get away with calling it 'Sandhurst in the sand', which is the ANA officer training in Kabul—support we have offered from the very beginning. Likewise, this includes the logistics training advisory team, as well as continued embedded personnel within ISAF commands where it is warranted.

I note from the minister that our gunners have returned from running and commanding the Afghan school of guns, which was a remarkable success. It was a landmark contribution that had the hallmarks of the great things that Australia's fighting men and women do. Faced with having to train in a technical environment of gunnery, and with a largely illiterate Afghan force, it was the Australians, the young men and women, who devised an educational regime of teaching the gunners how to read and write within a six- or seven-week period as part of their training program. I believe it was so successful that commander ISAF came and visited to see what the Australians were doing in order to extend it further afield in other parts of training. The Anzac spirit of innovativeness and entrepreneurism on the battlefield continues to this day.

We join the minister in considering the use of any possible special force capabilities when we have greater clarity over the status of forces agreement that they would operate under. I believe the government is still working with its coalition partners in trying to get sufficient clarity on that. The minister and I have spoken at length about it, and sufficient clarity at present does not exist in terms of a mandate under which they would operate. Suffice it to say, we will engage quickly and strongly with our allies and partners, and we will demonstrate that great Australian spirit of reliability and conscientiousness as a partner.

The Australia Army can also rest easy that if there is a future coalition government it will not be resting on our laurels post Afghanistan. There will be no post-Vietnam long-peace approach to our military, a peace that I entered as a serving officer—and I look across at the minister for procurement, then Colonel Kelly, and it was a long peace that he entered—but that was interrupted by operations that, frankly, the military was not prepared for. We are committed to a hardened, networked Army which can operate in a network-centric joint environment as part of a maritime strategy. We are committed to the next phase of the Army's development, especially Land 121 Phase 4 and Land 400, which go to the bulk of the Army's vehicle replacements.

The post-Afghanistan Army, building on a very sensible and well-considered force generation cycle—plan BEERSHEBA—will be a tough, hardened capable force able to meet the government's strategy objectives. That is our aim for a post-Afghanistan military. In that spirit we have announced that there will be no cuts to the Defence Force under any incoming coalition government and that all savings from the bureaucracy will be reinvested back into Defence.

I thank the minister for his work with our wounded warriors and their integration back into Australia. We are in furious agreement with the minister on his concerted approach to caring for our wounded, both physically and mentally. We vociferously supported the MOU and a closer working relationship between Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and note the effectiveness of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel being one and the same person. That way the minister cannot hand something off to another minister; he has to hand it off to himself. That has proven to be a remarkably effective way forward and, considering the wind-down from Afghanistan, the issues we are now facing in mental health, and the extent of the MOU, there is considerable sense in continuing that approach.

Minister, thank you for the opportunity to speak one last time in this parliament on our combat operations. The withdrawal is progressing well. The amount of cargo being removed from the Afghanistan Theater of Operations is astonishing, as we seek to move almost $3 billion of equipment out through a limited land bridge and an extensive air bridge before shipping cargo back. We are now in a logistics battle, where our logisticians will rise to the fore. If there was to be a logistics war then this is it, and I am confident that our loggies can rise to the challenge. The minister can be sure that the coalition will provide considered bipartisan support right to the very end of this parliament. I thank the minister for the opportunity to update the House.

9:49 am

Photo of Robert OakeshottRobert Oakeshott (Lyne, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

It is acknowledged by the House that this has been a regular update from both sides of the parliament, but I thank in particular the minister and the executive government for keeping the House informed of activities in Afghanistan.

9:50 am

Photo of Harry JenkinsHarry Jenkins (Scullin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker Oakeshott, you and I have recently returned from the parliamentary delegation to Afghanistan and I want to speak briefly, on indulgence, on this topic. I think it is important that we have these briefings on our military engagement. As you are fully aware, that delegation felt that, when we move into a civil engagement after the military engagement, to honour the efforts of the military engagement we should ensure that that civil engagement of Australia in Afghanistan continues at a great pace. I hope that future parliaments will have reports about that civil engagement of the same standard that we have had during this parliament. I congratulate the Minister for Defence.