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Monday, 25 October 2010
Page: 685

Senator MINCHIN (8:21 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

Much of what I want to say has been said in the House and by other Senators who support Australia’s continued engagement in Afghanistan.

However, I felt an obligation to speak in my capacity as the only current Senator who was a member of the federal Cabinet in late 2001 when the Federal Government originally made its commitment to join the Coalition Force in Afghanistan.

I was a co-opted member of the National Security Committee of Cabinet for the 6 years from 2001 to 2007 that I was Finance Minister.

And I was the Opposition’s Shadow Minister for Defence from late 2007 to late 2008.

I also speak as a Senator with a young relative currently serving in Afghanistan.

I also note at the outset that one of my wife’s old friends is the father of one the 21 brave young Australians who have lost their lives in Afghanistan.

I am also in the position of having very nearly lost my own son, an ADFA officer Cadet, in a military training exercise this year, so I have some inkling of the trauma involved for those families whose sons have been killed or injured on active duty in Afghanistan.

Can I say as a member of the 2001 Coalition Cabinet, our Government had no hesitation in offering to join the Coalition Force in Afghanistan, and no hesitation in making the commitment when that offer was accepted by the United States.

That is not to say that the commitment was entered into lightly - the most difficult decision any Government can make is to commit Australian troops to active engagement, knowing that death and injury are likely consequences.

I’m pleased to note the original commitment by the Coalition Government was unhesitatingly supported by the then Labor Opposition.

And I commend Labor on its unqualified support throughout the ensuing 9 years.

Our commitment was made under the auspices of the ANZUS Treaty, with both Houses of Parliament having carried a resolution authorising the invocation of ANZUS.

And of course, as Prime Minister Gillard noted in her speech in this debate, the Australian commitment had the support of the United Nations.

Thus from the outset our commitment to the Afghanistan engagement has been very much a function of our Alliance with the United States.

The Parliament should not be coy about this.

Our original commitment was made in the context of our closest ally having just suffered an appalling and horrific terrorist attack upon its soil, by a terrorist group receiving safe haven from a nation-state, Afghanistan, then under the absolute control of the Taliban.

Frankly there was no question about the importance of the US and its allies removing that safe haven for these evil and ruthless terrorists who have no qualms about massacring innocent civilians.

There really was no question about Australia’s willingness to join with the US in this action.

I do also note that Prime Minister Howard, in announcing our commitment, did not seek to hide the significant dangers that our personnel would face. He made it clear there was a high risk of casualties.

Mr Howard also said, about exactly 9 years ago, that he didn’t know how long the operation would last, and that the reality was it could be protracted.

However I must say none of us would have contemplated then that in 2010 we would still be part of a Coalition engaged in Afghanistan.

While removing the Taliban from Government in Afghanistan took very little time, bringing peace, order and good government to that country has proved to be much more difficult.

May I say that both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader gave responsible and appropriate speeches in the House, frankly setting out the reasons for our continuing involvement and the challenges the Coalition Force faces in Afghanistan.

I endorse and support their remarks and support our continuing engagement.

I particularly note Mr Abbott’s reference in his speech to a number of events in the absence of which “the prospects in Afghanistan might be less daunting and the choices less difficult”.

Two of those events noted by Mr Abbott were Pakistan’s aid to the Taliban, and the preoccupation of the West with Iraq.

The first - the role of Pakistan - is a major and serious problem.

I had the privilege of leading a Parliamentary delegation to Pakistan in 1996, and visited the border country between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Indeed we were taken up the Khyber Pass to the very border with Afghanistan, and met with tribal leaders in that province of Pakistan.

It is a region that is remote, wild and rugged, with an obviously porous border between the two countries.

Clearly the flow of Taliban forces and resources across that border is making the Coalition campaign in Afghanistan extremely difficult.

Indeed the Australian newspaper’s Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan wrote last week that this is “the key strategic fact: Pakistani support for the Taliban, which makes victory more or less impossible”.

Sheridan is right to point out the grim reality of the Pakistan issue, even if we don’t all share his pessimism.

But I think he is right to say that the reality of Pakistani support for the Taliban means victory is only possible with a massive Coalition effort, which is unlikely to be forthcoming.

It does seem to me therefore that, while we must continue our engagement, and the Coalition must respond to Taliban aggression, there must be an attempt to engage elements of the Taliban in negotiations aimed at a laying down of arms.

I am pleased by reports that NATO is helping to facilitate such discussions with the Afghan Government.

However a precondition of any negotiated outcome must be a complete, unequivocal and verifiable veto on any safe haven in Afghanistan for terrorists - and the civilised world must retain the capacity and the will to eliminate any terrorist camps or bases re-established in Afghanistan.

Never again can Afghanistan be a base for terrorists to plan and launch their attacks on innocent civilians.

The other factor mentioned by Mr Abbott that has made the Afghanistan engagement more difficult is the West’s preoccupation with Iraq.

That is an undoubted and unarguable reality.

While I honour the service of all Australians who’ve been involved in the Iraq engagement, the honest truth is that the US’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, when the Afghanistan issue had not been resolved, has clearly affected the Coalition campaign in Afghanistan in a negative fashion.

Rather that the US and it allies focusing all their energies and resources on Afghanistan, Iraq became a massive diversion.

While the US was well-motivated in relation to Iraq, its occupation was a debacle. ABC TV’s 4 Corners Program has in the last 2 weeks documented the scale of the post-invasion disaster in Iraq.

Indeed I vividly recall, as a Member of the Howard Cabinet, being very disturbed in the period prior to this US invasion, by the obvious and significant battle going on in the Bush Administration between Colin Powell at State and Donald Rumsfeld at Defence over the Iraq issue.

My admiration for Powell was immense; my doubts about Rumsfeld were deep.

I earnestly hoped that Powell would win that internal battle, and that the US would refrain from pre-emptive action in Iraq.

That was not to be, and once the US had decided to launch a campaign to remove the Saddam regime, I accept that Australia had little choice but to support our ally.

I recall that my heart sank when Mr Howard informed us in the middle of a Cabinet meeting that the US had decided to invade Iraq, but I knew that the decision having been made, Australia had to support it.

I regret that we were not able to be more successful in persuading the Bush Administration to remain focused on Afghanistan, rather than open up another front in Iraq.

The debacle that ensued in Iraq has made the vital campaign in Afghanistan more protracted and more difficult.

That difficulty has adversely affected public support for our engagement.

A very recent published survey on this issue, taken on 11 October by Essential, showed 49% in favour of withdrawing our troops, down from 61% in June and back to the level recorded in March ‘09.

The most recent Nielsen Poll also shows 49% in favour of withdrawal

In the Essential survey, 24% supported the current commitment, 13% wanted to increase our troop numbers, and 14% didn’t know.

I note that in the October Essential Poll, while a majority of Labor and Greens voters wanted a withdrawal, 49% of Liberal voters wanted us to stay and 41% supported a withdrawal.

So while 49% of Australians overall say they want us to withdraw, a plurality of the voters I represent prefer us to stay.

Nevertheless the great majority of us in this Parliament who support our continuing engagement, have a profound responsibility to argue our case in public at every opportunity.

The Government and the Opposition can’t afford to allow public opinion to become entrenched in opposition to our Afghanistan engagement.

We owe it to the Australian personnel putting their lives on the line in Afghanistan to continually articulate the case for our presence there.

I conclude by applauding the professionalism and commitment of the Australian men and women serving our country in Afghanistan, and honour the ultimate sacrifice of the 21, whose deaths have touched every one of their fellow Australians.