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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 9088


Senator MILNE (TasmaniaDeputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (20:46): I rise tonight to make some comment as to why we should be withdrawing our troops from Afghanistan as a matter of urgency. The question that needs to be asked here is this: is it morally justifiable to lose more Australian lives in a military campaign that is unwinnable, in a situation where Afghanistan is likely to look much as it does today when, in a few years time, we eventually do as the Americans intend to do, and that is withdraw in 2014? Is it morally justifiable to lose more Australian lives in these circumstances?

I have been listening tonight to the kinds of contributions that just do not go to the detail of what is going on in Afghanistan. I have just heard Senator Feeney say that other people are not concerned as he is about Afghani lives. Is that so? I can tell you that there are currently 1.7 million to two million Afghani refugees in Pakistan. Next year, in 2012, they will lose their refugee status in Pakistan. That figure of 1.7 million to two million is probably an underestimate. Senator Feeney, who has just contributed in this debate, of course would not have those refugees come to Australia. Australia is quite happy to be engaged in a war in Afghanistan for all the reasons that he cites, but millions who are over the border will lose their status as refugees next year—and what then? What then about those Afghani people who have been forced to leave because of the dislocation, the war—all of the things that have been discussed and the atrocities that have gone on over many years? I heard from Senator Johnston tonight that this is a most noble and legitimate cause. Really, a noble and legitimate cause! And from the Prime Minister we have heard, 'We will complete our mission of training and transition.' What transition? I think it is about time we talked about what is really going on in Afghanistan as we speak.

I have heard Senator Abetz and now Senator Feeney both talk about the fact that there has been a whole explosion in cell phones in Afghanistan. According to the Washington Post, every evening the cell phone signals disappear in some portion of more than half the provinces in Afghanistan as the major carriers, under pressure from the Taliban, turn off their signal towers, effectively severing most of the connections to the rest of the world. Tactics like the cell phone offensive have allowed the Taliban to project their presence in far more insidious and sophisticated ways in 2011 using the instruments of modernity that they once shunned. The shut off sends a daily reminder to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Afghans that the Taliban still holds substantial sway over their future. It is just one part of a broader shift in Taliban strategy that is focused on intimidation, carefully chosen assassinations and limited, but spectacular, assaults. While often avoiding large-scale combat with NATO forces, the Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network have effectively undermined peace talks and sought to pave the way for a gradual return to power as the American led forces begin scaling back military operations in the country. That is the fact of the matter.

There is no way that Afghanistan is going to be significantly different in a few years time from what it is now. I go to the Haqqani network because we are told that the mission is to stop terrorism in Afghanistan—there must be no safe haven for terrorists in Afghanistan. That is quite right, except that we have got the Haqqani network now operative in Pakistan, with safe havens there, who come across the border into Afghanistan and are currently working with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was there recently saying that we need a peace process that brings together the Taliban, the Haqqani network and the Karzai regime. Somehow, we are going to bring about peace in that regard.

In addition to that, according to the Washington Post, we now have 'uncertainty gnawing at Afghans about the looming American withdrawal, while making the most of the insurgency's limited resources'. It goes on to talk about the recent United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reporting on torture. Senator Feeney talked about the torture of children. Let me tell you: the torture of children is currently going on in facilities in Afghanistan with the allies we are working with, overseen by President Karzai's regime. We know from the United Nations report that suspects are hung by their hands, beaten with cables and in some cases their genitals are twisted until they lose consciousness in detention facilities run by the Afghan intelligence service and the Afghan National Police. This is according to a UN study released in October, as I said. The report found evidence of a 'compelling pattern and practice of systematic torture and ill-treatment' during interrogation in the accounts of nearly half of the detainees of the intelligence service known as the national directorate of intelligence who were interviewed by the UN researchers. The national police's ill-treatment of detainees was somewhat less severe and widespread, the report found.

The report pointed out that, even though the abusive practices are entrenched, the Afghan government does not condone torture and has explicitly said the abuses found by the United Nations are not government policy. They may not be government policy, but from the point of view of Afghani people what they can see is young people being rounded up, put into these centres and then tortured by the people who are supposed to be on the side of the Afghan people against the Taliban. It is no wonder that the Afghan people see an occupying force working with a corrupt Afghani government. And so we get to this point: is it true that training the Afghan army in Oruzgan will help build a stable, pro-Western Afghanistan? No, it will not.

I heard Senator Johnston talking about the elections that were held in Afghanistan, holding that up as some kind of progress in Afghanistan. But you just have to look at Transparency International's report that tracks government corruption around the globe. It ranks Afghanistan as the world's third most corrupt country, behind Somalia and Myanmar, or Burma. In the hundreds of diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and released in December 2010, Afghanistan emerges as a looking-glass land where bribery, extortion and embezzlement are the norm and the honest official is a distinct outlier. The widespread corruption is made possible in part by the largely unregulated banking infrastructure and the ancient system of money transfer that is the method of choice for politicians, insurgents and drug traffickers to move cash around the Muslim world. Mr Karzai won re-election in 2009, but he did it by completely rigging the election and the results were overturned not long after. Of course, then there was the assassination of his younger half-brother, who was assassinated by a person working with the US special forces and the CIA.

There is also graft and corruption from the opium trade. We have a situation where the report to congress only a month ago stated that millions of dollars have been siphoned out of Afghanistan from US aid—and no doubt Australian aid. I will be very interested to know what tracking we have for the aid money that we are spending and how much of it is leaving Afghanistan through illegal sources and going elsewhere. In fact, in the US case they are saying that people associated with the Karzai government have used the money to buy luxury mansions in Dubai, for example.

So the Afghan people see a force that is working with the corrupt Karzai government against their interests and their own young people are detained and tortured in centres run by the very people we are mentoring and working with. It is time we set a date to come out of Afghanistan. It is time we recognise that the situation is unwinnable. Other countries have withdrawn. Australia should be withdrawing its troops because it is unlikely that there will be significant shifts in such a corrupt regime. The question here is: how much better would it be if we were not an occupying force but rather assisting in a capacity other than as an occupier?

Question agreed to.