Senate debates

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Ministerial Statements


5:22 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to make a statement on the Prime Minister's statement delivered in the House of Representatives today on Afghanistan—Progress in transition, preparation for the future.

Leave granted.

There is no more grave or responsible decision that any country's leader ever makes than to choose to send young men and women to war to risk their lives for their country. The Greens have argued for a very long time that this should be a decision of the parliament, as indeed it is in many other places. However, it is currently a decision that rests with the country's leader. There is one other equally important decision, and that is to know when to bring those troops home.

I want to talk about Australia's ongoing combat engagement in Afghanistan, where 39 young Australians have lost their lives and 242 have been officially wounded. I say 'officially' because I have no doubt that every one of our troops who comes home from Afghanistan will carry with them the scars of war and live with dealing with those scars of war for a very long time. Those of us who are in the public sphere have to think about this very carefully. We must not see war in the abstract. We should take it personally. We should not stand back and only reflect on and pay our respects to those who give their lives for their country. But equally I do not believe that honouring those who give their lives is best achieved by saying over and over again that we are there to stay the course. Surely we must honour them by reflecting deeply on why we are at war, whether it remains the right course, whether we could not save more lives and make the world a safer and better place by bringing the rest of our soldiers home safely while transitioning our support to a humanitarian, non-combat plan.

In the case of Afghanistan we have no clear articulation of why we are there. The Prime Minister was not able to make a clear articulation of that in her speech today, except to say: 'Our commitment to Afghanistan is in Australia's national interest.' She went on to say: 'We are there to deny international terrorism a safe haven, to stand firm with our ally the United States.' In my view that is not an adequate articulation of why we are there. Too many of our soldiers are dying already in green-on-blue attacks by the soldiers with whom they are training or patrolling. Afghan civilians are dying. The situation is not improving significantly either in a military sense or in a governance and civil society sense, with corruption being rife. Many of our other coalition partners in Afghanistan, like the Netherlands, Canada and France, are pulling out, with New Zealand also having announced that it is coming out.

Surely we have a duty to ask: why are we putting young lives at risk? Why are we still there? What is the difference between now, October 2012, and 2014 in terms of outcomes in Afghanistan? It is hard to escape the conclusion that we are just waiting for instructions from Washington and have no answers of our own. What is our reaction to the news that NATO was considering bringing home the troops earlier, and why weren't we considering that ourselves rather than waiting for the instructions we get from elsewhere?

Major General John Cantwell, a former commander in Afghanistan, recently posed hard questions in his deeply moving book Exit Wounds. I would recommend to the Senate that people get a copy of Exit Wounds and read it. He has said:

We need to have a crystal clear understanding of why we're getting into the fight, how long for, what we hope to achieve, how long before we will leave, what conditions might prompt us to change strategy—this has let us down in Afghanistan. Human beings die as a result of warfare.

I want to read specifically from his book, because I do not think many people will have read it. I find it profoundly moving and it is the reason why we need to bring our troops home as quickly and safely as possible. Nobody, especially the Prime Minister, has articulated why we should still be in Afghanistan or what difference being in Afghanistan is going to make between now and 2014. Major General John Cantwell says:

Is it worth it? I recall sitting in my office one day in 2010, soon after a repatriation ceremony for another dead Australian soldier. With me was one of the senior officers on my staff. We looked at each other and I said, 'You know what, mate? I'd never say this in front of the troops, but I'm starting to wonder if these deaths are worth it.'

My colleague replied, 'You're not the only one asking that question, boss.'

Some will argue that the men and women we send to war are all volunteers, who know the risks and take them willingly. Others will say that casualties are the unavoidable cost of doing business in a combat zone. There is an argument that says the lives of a few sometimes need to be expended for a greater good. Another line of reasoning takes the grand-strategic view of international affairs, putting the case that Australia—a relative minnow in terms of military might, albeit a well-trained and reasonable well-equipped minnow—has no choice but to maintain strong bonds with a large and powerful friend, the United States. That friendship sometimes demands reciprocal payments, in the form of going to war and spending some lives. A cold, clear-eyed analysis of these claims tells me that they are all true, much as it pains me to admit it.

He goes on to say:

But these arguments only work at the intellectual level. They do not make sense at the human level, the level at which every life is precious, where each dead soldier is someone and not just a number. These men had parents, sisters, brothers, partners and children who loved them. They all had lived and had an expectation of more living to come. They all had dreams and hopes and potential. These were the thoughts that ran through my head as I stood, time after time, in the morgue in the UAE. How could any of these lives be forfeited? What measure of success in the campaign to fight the Taliban and build Afghanistan's army could possibly warrant the grim procession of dead men that I supervised? I know, absolutely, that the men who died in Afghanistan were doing what they loved, with mates they respected, for a cause—rejecting extremism, denying terrorism, helping a needy people—which is honourable. I also know that advances have been made in training the Afghan National Army and improving security in Uruzgan province; some of the people of the province also have an improved quality of life. But will our efforts, no matter how impressive locally, significantly influence the myriad problems afflicting the government and people of Afghanistan? Ten years from now, will anyone in Afghanistan remember that Australians shed blood for them? For a man like me, a lifetime soldier inculcated with a sense of duty and service, these are difficult questions to confront.

In the prologue to this book, I wrote that such thoughts seemed disrespectful, even treasonous. But the fundamental question has continued to gnaw at me: is what we have achieved in Afghanistan worth the lives lost and damaged?

Today, I know the answer—it is no. It's not worth it. I cannot justify any one of the Australian lives lost in Afghanistan.

I find that an incredibly moving, courageous piece of writing from a former commander in Afghanistan, Major General John Cantwell. He has made a very powerful case in the book to say that, whilst our soldiers are doing a fantastic job, for which they are trained, it is not going to make a long-term difference in Afghanistan and yet it is becoming more and more dangerous and we are going to lose more lives.

In my view, today the Prime Minister was not able to persuade the parliament with a compelling argument as to why we need to stay in Afghanistan until 2014 when it is not going to make an iota of difference. The country is going to remain as torn as it currently is by tribal tensions. The corruption in the government of President Karzai is obviously recognised. You have seen huge amounts of money leave that country by the elite in Afghanistan preparing themselves for a life outside Afghanistan. I urge the Senate to consider this and to note the Prime Minister's speech but to support the Greens. Adam Bandt will be moving a motion in the House of Representatives later this year for a vote on bringing our troops home. We need our troops home and out of Afghanistan as safely and as quickly as possible. (Time expired)

5:32 pm

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to take note of the ministerial statement on Afghanistan and seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.