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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 9073

Senator ABETZ (TasmaniaLeader of the Opposition in the Senate) (19:30): I move:

That the Senate take note of the ministerial statement.

September 11, 2011 was the tenth anniversary, if we can call it that, of the horrific and cowardly attacks on the twin towers in which, along with 2,977 people from 90 different nations, 11 Australians were killed. In October 2002 at Kuta in Bali, 88 Australians were killed. In September 2004 at the Australian embassy in Jakarta, nine Indonesians were killed and over 150 injured. In July 2005, one Australian was killed and 11 were injured in the London train and bus bombings. In October 2005 at Jimbaran beach and Kuta in Bali, four Australians were killed and 19 injured. In July 2009 at the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta, three Australians were killed. Fortunately, attacks closer to home have been thwarted, notably an attack on Holsworthy Army base, planned for 4 August 2009, to be carried out by Australian based Islamic militants linked to the terrorist group al-Shabaab. The perpetrators planned on infiltrating the base and shooting as many Army personnel and others as possible until they were killed or captured.

These are some of the reasons that Australia is in Afghanistan fighting the scourge of terrorism which had its base in Afghanistan. Afghanistan had long been a training ground for terrorists, including those responsible for the attacks in Bali and Jakarta and against our embassy in Indonesia. Over the past decade, close on 100 Australians have been killed by terrorist attacks that were planned and executed from terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan. So, in the first instance, our presence denies Afghanistan as a training ground and operating base for al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations. Secondly, our presence helps stabilise the Afghan state through civil, police and military training for local Afghans which will enable them to achieve self-determination within a reasonable time frame.

There are an annual average of 1,550 Australian Defence Force personnel deployed within Afghanistan as part of Australia's military contribution to the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF. Our military, civilian and develop­ment assistance is directed towards mentoring the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade in Oruzgan province to eventually take on responsibility for the province's security, building the capacity of the Afghan National Police to assist with civil policing functions in Oruzgan, improving the Afghan government's capacity to deliver core services and generate economic oppor­tunities and disrupting insurgent operations and supply routes utilising the Special Operations Task Group.

On occasions such as this it is worthwhile looking at the progress that has been made. The International Council on Security and Development, an organisation long critical of US policy in Afghanistan, is echoing the US sentiment that, as a result of the surge and refined strategy, many of the Taliban's long-time safe havens in Helmand and Kandahar have been destroyed. Mid-level Taliban commanders and their networks have been disrupted, dismantled or destroyed by special forces. In March 2011, General Petraeus told the US Armed Services Committee that in a typical three-month period 360 insurgent leaders were either killed or captured. This has had a marked effect on the average age of Taliban commanders, which, according to observers, has dropped from 35 to 25 in the past year.

The standing up of the Afghan National Army, the ANA, is taking time but it is progressing. The ANA has assumed security responsibility for Bamyan province, the first of 48 provinces, and over half of the patrol bases within the Oruzgan province. Another six provinces were handed over to the ANA and ANP authority in recent times. We talk of the Kabul province, Panjshir province, Herat city, Mazar-e Sharif city, Lashkar Gah city and Mehtar lam town. Real progress is being made. Retention rates for the ANA are slowly rising.

In addition to all those military gains and security gains in Afghanistan, it is worthwhile noting the improvements that have been made to the quality of living of the Afghan population. Let us go back 10 years. In 2001, Kabul was a ghost town and a home to 500,000 repressed, cold—cold because none of the heating worked—and depressed people. It is now a thriving city of three million, with shops, cafes, cinemas, music and girls and boys schools. In 2001, nine per cent of Afghans had access to basic medical care. Today that is at 85 per cent. In 2001 less than one million boys went to school. Today seven million young Afghans go to school, one-third of whom are girls. In 2001, you would struggle to find a phone. Today, one in three Afghans has a mobile phone. In 2001, only the Taliban's Voice of Shariat hit the airwaves. Today, there are over 100 active press outlets. So you can see the great progress that has been made.

Regrettably, previous moves to strike a deal with the Taliban have proved fruitless. I recall some 13 months ago, when we were considering this matter in this place, I was suggesting that peace should be given a chance and there should be discussions with the Taliban. Nevertheless, despite them being fruitless, I am encouraged to learn that negotiations with the Taliban continue in the hope of a breakthrough deal.

Just over a year ago, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Petraeus, said that progress in the war was sometimes as slow as 'watching grass grow or paint dry' but that American and coalition troops were nevertheless making headway with 'hard fought gains' against insurgents, but that it remained tough going. Recently, General Petraeus's successor, General John Allen, said:

Each day, Afghans are learning new skills, working to provide for their families, standing up for their communities, and labouring to build a new, more hopeful Afghanistan. With each step of progress, our shared enemy has come to realise that they cannot tear down what the Afghan people are building up. The enemies of peace are not mujahidin or martyrs, but murderers, and their violence, assassinations and attacks will not frighten the Afghan people into submission. Taliban fighters, too, are growing weary of their leaders—who stay off the battlefield, deciding instead to issue orders from the comforts of foreign lands. Because they have lost territory, support, morale, and the will to fight, many of these fighters are considering reintegration and choosing a future of hope and promise for themselves, their families, and their communities.

The current surge is witnessing success, with a large number of insurgents being killed and forced to retreat from areas formerly under strict Taliban control. More and more Taliban are now being forced into areas where they have not previously been dominant. So, in Oruzgan and neighbouring provinces, NATO and Australian forces are being called upon to engage in even more encounters with the Taliban. Unfortunately, this is resulting in further casualties for our troops.

Just last week, the alternative Prime Minister Mr Abbott visited our troops in Afghanistan. This was about a fortnight after three heroic Australian members of the Mentoring Task Force were killed by a rogue Afghan army member and about a week after another three were wounded by another Afghan soldier. Obviously, incidents like these cause people to question our mission. However, the Australians Mr Abbott met spoke highly of their Afghan allies, the vast majority of whom they regarded as worthy comrades. Mr Abbott's take-out was that there was little doubt that the security situation there is improving.

The insurgency still has the capacity to inflict casualties, using roadside bombs to carry out civilian massacres and to assassinate officials of the Karzai govern­ment. However, the military advice is that the Taliban's ability to engage in direct combat has been seriously degraded. Mr Abbott found that in Oruzgan more schools and clinics are open and many girls are getting an education for the very first time. The road between Tarin Kowt and Chora has been sealed and local villagers are reported to be increasingly turning on the Taliban. The ADF's Mentoring Task Force has helped make the 4th Brigade among the best in the Afghan army.

The transition from largely Western to largely Afghan security forces will take time and the Afghan government will almost certainly need military and financial support for some years to come. Still, it is important that we assist with the establishment of a more humane Afghan government and it is also in our own interests to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorism. Our troops are doing an amazing job in difficult circumstances. The terrain is rugged, the climate harsh, the dust oppressive, the enemy dangerous and our rules for engagement restrictive. Yet, despite all of this, our forces are doing well, exceptionally well.

When last the Senate debated the war in Afghanistan 13 months ago, we had lost 21 brave young Australians and had sustained 150 injured. The toll now stands, regrettably, at 32 while 213 have been wounded in action. We are thinking of them and their families and their friends as we debate this matter. Each death is a tragedy but we should not expect war to be without sacrifice. The important thing is that this sacrifice is not in vain. Over the past decade, close on 100 Australians have been killed and many injured by terrorist attacks that were planned and executed from terrorist safe havens in the mountains of Afghanistan. Our commit­ment of troops in Afghanistan has disrupted such attacks. Our continued commitment is necessary to ensure that our gains are consolidated.

On the eve of Remembrance Day, the fiancee of Corporal Richard Atkinson, a soldier killed in Afghanistan, spoke of the challenges she has faced dealing with his death. Corporal Atkinson, a Tasmanian, was killed by a roadside bomb in February. It was his first deployment. He was part of an operation trying to drive the Taliban out of the Deh Rahwod area, west of the Australian base at Tarin Kowt, a vital strategic area in the war against the insurgency. Dannielle Kitchen, the fiancee, spoke of how she and Richard met, how she coped with his deployment in Afghanistan, how she heard the news of his passing and how she was coping with being a war widow at age 23. It is hard not to feel incredible sorrow about a young man, his life full of promise, on the cusp of marriage and starting his own family, being cut down in a foreign land and for his widow left behind to carry on. We will never know the sorrow of Richard's fiancée and family but we feel intensely for them as they carry their loss. It is some consolation that Richard was convinced that we were doing the right thing and that he was doing good in Afghanistan. It is important that his sacrifice and that of his fiancée not be in vain.

Unfortunately of late there has been an opportunistic element entering into the debate on the war in Afghanistan. It is unfortunate that the tragic deaths of Australian soldiers are used to call for withdrawal of our forces. That opportunism reached a low point with the regrettable question here in the Senate on the eve of Remembrance Day. The Leader of the Government in the Senate was asked whether the government was receiving letters from relatives concerned about the safety of their loved ones serving in Afghanistan, like that from a relative of the soldier which allegedly said, 'Everyone you speak to wants the boys home because no-one believes in this cause any more.' Well, Richard Atkinson did. But such self-serving tactics and seeking to capitalise on the media which follows the death of the digger dishonours our soldiers' sacrifice and, might I suggest, this place.

To withdraw from Afghanistan now would be potentially to give up the good progress which has been made. It would leave parts of Afghanistan vulnerable to return to Taliban control. It would lead to Afghanistan potentially again becoming a safe haven for terrorists to launch attacks on Australians. It would send a message to the locals for them to hedge their bets and stop full cooperation with us because they may have to live with the return of the Taliban. We all hope and pray for peace, especially in Afghanistan. But peace is not the absence of war, as some so simplistically seek to portray; peace is the true, unencumbered exercise of freedom. Many have engaged in war and died to defend or gain those freedoms and that is why we are in Afghanistan. When we lose a soldier, we as a nation mourn and share the pain. When our soldiers make huge gains and root out Taliban strongholds, build schools and allow girls to go to school, our media, for some reason, becomes less excited.

The Senate rightly salutes and pays respects to our fallen heroes. Might I suggest that it could also be appropriate for us to salute the freedoms like girls being allowed to go to school for this first time, the new roads, the new schools and the new hospitals which are being developed in Afghanistan as we speak on a daily basis by our troops. This imbalance in reporting regrettably impacts public sentiment. However, it should not deter us from the task. Having said that, we need to 'give peace a chance'. Of course we should seek to conclude our presence in Afghanistan. To broadcast a precipitous withdrawal will only embolden the Taliban and disenchant the locals.

As we embark on the Christmas period remembering the purpose of Christ's birth was sacrifice for our common good, let us remember those who will be away from their family over this period of goodwill, who are willing to serve our nation and, if need be, follow the example of sacrifice for the greater good. The coalition salutes the work of our troops in Afghanistan.