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Tuesday, 22 November 2011
Page: 13498


Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (19:11): I begin my contribution on the motion to take note of the Prime Minister's statement on Afghanistan by acknowledging the recent visit made by the President of the United States to Australia and the importance of the ongoing alliance between our two countries. I also acknowledge those on the ground serving their country right now, those who have served over the past decade and those who have been wounded or killed over the life of this operation.

I would also like to reaffirm my view on the war in Afghanistan, which is that an explicit and specific exit strategy needs to be articulated as soon as possible and that a process of withdrawal begin between 2012 and 2014. I was pleased by the statement of the Prime Minister. The current publicly stated date for this is 2014 but there was also reference in her speech, as there was in the speech made recently by the Minister for Defence, that the 2014 date may be the outside date required and there may be movement prior to that. I certainly welcome those statements and developments if they can be upheld.

Our commitment comes at a significant emotional and financial cost to all Australians. In financial terms, our strategy in Afghanistan is costing anywhere between $3 billion and $6 billion—and this is at a time when financial austerity measures matter more than they have at most other times. Our 10-year contribution to this war and our open-ended commitment needs to be looked at as to whether it is a cost benefit to our economy not just as a cost benefit to our US alliance or the geopolitical interests of Australia.

In October last year, I rose in this place to acknowledge that after nine years in Afghanistan the lives of 21 Australian troops had been lost, more than 150 soldiers had been injured and at least $6.1 billion of taxpayers' money had been spent. Twelve months later, or 10 years into our commitment, 32 lives have been lost, over 200 soldiers have been injured and there is a trajected spend of $2.3 billion over the next financial year, which is on top of the net additional cost of $4.7 billion over the past decade.

The emotional and financial cost of our commitment is escalating exponentially. The issue of Australia's sovereign interest has not diminished and is still at the core of this debate. I assert once again that the time to commence our exit should begin as soon as possible. The deaths of Australian troops will continue, the financial cost to the taxpayer will continue and the inevitable void and civil unrest that will be left behind will only continue to wait. I again emphasise that we will have to, at some point, accept a lesser democracy than ours and we will have to, at some time, recalibrate to focus on our international obligations to the Asia-Pacific Region, on the many challenges that regional religious extremism and regional terrorism pose, and on what we can and should be doing towards peace and development in our own Asia-Pacific Region.

In June this year, the White House announced that an initial 10,000 troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 and that the full 33,000 troops associated with the surge would be out of Afghanistan by next summer. Further reductions beyond these timings were flagged with the goal of transitioning to Afghan led security by 2014. The 2014 deadline originated from the International Conference on Afghanistan held in Kabul in July 2010, at which the Afghan government determined that ANSF should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014.

I acknowledge that the Australian defence forces involved in Afghanistan are doing good work in training and mentoring the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade in Oruzgan province to allow their transition to having lead security responsibility for the province; building the capacity of the Afghan National Police to assist with civil policing functions in Oruzgan; helping improve the Afghan government's capacity to deliver core services and generate economic opportunities for its people; and undertaking activities to disrupt insurgent operations and supply routes utilising the Special Operations Task Group. I also acknowledge the statement of Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, to the Senate estimates hearing in October this year that ADF activities continue to disrupt insurgent operations in Afghanistan. However, I make the same point as I did earlier in this speech: at what cost? I again emphasise that I think the time has come for us not to cut and run but to start doing what most of the coalition countries are now doing and work on a strategy for draw-downs of Australian troops for both financial and moral reasons.

I do not accept the argument that Australia would be cutting and running on our own. If you look at what the various coalition countries are doing, you can see that there are activities going on right now that put Australia at the back end of any commitments to withdraw troops. At the moment, our draw-down—depending on whether you listen to the Minister for Defence or the Prime Minister—is for between 2012 and 2014. Looking at other countries, Belgium have now committed to draw down, commencing at the end of this year, with the intention of withdrawing half their personnel by early 2012. Canada withdrew from combat operations in 2011 and are now taking part in the NATO training mission in Afghanistan until the end of 2014. Denmark—and we all celebrated Denmark today—is still on a 2014 deadline, with the government recently stating its determination to hand over to the ANA in 2014. Finland is withdrawing between 2013 and 2016, conditional on Afghan forces' ability to take over, with the government assessing this month whether to change that. In France, President Sarkozy announced in June this year that there would be a phased withdrawal plan, with French personnel being gradually withdrawn, with possible completion by the end of 2013. He withdrew 200 personnel during October and will withdraw that many again by the end of 2011. Germany has the intention to commence a draw-down from the end of 2011 but is equivocal about how many and how fast. Hungary has said it expects only small changes to mid-2013 and will work with ISAF on withdrawal. Italy, similar to us, is working towards a 2014 withdrawal. Latvia is also working to a 2014 time line.

I think the argument that is pervading the debate in Australia—that openly discussing a draw-down and a withdrawal and exit strategy is somehow cutting and running or letting down the coalition forces or the mission in Afghanistan—is wrong. I think it is time for us to have an open and sensible debate, not only about military strategy but also about the direction in which we as a country want to take our involvement in Afghanistan, as per other countries who are openly discussing the issue or actively undertaking draw-downs and withdrawals right now. So I certainly stand by those that are on the ground and those families that have suffered over a 10-year period. And I certainly understand why we went there in the first place. However, after a decade, I do think there comes a time where we need to openly reassess and debate, as a parliament, military strategy. I think we need to now think of the economic cost, as well as of the geopolitical and other reasons for being involved. I do, once again, urge the executive to consider beginning a withdrawal earlier than the current date of 2014, in line with what is happening in most other countries engaged in the war in Afghanistan.