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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 904


Mr WILKIE (12:14 PM) —Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, I am a Duntroon graduate and a former Army lieutenant colonel. For a time, as you would know, I served as a senior intelligence analyst. I believe in just war and I supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan on the grounds that al-Qaeda was involved in the 9-11 terror attacks and so significantly intertwined with the Taliban that any effective US response warranted regime change in Kabul. Unsurprisingly then I am a strong supporter of the Australian Defence Force and have been as saddened as anyone that it is my old battalion, the 6th, based in Brisbane, which has lately borne the brunt of casualties in Afghanistan. I was a platoon commander, the adjutant and then a company commander in 6RAR and understand well the difficulty of the job our soldiers are doing in our name.

On balance, I am also pro US. The United States and Australia are natural allies on account of our common histories, cultures, values and strategic security interests. The US-Australia bilateral relationship is understandably one of Australia’s most important, and I can understand Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to invoke the ANZUS treaty after 9-11. When the US is in strife it is right that we should come to its aid, as in fact we should try to help any country so long as doing so is genuinely within our means and genuinely consistent with our national interests.

But despite all of this I am a vocal critic of the war in Afghanistan and I believe we must bring our combat troops home as soon as possible. When I say ‘as soon as possible’, I envisage a withdrawal timeline carefully planned by military professionals, not by politicians, a timeline which speedily hands military responsibility over to Afghan security forces in a matter of months.

Yesterday the Prime Minister was talking about us still waging war in Afghanistan in 10 years time. That was an extraordinary admission of the difficulties we have gone and got ourselves into, and entirely inconsistent with our national interest. If it were up to me, I would be very concerned with any military plan that still had us fighting in Afghanistan in 10 months time, let alone in 10 years time.

In 2001 Afghanistan was a launching pad for Islamic extremism. But now the country is irrelevant in that regard because Islamic extremism has morphed into a global network not dependent on any one country. Yes, countries like Pakistan are incubators for terrorists, but so are countries like Australia, Indonesia, the United Kingdom and the United States, which now grow their own terrorists. This is a much more worrying situation because it enlarges the threat and buries it deep within us, where it is even harder for the security services to detect.

In 2001 Osama bin Laden was thought to be in Afghanistan. But now no-one knows where he is or even if he is alive or dead—not that it matters anymore, because his ideas have taken hold and grown strong globally. In 2001 al-Qaeda was the world’s most dangerous Islamic terrorist organisation, but now al-Qaeda, like bin Laden, is much less important because it has spawned offshoots directly and inspired other terror groups to crystallise.

The misguided response to 9-11, not the least of which was the failure to finish the job in Afghanistan when we had the chance in 2002, followed by the outrageous invasion of Iraq in 2003, has resulted in a significant baseline number of would-be Islamic terrorists and a global network of small terrorist clusters. In other words, Afghanistan is no longer relevant to Australia’s security in the way it was way back in 2001, and the continued government and coalition insistence that we must stay in Afghanistan to protect Australia from terrorists is deliberately misleading: a great lie which, in recent Australian history, is second only to the gross government dishonesty over Australia’s decision to join in the invasion of Iraq.

Mind you, yesterday and today there have been no shortage of misleading statements in this place regarding our military commitment in Afghanistan. Both the Prime Minister and the opposition leader laid it on thick with 9-11, the Bali bombings and the attacks on our embassy in Jakarta. Yes, a token effort was made by both of them to distance these shocking events from our current role in Afghanistan, but the way they were recounted achieved the speaker’s aim of forming associations in people’s minds and steering listeners towards the conclusion that the terrorist attacks of years ago are as relevant today to our mission in Afghanistan as they were then. If there is in fact any relevance of Afghanistan to terrorism and Australian security nowadays then it is the way in which the ongoing war continues to enrage disaffected Muslims right around the world.

Just last week the Victorian Supreme Court heard that one of the men allegedly plotting to stage an attack at Holsworthy army barracks in Sydney was angry at Australia’s ongoing presence in Afghanistan. According to media reports, one Wissam Fattal discussed a trip by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Germany to hold discussions about the war and was overheard to say, ‘It was shameful that Australian troops killed innocent people.’

If the government and the coalition are going to continue to argue for years more fighting in Afghanistan and deaths then you need to start being honest with the Australian community. Ditch the dishonest terrorism rhetoric and try to sell the real reasons for our seemingly open-ended involvement in a war that has gone from bad to worse over nine years, making it one of the longest wars in Australian history. Only the 13 years of the Malayan Emergency and the 10-year service of the Australian Army Training Team in Vietnam surpass it.

The reality is that the main reason we are in Afghanistan is to support the United States and, by that support, to enhance the likelihood of the US coming to our aid in the event Australia’s security is one day threatened. Such a reason for staying in Afghanistan has appeal to a not insignificant number of Australians. The problem is it is a misplaced appeal because the reality of foreign policy remains that alliances last only so long as interests overlap. So US support for Australia at some point in the future will depend on our usefulness to Washington at that exact point in time. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and other supposed downpayments on our American insurance policy will not in themselves necessarily amount to anything. Turning this point around is the reality that Australia is and will remain as important to United States strategic interests as the US is to ours. Our location, political and social stability and inherent security, in part because of our air-sea gap and inhospitable frontiers, combine to ensure Australia is one piece of real estate the US will continue to be prepared to shed blood over.

Some commentators see in the case of New Zealand a demonstration of the perils of saying no to America. But the reality is that Prime Minister David Lange’s decision in 1984 to deny US nuclear ships the right to visit New Zealand did not unplug Wellington from US security arrangements for the simple reason that America had a continuing need to access the material collected by the Waihopai signals intelligence ground station on the North Island. In other words, the bilateral New Zealand-United States security arrangement did continue, albeit in another form, because the security needs of the two countries continued to overlap. All the theatre about New Zealand having been completely cut adrift by the US was just that—political theatre for public consumption, mainly in America. Australia could also continue to rely on United States security guarantees if we pulled out of Afghanistan because we are simply too important to the US’s own security for it to be otherwise. In fact, we would almost certainly be at less risk of being taken for granted in Washington if sometimes we simply said no.

All of this leaves ordinary Afghans as pawns in the strategic game we continue to play out with the United States. Yes, the Afghans in our area of operations have often benefited from the good work of our soldiers, and the Prime Minister’s speech on the war yesterday was a fitting reminder of the local achievements of our soldiers. But let us not kid ourselves: after nine years of war and billions of dollars in foreign aid, a third of a million Afghans are still displaced within that country’s borders while 10 times that number—three million—eke out an existence as refugees, mainly in Iran and Pakistan. Moreover, the central government still fails to exert much control outside Kabul, and the Taliban’s strength is put in the tens of thousands and growing, even though foreign force numbers have now maxed out at well over 100,000 troops. I remember well my visit some years ago to north-east Iran, where I met with some of the Afghan refugees accommodated at one of the camps on the border there. There were thousands in the camp and, even though the conditions were relatively tolerable thanks to Iranian government efforts, the looks on the faces of many of the refugees, including the children, was the stuff of nightmares. Such experiences help explain my compassion for asylum seekers to this day.

Australia’s achievements in Afghanistan are eerily similar to the way in which Australia achieved tremendous results in Phuoc Tuy province in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 only to see those achievements eventually steamrolled by the broader Vietnam War debacle. In other words, it does not matter how well we do in Oruzgan Province, because ultimately Afghanistan’s fate is being decided elsewhere.

Another alarming similarity between Afghanistan and Vietnam is how these wars were or are propping up deeply corrupt regimes—and this matters. There have now been two elections in Afghanistan in the space of 14 months, and both have been widely ridiculed for intimidation and fraud on a scale completely discrediting the outcomes. At the end of the day, this is the government our soldiers are propping up and dying for. I find that totally unacceptable and something the government still needs to properly explain. No wonder Australian public support for the war and our involvement in it are at such low levels, as evidenced by a poll in June by Essential Media Communications which showed that nearly two-thirds of people wanted the government to withdraw troops from Afghanistan while only seven per cent thought that the number of troops should be increased. Also this year, research by the esteemed Lowy Institute put at 54 per cent the number of people polled who felt that Australia should not continue to be involved militarily in Afghanistan.

Very few members may be unambiguously speaking out against the war, but standing behind those of us who do are the millions of Australians who are concerned about the ongoing war in Afghanistan and feel strongly that it is time to bring the troops home. Every member here needs to understand that, while the number of members speaking against the war in this place is small, the number of people out there concerned about the war is huge. In other words, numerous members are prepared to sit there behind their party’s policy at the expense of genuinely representing the views of their constituents, and that is a shocking breakdown of democracy. Some things should be above party discipline, and this is one of them. Whatever happened to some of you that you are now so ready to sacrifice your soul for your party’s political self-interest?

I also acknowledge those of you who have travelled to Afghanistan to visit our soldiers. But please understand that you have had an intoxicating experience more likely to entertain than to deeply inform the sort of strategic-level analysis and decision making now needed more than ever. The views of our enthusiastic diggers and operational-level commanders are obviously important, but they are only one perspective when it comes to understanding Australia’s strategic interests and the most sensible way to achieve them. That most of our soldiers are keen to stay in Afghanistan does not necessarily make staying there the right thing to do.

One argument for staying in Afghanistan is the need to stabilise Pakistan. But this notion is baseless, because one of the main reasons Pakistan has become increasingly unstable since 2001 is Islamabad’s support for the war. Moreover, one of the reasons the north-west frontier has become so much more problematic is the flow of militants across the border. On balance, pulling out of Afghanistan will help rather than hinder Pakistan. This is something I saw firsthand in 2002, when I visited the Protestant church in the diplomatic enclave in Islamabad which had been attacked by terrorists only days before. The grenade attack, which killed five including the wife of an American diplomat, is a sobering reminder of the dangers faced by our own diplomats overseas, especially in the many countries with heightened levels of Islamic extremism.

The difficulties we face in Afghanistan, especially since they come so soon after the Iraq debacle, throw into question how the decision to wage war is made in Australia. That currently such decisions can be and are made by the Prime Minister acting virtually alone is patently inadequate and potentially disastrous. Decisions are hostage to the competence of an individual with all his or her strengths and weaknesses, ideology and prejudices. There is no mandatory gross error check either at the outset or later on.

This parliamentary debate is a case in point. It is good that we are having it, but we are only having it because of the extraordinary 2010 federal election result and the pressure brought to bear on the new government by a small number of agitators experiencing extra-ordinary political influence. There is a real need for a public and political discussion about this matter because the current war powers arrangement is indefensible. Perhaps, for example, section 51 of the Constitution, which outlines the legislative powers of the parliament, could be amended to include the line ‘to declare war on or make treaties of peace with foreign powers.’ One option I favour is that the decision to go to war should be made by a conscience vote in a joint sitting of the parliament.

The international community, including Australia, confronts a dreadful dilemma in Afghanistan. On the one hand, it could walk away from the seemingly inevitable disaster that would unfold or, on the other hand, it could stay and fight as it plans to in the hope of somehow avoiding a different but equally inevitable disaster. Success will not be measured by capturing the capital—we did that nine years ago and, in any case, civil wars are rarely won that way. No, success will be measured by some sort of consensus among the Afghan community, and that will not be possible until there is a political solution underpinned by an agreement between all the major political groups. In other words, there can be no enduring relative peace in Afghanistan without first negotiating with the Taliban.

The Prime Minister said yesterday she believes Australia has the right strategy in Afghanistan. She is wrong—dangerously wrong. The reality is that the best plan the Australian government can come up with is simply to continue to support whatever the US government comes up with. And that alone is no plan—it is just reinforcing failure. The only way to turn Afghanistan around now is to hastily rebuild the governance, infrastructure, services and jobs which give people hope and which underpin long-term peace. But this appears increasingly unachievable because the foreign troops which anchor such a solution are now seen by many Afghans as the problem. They are prompting a nationalist backlash which is sometimes coalescing around Taliban elements.

That is our dilemma: on one hand, there is an argument for keeping our combat troops in Afghanistan but, on the other hand, we must pull them out. There is no good solution. Whatever we do from here there will be violence and people will die. There is no avoiding that. The only certainty is that Afghanistan will never face the possibility of enduring peace unless it is allowed to find its natural political level. That cannot happen while the Afghans regard themselves as being occupied by foreign powers that are propping up an illegitimate central government.

In closing, I reiterate my support for our soldiers on active service, especially in Afghanistan. Vale Andrew Russell, David Pearce, Matthew Locke, Luke Worsley, Jason Marks, Sean McCarthy, Michael Fussell, Gregory Michael Sher, Mathew Hopkins, Brett Till, Benjamin Ranaudo, Jacob Moerland, Darren Smith, Scott Palmer, Timothy Aplin, Benjamin Chuck, Nathan Bewes, Jason Brown, Grant Kirby, Tomas Dale and Jared MacKinney. You died serving your country and I salute you. May you rest in peace, and may my new colleagues in this place see the sense in ending this conflict now before too many more young Australians are sent to their deaths.