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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 13115


Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth) (17:52): The war in Afghanistan is long, arduous and extremely dangerous. It is a war in which we are asking our soldiers, and our allies are asking the soldiers that they have sent there—100,000 or more in all, as the Prime Minister said earlier today—to undertake an extraordinary task of counterinsurgency. The military arm, our armed forces, are asked to hold up the martial shield to kill, to isolate and to disarm the enemy, the Taliban in this case, in order to give a breathing space for the host government, the Karzai government in this case, to put down its roots and grow, develop and build its capacity in such a way that it can ultimately, as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition said today, take over the task of governing and defending that country and maintaining internal security without foreign assistance.

This is a profoundly difficult task because the tactical success, for example, of the American surge in killing Taliban units, in picking off their leaders and in preventing them from doing their work will be of no long-term effect unless the host government is able to build its capacity and its credibility with the Afghan people to take over the task. As the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, said at the time in his opposition to the surge, if the Karzai government in this case is unable to develop that capacity and confidence, then all of those tactical successes will turn out to bear little fruit and may indeed prove thoroughly counterproductive. So we are asking our soldiers not simply to be warriors. Yes, there is plenty of fighting to do, as we have seen from the many deaths and injuries that were discussed in the House earlier today, but we are asking them also to be nation builders in the most difficult to imagine environment.

Much has been said about this very difficult war in Afghanistan, and we should debate it more often in this place. One of our omissions as a parliament has been that we have committed Australian troops to this long war for a long time but have given relatively little attention to debating why they went there in the first place, why they are staying there and what the strategy is for them to leave and finally come home. We owe our troops much more attention. Loyalty, devotion and gratitude are a given, but we owe them our responsibility, our intellect, our care and our consideration in determining whether and to what extent the mission remains warranted. It should always be a matter of constant justification to the Australian people and our serving men and women as to why they remain in harm's way.

Today, however, I want to speak directly to the Australians serving us in Afghanistan, to the Australians who will serve us there in the future and to the families who support them when they are there fighting on our behalf. It is not only soldiers fighting for us in Afghanistan. The Australian Federal Police fight against narcotics networks and organised crime syndicates. They fight to train the police in a country that has known neither policing nor justice for many, many years. Specialists from AusAID fight to improve access to education for skills and to the basic amenities of life that all of us here take for granted. Diplomats fight to carve out a space in which democratic government can function in a country which has known neither democracy nor, in most places, government for hundreds of years.

I say to all those Australians: your task is not an easy one. It is hard for Australians at home to understand the work you do in that distant nation. We do not know what it means to mentor an Afghan soldier, to teach an Afghan carpenter or to explain the rule of law to police who have never known it. We cannot envisage the magnitude of your task in a province where travel takes days and deadly bombs are hidden under the roads, maiming children and killing you, your colleagues, the soldiers you are working with and the people whom you are seeking to help. We try to compare your work in Afghanistan with the wars we think we know about or have read about—Vietnam, World War I, perhaps, or smaller engagements such as that in East Timor. But you know that each war is different, and our task in Afghanistan—your task—is more complex than many of us realise here at home. Explaining your work is not easy, and we have often struggled both to thank you for doing it and, more importantly, cogently and persuasively justifying why we have sent you there.

But for you, as for the soldiers of many years passed and many wars passed, there will come a time when you return home. We do not get to determine that date now, for your war is being fought in a place where the tide of progress ebbs and flows daily and the enemy can still shape your environment. But you will return soon and we should envisage what that return will look like. When you return we will not declare victory. Afghanistan will look much like it does today. There will still be violence and grief, peril and passion, corruption and crime, but there will be the promise, thanks to you, of what is possible. The work you have done has shown Afghans that progress is indeed possible, that women can be educated rather than shunned and that disputes can be resolved with wisdom and justice rather than with wounds and violence. You will leave a province where families can speak across valleys on mobile phones, where new roads lead to new markets and where Afghan soldiers know how to conduct a security operation. You know that you will not have eradicated the Taliban or corruption, but you will have made a difference. You will have lit a spark of progress in Oruzgan province that may take many years; it may even take a generation to grow beyond a flicker, but grow surely it will, and it would never have been lit without you and your sacrifice. At some point you will pack away your tools and weapons, you will say goodbye to the Afghans with whom you have worked and sweated and shivered for months and you will get on planes to return to our shores. What will returning with honour look like for you in Australia? When you return we must all learn from your experience. We must ensure that your hard-won lessons are recorded, that your knowledge of Afghanistan and her people do not go to waste. But we must also learn more about how and why we get into and out of wars—notoriously easier to get into than to get out of. We must examine our military strategy in Afghanistan and our foreign policy goals and honestly judge and examine, unclouded by patriotic sentiment and the desire to support the efforts and courage of our troops, in a hard-headed way how effective we have been in our efforts in Afghanistan, both in the conduct of operations and in our decision making to commit and ultimately to depart. We must think deeply and debate honestly about how and where we are willing to use military force in the future.

We honour our dead and we respect and care for our living in the ADF best when we are honest and open and use our keenest intellects to assess the merits of commitment, the manner of engagement and ask always whether we, in putting you into harm's way, are doing so in a manner that serves our national interest. We honour you, we respect you, your service, by ensuring that at all times we can say, 'Yes, we are not committed to this conflict simply because we made a decision years ago and we have not reviewed it.' We respect and honour you by examining that commitment and justifying it anew in the light of the present circumstances.

When you return we must ensure that we protect those Afghans who protected you. As we did in Iraq, we must do all we can to protect our Afghan interpreters and their families from recrimination. We must remind the leadership in Oruzgan that we can still provide advice, even if we will no longer provide a permanent presence. When you return we must never take our eyes off Afghanistan and Pakistan again. We must maintain the ability with our allies to know if terrorist groups are developing sanctuaries and to assist our allies in striking at those sanctuaries and destroying them. When you return we must establish long-term sustainable methods of supporting the fledgling, fractured democracy of Afghanistan. Where we can help in developing democratic mechanisms and supporting the infrastructure of that nation, we should. We Australians are a nation with long experience in educating children across remote areas and vast distances and we should seek to bring that expertise to Afghanistan's growing education system. We must help to maintain the access the Afghans are having to knowledge today, thanks to your work, so that the Taliban cannot return their country, Afghanistan, and the people of that country, to darkness. When you return we must not forget you. We must make sure that we treat your invisible wounds as well as the visible ones. We must not repeat the mistakes of past wars and forgotten soldiers. We should be at the cutting edge of research into post-traumatic stress, into mild traumatic brain injury, and into methods to reintegrate you into your families and communities. We must remember that these invisible wounds affect diplomats, police and aid workers as well as soldiers. Only recently, I was at the Randwick Barracks and met with two of your comrades who are suffering from mild traumatic brain injury—a mysterious illness that crept up on them. After an incident, one of these soldiers led his company for several weeks until finally, bit by bit, it became apparent that he was suffering from a very serious injury, an injury that he struggles to understand. Regrettably, the bureaucrats who should be caring for him struggle to understand it too. We have to lift our game there enormously. We are simply not coping. We as a nation, as a government, are not coping well enough with the challenges of the injuries you have suffered. We have to do much better. When you return we must support your families who have supported you for so long, and without whom you would not be able to do your job in the stressful and dangerous circumstances you found in Afghanistan for months on end.

Returning with honour, and you will return with the greatest honour, will not, however, be easy. Transition from war, from Afghanistan, will be hard. But we must, as a nation, prepare for it now and support you in what will be a difficult process so that you always know that you do not simply have our support in the 'rah rah' sense of 'we're with you boys'; you will have the support of our intellect, our judgment and, above all, our commitment to ensure that the values you fought for are defended in the future and that the injuries that you have suffered, no matter how new to medical science they may be today, are dealt with compassionately and comprehensively. (Time expired)