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Monday, 25 October 2010
Page: 1316

Mr GARRETT (Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth) (4:05 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Afghanistan war. A country’s decision to go to war is amongst the most significant that any nation can make, especially in the light of sacrifices made by armed forces in the theatre of conflict, where the costs of war are invariably high, borne immediately by the young and the brave but felt by generations ongoing. I also welcome the opportunity because it is in this forum that debates about something as serious as war should take place. Along with other members I place on record my appreciation of the role played by members of the Australian Defence Force and associated personnel. They are in a hard, risky and unforgiving environment and we acknowledge that fact here in parliament.

If you are interested in public life, the chances are that you will have thought a lot about the nature of war. I know that I have: it’s history, causes and consequences and the universal yearning that we have for peace. These are important matters. Whilst I would not describe myself as a pacifist, I do believe that to endeavour to forge peaceful relations and to use every effort to resolve conflict and arguments, especially betweens nations and most especially when the conflict is violent, is one of the most important tasks any society can set itself, through the way in which we approach this issue locally in education, governance, legislation, the values of our institutions, right through to the international arena. In this debate, we need to be mindful of our historical role through two world wars, our active participation in the United Nations and in peacekeeping efforts in our region, and I note also in an area of keen interest for me, Australia’s continuing role in proposing genuine nuclear disarmament initiatives. Whilst little remarked on, this is a constructive contribution that we make and one of continuing significance world wide.

In relation to the war in Afghanistan and Australia’s role in that conflict, I would like to make the following observations. The first is that, by normative standards, this war began as a just war. Given the genesis of the Afghanistan effort, with the events of September 11 and the hosting of al-Qaeda by the Taliban regime, it is a conflict that does not in my view equate to, as some have suggested, Vietnam or Malaya. It contains its own distinctive set of circumstances, yet it certainly conforms to the just war criteria. Additionally, it was joined by many, it was sanctioned through the United Nations Security Council and, notwithstanding some withdrawal of troops from countries such as the Netherlands, it remains a genuine multilateral effort. Australia’s role and the rationale that underpins it have been spelt out here already by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence and others.

Ascertaining that a war is just is the right starting point for any debate about the Afghanistan war. Secondly, the goal of containing terrorist activity is—again, one of the rationales for our participation in the war—in our national interest, both as a country committed to universal human rights and democratic systems of government and as a people having experienced the full horror of terrorist acts. The fact is that terrorism has changed the risk equation for individuals, communities and nations. Terrorism is delivered through a fundamentalist prism, where no account of proportion, just cause, impact on civilians or other related matters occur. While the question around the capacity of al-Qaeda to again utilise Afghanistan is the subject of vigorous debate, given al-Qaeda’s utilisation of other countries and locations, the task of countering and containing terrorism remains a priority when seen through the wider lens of world-wide fundamentalist Islamic efforts. The third point—and the one I want to focus on here—is that what begins as a just war must have a just transition out of diametric conflict and, hopefully, eventually come to some form of stable governance. It is here that the debate about Australia’s role is crucial. For some, the existing shortcomings of the current Karzai government as well as the stuttering progress of military operations provide reason enough to get out. Whilst it is true that this is an operation that has not, despite some regional progress, achieved any substantial resolution—I do not consider this is a winnable war in the sense that that term is usually understood—it does not mean that an immediate withdrawal would assist. Indeed, it may well have the opposite effect. Whilst there are now efforts to bring together the Taliban and the Karzai government in discussions, there is recognition that, as in the words of Retired Army Chief Peter Leahy:

We are not going to solve counterinsurgencies like this with only military means.

He went on to say:

… it’s essential they talk to everybody who’s involved…

This does not mean that the efforts of building capacity, despite the huge obstacles in Afghanistan, should immediately cease. Furthermore, given the commitment by President Obama to start withdrawals at a future nominated date, it is hard to imagine that a peremptory exit by Australia would not add to rather than lessen the difficulties faced, given we are aiming to replace, in part at least, some of the positive measures which the now departed Netherlands forces were involved in.

It is the case that Australia’s role has been prominent in Oruzgan province, where we have primary responsibility in leading the provincial reconstruction team. There are 1,550 personnel involved in the monitoring and reconstruction task force and special operations task group and around 50 civilians working in Afghanistan more broadly and 20AFP officers, 10 defence civilians and nine AusAID personnel and DFAT officers in Kabul, Kandahar and Oruzgan. Whatever the scale of achievement—and, yes, the aimed improvements in law and order, governance, training and the provision of services in both the education and health fields, as well as advice on the crucial task of getting the economy up and going are at this time incremental—the fact is that they are real gains. They are gains that need to be secured, contained and continued in the wider context of an overall settlement of the Afghanistan conflict. That is the key issue. If, as I believe, there is sufficient reason to continue our involvement then it is essential that it contributes in the coming period to meeting the critical needs of what, after all, is one of the poorest nations on earth.

As the local and regional diplomatic effort continues, we should build those efforts aimed at helping communities rebuild, especially with enabling local communities with better health and education support and facilitating an enlarged NGO capacity and delivery of aid. Here education is of vital importance. The years of conflict have left not only a depleted civil service but many schools without teaching resources, teachers and, in numerous cases, even buildings. I saw one statistic that referred to more than half the school dwellings in a province being destroyed or non-existent. Afghanistan envisages education as the right of all citizens. It has developed a national education strategic plan—now in its second iteration—which focuses on teacher education. Given that around three quarters of the Afghanistan budget is made up of overseas aid, the focused delivery of aid to address these urgent needs and, in this case, particularly education, is a clear priority.

Here Australia’s aid commitment, which has increased off a low base to some $100 million, can make a difference. While it is dwarfed by the military budget, it can and should be maximised in delivery at this time. There is merit in the suggestion that, coming out of the Timor exercise, where different agencies have liaison officers to facilitate greater cooperation between them, we should continue to build on these liaison roles. Given the range of immediate challenges on the ground in a strife torn country where basic services are negligible, it is critical that increasing integrated program delivery—civilian and military, and between agencies and NGOs—can happen in the short term.

I note in passing the suggestion from ASPI that, for instance, predeployment training be undertaken for all personnel in local Afghan culture, law and customs. I know there is already some training of this kind, but we should give special consideration to ensuring that those personnel who are deployed are well acquainted with those cultural issues. We also should give consideration to the kind of expertise that is best suited for Afghanistan at this stage, especially in areas like dryland farming where Australia has much to offer.

Finally, one cannot depart this debate without noting the important human rights dimension that attaches to our involvement in Afghanistan. I note that the Attorney-General and the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, amongst others, raised this when they spoke, but we do have a moral responsibility to consider carefully the consequences of offering any opportunity to the Taliban or any regime for that matter that might see an escalation of the human rights abuses that have characterised the recent history of Afghanistan, particularly those regrettably against women. Amnesty International has noted that:

The Taleban have a record of committing human rights abuses - and abuses against women in particular …

and show

… little regard for human rights and the laws of war and systematically and deliberately target civilians, aid workers, and civilian facilities like schools (particularly girls’ schools).

For regions such as Oruzgan where female literacy levels are non-existent, such a return would be a calamity visited on a people who have already suffered much. It is clear that in the future we will need to develop additional international legal frameworks to combat terrorism. Some have suggested a new form of Geneva Convention where a legal basis for international terrorism is established. For the moment, we need to recall that one of the harshest lessons of war—and the ensuing damage, tragic losses and painful and sometimes extended end game—is that, once countries exit, if they have not carefully thought through the consequences or left in place something for those who remain to build on, the tragedy of war is compounded. There are no easy victories or immediate solutions in this conflict but Australia, as it stays the course for now, should continue to provide the best support it can to a terribly important country whose good days surely lie ahead if peace can eventually emerge from this difficult and fractured era. I dearly hope that it can.