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Monday, 15 November 2010
Page: 2380


Mr ANTHONY SMITH (5:13 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important motion regarding Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. It is an opportunity to join with so many other members of the House and restate my commitment to our important engagement in Afghanistan. I have had the opportunity to hear a great many of the contributions that have been made in the House and in this Main Committee, including those of the last hour or so. I think that those contributions, by members from both sides of politics, showed the strength of our commitment, and the thought that went into them demonstrated a thorough grasp of the very difficult issues and challenges.

We of course reflect on the sacrifice of those 21 Australians. We reflect on those who have been injured in Afghanistan. We reflect on the pain of the families who have lost loved ones. And we think of those serving there today doing very important work not just on behalf of Australia but on behalf of the values of freedom that are the values of our country and other countries throughout the world.

The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition outlined in great detail some weeks ago the important issues at stake. I will not at this stage of the debate cover each and every one of them. But, in reflecting on this statement just a few days after Remembrance Day, all of us who have spoken in this debate have made the following point about the terrible events of 11 September 2001, nine years and a couple of months ago. When those events occurred, the world community had a choice: to do something or to do nothing. The Taliban and al-Qaeda, which had wrought so much damage, in bringing in a new form and reign of terror had signalled that their ultimate aim was to carry out more September 11s, perhaps in different forms. Their ultimate aim was nothing short of the destruction of the values and the freedoms we hold so dear.

At that point in time, our country and other countries made a commitment. A lot has been said in the public arena and in the debate on this statement about the difficulty of engagement in Afghanistan. The previous speaker very eloquently ran through some of the history, and most of us are very familiar with the history and difficulty of engagement in Afghanistan. The point I would like to make is that at the time that we, the United States and the other allied countries commenced the engagement, no-one stated otherwise—there was no voice saying that the engagement would be short or easy. Everyone knew the history and the difficulty, but also the importance, of the task. In fact, I took the trouble to look back on some of the contributions that the then Prime Minister, the then Leader of the Opposition and other senior frontbenchers on both sides made back in 2001 and 2002, and each side of politics made that point. It is natural to compare the length and difficulty of this commitment with that of conventional wars that have occurred in the last century. The Leader of the Opposition pointed out that, World War II lasting six years, the length of the engagement has now been, obviously, 1½ times that of World War II. But it was known that that would be the case, and the fact that it was known and recognised went to the strength of the commitment and the purpose and necessity of the action.

In his recent book, Tony Blair makes this point very eloquently. I was reading this recently. He says that the goal was not simply to remove the Taliban but to replace them with a democracy to rebuild the country. This was not just a matter of idealism; it was also about understanding why Afghanistan had become a failed state, why it had become a breeding ground for terror and why it had descended into this horrible cruel mix of anarchy and despotism. Like it or not, from then on we were in the business of nation building.

I mention that because there is another world leader, a critical one at the time, who recognised exactly what was at stake. For those who think we should not be engaged in Afghanistan, the absolute point they need to confront is this: what is the alternative? The member for Kingston, the previous speaker on the other side, made this point. Some have said we should replace military action just with aid, as if aid can somehow be delivered in a country which would surely and quickly descend to the sort of place it was 9½ years ago. Those people need to state how they think this terrible scourge of terrorism can be dealt with. In our hearts what we know is that September 11 was a beginning, in one sense, of what al-Qaeda wants to wreak on a much larger scale. In fact, if we look back, things had begun before September 11—a long time before. Think back to the first bombing of the World Trade Centre.

I mentioned earlier our natural inclination to measure conflicts in periods of time that we have been conditioned to understand, through the history that has been taught to us and through conflicts that have occurred during our own lifetime. The great difference, as has been pointed out, is that we were then engaged with one nation; the conflict at hand is not a conflict between nations with borders, it is not a conflict about the sorts of things we have seen in previous conflicts, and it is going to be at so many levels a long battle. By that I do not just mean the physical military action in Afghanistan. The very freedoms that we cherish are at stake. To have confronted the reality of September 11 and done nothing was never an option. Similarly, to know what the consequences are of premature withdrawal means that there is no option. Our Australian troops are doing good work. It is a long and difficult process and at the end of it we want to see a better Afghanistan and, importantly, we want to see those roots of terrorism stamped out so that not just Australians but people around the world have this threat removed.