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Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Page: 13502

Dr MIKE KELLY (Eden-MonaroParliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (19:29): I will say from the outset that I very much appreciate the spirit of bipartisanship that has characterised our approach to this issue in Afghanistan and the support for our men and women in uniform. The fact that there is that bipartisan support is very important to them. They understand that they have that support, and it makes a difference to them. I know that both members of the coalition and members of the government share the experience of having to attend the funerals of those who have been lost and of meeting their families, so we are not hidden from the experience of the loss. Obviously we both appreciate that loss deeply. We salute, of course, the families who have continued to support the surviving members of units whose members have been lost and who remain committed in large part to this mission. They are an inspiration in that respect.

It is a significant factor that the men and women in uniform, and their families, very much appreciate that progress is being made and would wish this mission to continue to fulfilment. But it is right and appropriate that we have this discussion—that we continue to revisit our deployment and continue to analyse it. Notwithstanding that there is bipartisanship support, we are of course hearing alternative views, such as we have heard from the member for Lyne. And we have the member for Melbourne in the chamber as well. So we are having an open discussion on the continuing involvement in Afghanistan. I think it is worthwhile reminding ourselves why we are there—not just in the sense of what happened on 9/11, as dramatic and horrendous as those events were, but putting it further in context of what was going on in Afghanistan at the time.

The key thing here is that Afghanistan offered an opportunity for al-Qaeda and its like minded organisations and affiliates to have the apparatus—the complete environment of a state—at its disposal. This is an entirely different order of magnitude from al-Qaeda being squeezed to the margins of other states where there may be ungoverned spaces or loose regulations so they can develop cells or operate to a degree. Having the resources of a state at their disposal enabled them to reach much higher planes of assaults on their enemies in the West. We know that in Afghanistan they were so closely tied in in a symbiotic relationship with the Taliban that enabled them to operate a complete conventional formation—the 055 Brigade. Through that brigade they were able to train and organise thousands of terrorists from around the world—process them and then incubate them out into other terrorist organisations within our own region.

This is not a question of operating outside of the scope of our own interests. The central Asian country of Afghanistan was incubating significant terrorist threats throughout our region in relation to Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jemaah Islamiah and many other groups that we know have caused Australian casualties. We know from comments being made at the time in Afghanistan that Australia was well and truly on the target lists of these organisations. Largely that was why targets such as were chosen in Bali were singled out—because of the opportunity to target Australians.

It was not just the regular formation of the 055 Brigade. There was an extensive network of training camps. The apparatus of the state enabled al-Qaeda and like minded organisations to operate at a much higher level in financial terms, using the opportunities that a state gave it to organise financial support. They were also using that opportunity in Afghanistan to run a series of experimentation sites for chemical and biological welfare and weapons of mass destruction, through which they would obviously seek to cause even greater loss of life and destruction than what we were forced to witness in relation to the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 9/11.

That opportunity was there for them, completely unconstrained. There was a whole range of things they were able to do in that ungoverned space of the territory of Afghanistan that was available to them, with the assistance of the Taliban. The Taliban themselves, of course, were one of the most reprehensible and evil regimes the world has ever seen, taking Islamist extremism to an entirely new plane. The cultural warfare they waged on the history and culture of their own country was horrendous. There was not just the destruction of those highly significant Buddhas at Bamiyan, which achieved great notoriety around the world. So many other cultural artefacts were destroyed by that organisation. Those were inanimate objects, but certainly thousands throughout the nation of Afghanistan suffered horrendously. There were organised massacres. There was sexual slavery. There was repression of women to a degree not witnessed even in the most repressive of Islamist extremist societies that existed at the time, and of course many still suffer from loss of rights in some countries of that nature, but certainly they were a horrendous regime and worthy of dispatch for that reason. It was these associated national interest issues that particularly engaged us in the need to deploy our own armed forces in the international effort to neutralise that country as a safe haven.

I heard reference from the member for Lyne and others to us having been engaged in Afghanistan now for 10 years. That is not quite accurate. We obviously had a significant effort in Afghanistan in 2001, but there were a number of years when we only had effectively one officer present in Afghanistan working with the United Nations organisation there. So our commitment has not remained on the scale that it is now through the entire 10-year period. In fact it was not until 2005 that the effort started to ramp up again, and that signals how the international community dropped the ball in Afghanistan strategically. There is no question but that our engagement in Iraq did distract us from the effort in Afghanistan.

If just part of the blood and treasure that was expended in Iraq had been directed to Afghanistan in those early days we would not be having this discussion now—but we are where we are. It was one of the reasons I entered politics, to try and address our strategic approach to dealing with counterinsurgency and stabilisation operations. This is something that had consumed my entire military career and on which I have written a great deal. It informed many views about how this nation should approach this issue, in particular that we needed to do a much better job of forging cohesive, coherent, whole-of-government campaign planning approaches to these environments. A counterinsurgency situation is classically the formula of probably 20 per cent security but 80 per cent social, economic and political. We were not really pursuing a cohesive whole-of-government strategy in Afghanistan in that context, so I was grateful for the opportunity to come on board with the Rudd government and create the Asia Pacific Civil-Military Centre of Excellence that we now have based in Queanbeyan, where it can work in conjunction Headquarters JOC; with the AFP's IDG group at Madura; with ACFID, the NGO peak organisation; and with the various agencies of government.

That centre has made a difference to the strategies that we are employed on the ground. I was very fortunate to be with my colleagues the member for Kooyong, the member for Forrest and Senator Kroger at the end of April this year in Afghanistan and spend a week on the ground with our men and women in both Tarin Kowt and Kandahar. It was really heartwarming to see the change in the strategic approach so that the Provincial Reconstruction Team was no longer some neglected bolt-on to the operation but at the centre of the commander's concept of operations. The rest of the military effort was strapped around the Provincial Reconstruction Team to facilitate its work. We have heard talk about exit strategies here, but that exit strategy is in place. It is built on a concept of separating the population from the insurgency, from the insurgents themselves, connecting the population with its government and developing their nation-building capacity, particularly, from the military point of view, building the security sector reform that we need to transition to their responsibility for security affairs. That was achieving great progress when we were there.

Those gains that have been made over the period of the previous 12 months have been consolidated and secured through this so-called fighting season. So we have made very significant progress. The security footprint through the Dhast, through the areas of civilian population in Oruzgan province, have been greatly increased. The security sector responsibility of Afghanis in filling that previous security void has been successful. The 4th Brigade is achieving great strides. There is still much work to do in relation to the Afghan Police Force; there is no question about that. But I visited the police training centre where our AFP are hard at work and they are making progress there. In terms of these other nation-building efforts to create loyalty in the civilian population to its government, we saw great progress there not only in the completion of the boys school at Tarin Kowt but also in the finalisation that was taking place of the girls school at Tarin Kowt, a school that will cater for 750 girls. This is a huge, quantum leap forward in a province that was the most backward of the backward. Literacy rates were incredibly low: we are talking about a 93-odd per cent illiteracy rate in Oruzgan province. So the boost that we are giving to education is the single most important thing. We have heard statistics about Afghanistan in general, but education is going to be the key to the future of that nation. So our efforts there have been tremendous and very rewarding engagements for our troops.

The opening of the Sorkh Morghab mosque is building a relationship between our forces and the community because we have shown our respect for their culture, for which they have shown their gratitude; there is also the muliplier effect that has created in the build-up of communal activities around the mosque. We have also been involved in improving the delivery of health services at the Tarin Kowt hospital. These things are complementary strategies in relation to the broader mission of the security sector peace that we are delivering in Oruzgan province.

Obviously, in the past Australia has been in the situation where we have had responsibility for provinces, and national efforts have let us down. We had that experience in the Phu Toc province in Vietnam. We had it, in my own experience, in the Bay province in Somalia. We went on to Al Muthanna in Iraq, where there was a happier ending, and now here we are in Oruzgan province. It is a legitimate question to ask where the national situation in Afghanistan is going from the point of view of the rule of law and good governance, and there is much more effort that has to be put into that. Ultimately, this will be something for the Afghans themselves to deliver, but we must remain engaged—and that will be decades of engagement—to facilitate, mentor, improve and build that capacity. However, from the point of view of our military involvement, there is an exit strategy that will be delivered within a time line we have set.

But we should make it clear that we are not focused on an end date; we are focused on an end state. If we achieve that end state, that is when we will transition our security posture there. If it is sooner, then that is well and good, and the Prime Minister has flagged that. Certainly, we send a very clear message to Islamist extremists that it will not be the end of our involvement. There will be support for an Afghan government that continues to pursue, and deny a safe haven to, these extremists. It is a very complex picture there. Reconciliation is part of the process, and that is being pursued. There are diverse elements that are associated with this, and we have heard talk about the Pakistan element here, which is a very serious concern. I understand the historical basis of their support for Taliban elements, but they need to understand that that nearly brought their own nation down in 2009, when the Taliban were only 100 kilometres from Islamabad. For example, what was the first thing they did when they achieved control of the Swat valley? It was to blow up 100 schools, because these Islamist extremists see education as their enemy. They replaced the schools with radical madrasahs. This is our battle: to defeat Islamist extremism and promote the voices of moderate Islam in this world and in our own country. We are fully engaged in that and determined to see that mission through.

I know there is concern about these rogue soldier incidents that have occurred. We do not fully understand exactly what has happened there, but these incidents have not been unknown in previous conflicts. In fact, in Vietnam we suffered some Australian-on-Australian incidents, known as fragging. These are things that can happen when people are suffering severe mental breakdown or stress—or, in a situation like Afghanistan, where it might be family or tribal retribution, or indeed associated with the Taliban insurgents.

But this is not deflecting us from our mission. Our troops remain committed to it. When I was there, I pulled aside some who were close friends of mine and said, 'Give me the no-BS answer here: is this working? Should we stay?' They all gave me the same answer: 'Yes, we believe we will achieve success. We are making progress. Please stick with us. We will achieve this mission.' Thank you.