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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 877

Mr ROBERT (10:16 AM) —After nine years at war in Afghanistan, it is appropriate for the parliament to reflect on our current commitment—its past, its progress and its future. If the military theorist Karl von Clausewitz is correct that ‘war is an extension of politics, but by other means’, it is certainly incumbent on the government and indeed the parliament to present a clear national security rationale for war. The public should demand a detailed, strategic justification for ongoing conflict. A case always has to be built to continue to put men and women in harm’s way. It is the very least we owe those who wear our uniform.

This war has extracted much of our nation’s blood. Twenty-one Australian soldiers have been killed in action and 152 wounded in action since 2001. There have been 10 killed and 52 wounded this year alone. The war has taken husbands from wives, fathers from children, sons from fathers, brothers from siblings and grandsons from grandparents. The cost has been high, borne by a few. Only the most significant of national objectives could be worth such a price.

This morning I will present the case for Australia’s ongoing engagement in Afghanistan based around five points: the original premise in 2001 for war, the changing nature of the conflict, the ongoing strategic justification for staying the course, past achievements and future challenges, and what Australian success in Afghanistan would look like.

A 21-year-old celebrating their coming of age today was 12-years-old and in primary school when the first US and UK missiles struck Afghanistan on 7 October 2001. This young adult probably cannot remember where they were when the World Trade Center towers came tumbling down on September 11, killing almost 3,000 people, including 10 Australians.

For all people of our nation to look forward, we must first look back to see how this fight began, because the world changed on September 11. Australia invoked the ANZUS alliance to stand shoulder to shoulder with our friend and ally the US. President Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom—the US’s global fight against terrorism—and commenced combat operations to destroy terrorist training camps and infrastructure within Afghanistan, capture al-Qaeda leaders and cease terrorist activities in that country.

On 20 December 2001 the UN approved resolution 1386 that created the International Security Assistance Force as a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban, al-Qaeda and factional warlords. Indeed, the US assembled an International Coalition against Terrorism that by 2002 involved 136 countries, including 55 countries providing military forces, 89 countries granting overflight status for US aircraft, 76 countries granting landing rights and 23 countries agreeing to host US and coalition forces involved in military operations in Afghanistan. The world had changed, and Australia was involved and continues to be involved in a UN mandated conflict that has been re-endorsed every year. Up to 1,300 defence personnel were deployed by Australia in 2001. It was a just and justifiable war in response to an unmitigated act of barbarity.

Australia withdrew its combat force by the end of 2002, after the destruction of much of the terrorist force. For the next 2½ years, up to 2005, there were literally only two defence personnel in Afghanistan. But by July 2005 the original premise that defeating al-Qaeda, the Taliban and insurgent warlords would ensure peace from terrorism was shattered when the London bombings showed the new face of Islamic extremism: home-grown terrorists with wives and children at home. Terrorist cells also strongly emerged in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. No longer was the war in Afghanistan the silver bullet to ensuring a world free from terrorism. Islamic extremism had spread its tentacles further afield using violence to achieve its end: a world subservient to extreme Islamic sentiment.

By the end of 2005, insurgent forces in Afghanistan continued to operate, causing Australia to once again deploy special forces. In 2006 the Howard government deployed a Reconstruction Task Force to start rebuilding in Oruzgan province, with numbers of troops building to 1,000 by the time of the 2007 election. The emphasis was on building and on fighting the insurgency in the populated areas with the special forces group.

Post election, the mission on the ground changed when the new Minister for Defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, announced that the government would maintain its current commitment in Afghanistan but would place a new emphasis on training the Afghan National Army. The strategy would change once again post President Obama’s victory, when in 2009 an open-ended US commitment of transforming Afghanistan was changed to a mission of training Afghan forces and handing security over to them when they were ready.

The book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven. It says that there is a time for war and a time for peace. There is a strategic justification, a time for war, in Afghanistan, and it stems from the first principle of any government, which is national security. In December 2008 the Prime Minister expressed this in the government’s National Security Statement that established the goals for the security of our nation, its people and interests. The goals were expressed as:

Freedom from attack or the threat of attack; the maintenance of our territorial integrity; the maintenance of our political sovereignty; the preservation of our hard won freedoms; and the maintenance of our fundamental capacity to advance economic prosperity for all Australians.

These goals were supported by seven principles, which included, amongst others, the Australian-US alliance remaining fundamental to our national security interests, regional engagement, and support for the UN to promote a rules based international order.

The first objective of Australia’s national security is freedom from attack or the threat of attack. That includes the capacity to protect our citizens and interests at home and abroad. Australia has lost over 100 of its people to terrorist attacks abroad, with all of these attacks linked in some way to the freedom of action that terrorist forces enjoyed in Afghanistan or to wider terrorism activity. It is in Australia’s national interest to remove the safe havens for extreme Islamic terror groups capable of extending their influence into Australia’s region. If Islamic extremists cannot train, cannot access finance, cannot access weapons and cannot access radical mullahs, then they are less likely to turn their radical rhetoric into radical action.

If there is any doubt as to the threat of radical Islamism, the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System, a database run by the United States National Counterterrorism Centre, as at 10 October this year, has logged 17,833 separate terrorist attacks across the world perpetrated by Islamic extremists since September 11, 2001. Indeed, Islamic terrorism appears to be growing more united, with sectarian groups, anti-Indian groups, Afghan Taliban, Pakistan Taliban, al-Qaeda and separatists sharing a joint narrative of extreme Islam and anti-Western sentiment. Afghanistan remains one of the frontlines in the fight to freely enjoy our very way of life.

This is why one of the principles of Australia’s National Security Statement is to support the United Nations in its efforts to promote a rules based international order. The start of any such rules based order has to be freedom. Australia’s National Security Statement is also clear that:

Our alliance with the United States will remain our key strategic partnership and the central pillar of Australian national security policy.

We therefore have a responsibility to join with the United States and its partners to maintain and strengthen this alliance. In simple terms, friends do not desert their friends; they stand by them and support them, knowing that if the positions were reversed they would stand with us. US hegemony within our Asia-Pacific region is fundamental to regional and Australia’s security, particularly given an increasingly engaged China that is focused on disputed territory sovereignty and enhanced regional influence and is committed to a 20-year military build program. This will require a strong and credible US as a counterbalance, not a US damaged from defeat in Afghanistan. Our regional security remains predicated on the US’s capacity to take decisive military action if required.

Finally, seeking and maintaining a degree of stability within the Middle East more generally remains paramount. Failure in Afghanistan would significantly boost the stocks of the Taliban operating in nuclear armed Pakistan. The challenges that an emboldened and unrestrained Taliban would bring upon Pakistan would be substantial and severe. A failing and weak Pakistan would be a significant problem for India and thus a significant regional issue.

The current Australian mission builds on the wider ISAF mission in Afghanistan mandated by the UN Security Council. Our mission in Afghanistan is clearly defined and constrained. Importantly, it is not to kill every Taliban in Oruzgan, it is not to secure the whole of Oruzgan; it is to train the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade to take over security of the population areas of Oruzgan, using our Mentoring Task Force to achieve that; to carry out reconstruction activities as part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, the PRT; and, with the Afghan National Security Forces, to fight the tough battles that are needed to secure the population centres, using our Special Forces. It is important that the nation realise that we simply cannot kill our way to victory on the battlefield. Only a coordinated military and political strategy aimed at providing population-centric security, building and training the Afghan security forces, creating a functioning government and active civilian led societal reconstruction will achieve our objective in Afghanistan.

Accepting the two- to four-year time frame for the commitment of military forces means that over this time our military must reduce and that the civilian Provincial Reconstruction Team must grow, the overall intent being that the Afghan National Army must assume responsibility for security and Australia’s military forces will withdraw and/or provide a limited overwatch capability. This is not dissimilar to the time lines for Australian forces in Bougainville and East Timor. It is worth noting that we entered East Timor in 1999 and have just deployed another rotation, 11 years later. We entered the Bougainville crisis in December 1997 and left in August 2003 after six years, though Australian forces were engaged as early as 1994. These things simply take time.

We acknowledge that the progress in a counterinsurgency strategy will be very gradual and advances will be achieved village by village and day by day. This assessment was also made by General Petraeus on 14 September 2010, when he was reported as saying that American and coalition troops are nevertheless making headway with ‘hard fought gains’ against insurgents but that it remained tough going.

The current surge strategy has resulted in a large number of insurgents killed and a large number forced to retreat from areas that were formally under strict Taliban control. The net result is that more and more Taliban are being forced into areas where they have not previously been the dominant group.

Substantial progress has been made in not only the security situation, where Australian aggressive patrolling with Afghan forces is dominating much of the population areas, but also in improving health, education and other vital infrastructure within Tarin Kowt, the capital of Oruzgan. Over 1,200 Afghan males have been trained through our trades training school, with one man walking 100 kilometres to ensure his son could enrol. Six hundred boys now attend the rebuilt Tarin Kowt boys school. With female literacy in the province at about 0.1 per cent, the picture of hundreds of little girls at school is nothing short of a delight. Progress is measured in stories such as these.

Yet there is also no hiding from the challenges that hinder us, and they are substantial. The Karzai government needs to significantly improve its levels of legitimacy and governance beyond the major cities and into the regional areas where the Taliban still wield considerable influence. This will require political engagement with the Afghan Taliban, warlords and tribal elders that may well lead in the future to political power-sharing to seek consensus. There is much water to go under this bridge. But the recent provision of safe conduct for Taliban leaders to talk with President Karzai is a case in point. Coupled with this is the need for the Karzai administration to rid the country of the endemic levels of corruption at all levels of government.

Mentoring the Afghan 4th Brigade is slow. The 4th Brigade soldiers are on three-year contracts and the majority are northern Afghanis who have limited ability to get home on leave, making the re-signing of these soldiers to further contracts challenging but necessary. This will require banking systems to send money home, transport corridors and roads so that these soldiers can travel home on leave and a significant increase in the literacy and numeracy of soldiers. Frankly, you need to be able to read a map to call in fire support.

With upwards of 80 per cent of the world’s heroin coming from Afghanistan, and over 15 per cent of Afghanis directly involved in the poppy industry, the transition to more standard cash crops and the removal of the poppies, which represent the major source of funds for the Taliban and the warlords, is paramount. NATO will need to agree on a strategy that is acceptable, implementable and achievable.

Let us never forget that Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen in the combat zone are doing an amazing job in difficult and dangerous circumstances. The terrain is inhospitable, the weather harsh, the dust in summer overbearing and the Islamic extremist enemy resilient. Yet, despite all of this, our forces are boxing above their weight. Our Special Forces operations strike fear into the Taliban to the point where the enemy will break contact or manoeuvre rather than face our ‘ghosts at night’. Our troops are meeting the challenge of deploying to remote patrol bases as part of operational mentoring and liaison teams, which include Afghan forces, and they are engaging with the enemy as part of the training and mentoring of these forces. The level of trust we have built up with Afghan forces is substantial.

It is important to note that the best time to withdraw troops is after achieving the mission for which they have been sent, and this is how success will be measured. Success will be measured by a 4th Brigade capable of independent operations in securing the provincial population centres and only requiring a very small ongoing Australian military overwatch, similar to what Australia currently provides in East Timor and the Solomons. Success will be measured by relatively secure population centres where civilian reconstruction teams have a degree of freedom of action. Success will be measured by a well-trained and active provincial response company of the Afghan National Police that can deal with outbreaks of violence. Success will be measured by an active provincial reconstruction team delivering better governance, services and infrastructure.

The coalition accepts the government’s assessment that it will take a further two to four years to see the transition of security responsibility to the Afghan 4th Brigade, to allow the provincial reconstruction to increase and to allow Australian military forces to reduce and pull back to overwatch. The coalition supports this strategy and accepts the government’s view that the military objectives are achievable in the time frame. We accept the assessment of the capability required to achieve the mission as enunciated by the Australian commanders on the ground.

We also acknowledge that Australian forces in Afghanistan are stretched and cannot do more than the current mission without any extra resources. We reiterate our call to the government that the coalition will look to support any and all force protection elements the military, and indeed the government, believes it may need to prosecute the mission. A good example of this bipartisan support is our call for the counter rocket, artillery and mortar system that the government acknowledged and funded in the May 2010 budget. We remain strongly bipartisan in our support for the mission and our troops but we will continue to hold the government to account as the situation dictates. The artificial cap of 1,550 troops in Afghanistan is a case in point and I strongly urge the government to shift any cap to the wider 2,350 deployed troops in the Middle East to allow our Australian commander the flexibility to use his entire force as needed.

Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan is just and justifiable. Our forces operate under a UN mandate in partnership with 47 nations after the invocation of section 5 of the ANZUS treaty. Our mission is defined and constrained and, importantly, is achievable. The next two to four years will see responsibility for security transition to the 4th Afghan Brigade and a subsequent growth in the civilian reconstruction team as the security situation improves. The strategy is working. Our professional military commanders have assured the government and the opposition that our military and civilian force requires no extra resources to achieve the current mission. What is now required is the courage of our convictions to hold the course, achieve the aim and strengthen our national security, which is the absolute basis upon which we have deployed forces to Afghanistan.