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Thursday, 12 May 2011
Page: 3787


Mr STEPHEN SMITH (PerthMinister for Defence and Deputy Leader of the House) (09:35): by leave—The government and I are committed to providing regular reports and updates on Afghanistan, including to the parliament. I last reported to the parliament on 23 March, which followed my attendance at the meeting of NATO and International Security Assistance Force defence ministers in Brussels on 10 and 11 March. My report on this occasion follows my recent visit to Afghanistan with the Chief of Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, to commemorate Anzac Day with our troops deployed in Uruzgan Province. I also visited Kabul to speak to Afghan and ISAF partners.

Why we are there

Australia's fundamental goal is to prevent Afghanistan from again being used by terrorists to plan and train for attacks on innocent civilians, including Australians in our own region and beyond. To achieve that goal we must help prepare the Afghan government to take lead responsibility for providing security for the Afghan people. We must stabilise the security situation and mentor and train the Afghan security forces.

Progress

This is the first time I have returned from a visit to Afghanistan with some cautious optimism that we are making progress on the security front. I have previously reported my view that we have been making progress, but optimism is a word I have rarely if ever used with respect to Afghanistan to date.

ISAF and Afghan security forces have had a good winter campaign. Key insurgent safe havens have been eliminated and many insurgent leaders have been captured or killed. Last year's surge of 40,000 United States and ISAF troops has been widely reported. However, less well appreciated is the surge of 80,000 in the Afghan National Security Forces over the same period. Indeed, Afghan security force growth is ahead of its growth target, with its ranks swelling to close to 300,000. ISAF is now able to shift its focus from simply growing the size of the force to improving the quality and specialist capacities of the Afghan forces, such as artillery, where Australia is leading the training effort. As a result of sustained ISAF and Afghan offensive operations, the Taliban has lost its clear home ground advantage in key terrain in the south—the central Helmand River Valley and Kandahar. Cache finds have increased significantly, narcotics interdictions are up and there has been some success in interdicting the movement of Taliban forces and supplies from Pakistan tribal areas across the border into Afghanistan. Special Forces operations continue to successfully capture or kill Taliban leaders and demoralise those who remain.

Progress in O ruzgan

Progress is also being made in Oruzgan province. In Oruzgan province, ISAF and Afghan forces have extended security to areas previously controlled by the Taliban—from the Tarin Kowt bowl to the Mirabad Valley in the east, Deh Rawud in the west, and north through the Baluchi Valley into Chora.

During my recent visit to Afghanistan I visited Australian troops at Forward Operating Base Mirwais in the Chora Valley, to the north east of Tarin Kot. A group of young diggers told me that over the seven months of their deployment, the local Afghans were now more supportive of the combined efforts of Afghan and ADF troops to bring security to the valley.

Special Forces

I have often said that Australia is the tenth largest troop contributor in Afghanistan with around 1,550 personnel in Afghanistan. The primary focus of our mission in Oruzgan is to train the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to the level where it is able to take the lead for security in the province.

The vast bulk of Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan are deployed in Oruzgan. Other personnel are based in Kabul, at Australia's own national headquarters and also embedded in ISAF headquarters. Further ADF personnel are based in Kandahar supporting helicopter, reconnaissance and ISAF headquarters operations.

Australia is also the third largest contributor of Special Forces in Afghanistan with personnel deployed to the Special Operations Task Group based in Tarin Kot. The mission of our Special Forces is to target and disrupt insurgent networks in and around Oruzgan province. As my predecessor Minister Faulkner has previously indicated publicly, from time to time our Special Forces are authorised to operate in adjoining provinces, such as Daykundi, Ghazni and Zabul, on operations that have security benefits in Oruzgan province. Our Special Forces also contribute to broader ISAF operations which have implications for Oruzgan. Operation OMID 1390, ISAF's main country-wide effort into 2012, will see our Special Forces continue to maintain pressure on insurgent leadership in Oruzgan, and the nearby areas of northern Kandahar and northern Helmand, which directly affect Oruzgan. The operations of our Special Forces and their Afghan partners are currently focused on targeting insurgent networks known to be operating in Oruzgan province and along key access routes into the province and region, to disrupt insurgent fighting preparations in Oruzgan. These operations continue to help provide improved security to Oruzgan province through the removal of insurgent leaders in the months leading up to the northern summer 'fighting season'.

Challenges

Despite recent progress, ISAF continues to face some significant challenges in 2011. We need to consolidate security progress and make transition work. In the coming months, we expect the Taliban to sorely test ISAF and Afghan forces in Oruzgan. ISAF and Afghan security forces have gained the military initiative and the Taliban is changing tactics as a result. The Taliban will attempt to undermine the confidence of the Afghans, as well as the domestic audiences of troop-contributing countries. We can expect strikes against ISAF forces and civilians alike. We can expect high profile, highly propaganda based suicide attacks. We have seen this with the assassination of the Kandahar Police Chief, and the attack upon the Ministry of Defence in Kabul and the more recent attack on the Kandahar Governor's office. Regrettably, we must steel ourselves for further attacks.

US Drawdown

The United States has indicated that it will announce a drawdown in the middle of this year. The United States military and administration is still working through the detail of that drawdown and is yet to make an announcement. Ahead of that announcement, I do say that, as a general proposition, there is no inconsistency between the transition of security responsibility by the end of 2014 and a United States drawdown starting in mid-2011. The type of troops the United States will draw down will also be a consideration. For example, the United States has a number of staff in Afghanistan who were deployed to support the surge some 12 months ago. As we know from our own experience in Oruzgan, as circumstances change, resources are able to be allocated differently. That said, it is best to wait until President Obama and the administration announce the detail of the drawdown in the middle of this year.

As far as Australia is concerned, we have on average 1,550 troops in Afghanistan. That has been the case since April 2009, when this government increased our troop numbers from an average of 1,100 troops.

I am confident that over the next couple of years, sometime between now and the end of 2014, we will effect a transition to Afghan-led responsibility for security in Oruzgan. The Australian presence will be in Oruzgan in its current formation until we have done the training and mentoring and security transition job and thereafter we expect to be in the province in some form, such as Special Forces, security over-watch, capacity building, institution building, or niche training roles. We need over time to work through the details of that presence, not just with our ISAF partners in Oruzgan but more generally with our partners in Afghanistan.

Development and Governance in Oruzgan

During my recent visit to Afghanistan I met the new Oruzgan Governor Shirzad in Kabul. My meeting with Governor Shirzad underscored the importance of development and governance for sustaining progress. In my discussions with him he said his priorities for the province were education and roads, and to fill key civil service posts. I reinforced these points in my meetings in Kabul with Defence Minister Wardak, Interior Minister Khan, Foreign Minister Rassoul, Transition Coordinator Dr Ghani, and Reconciliation and Reintegration Minister Stanekzai. I stressed to my Afghan counterparts that the single greatest contribution that could be made to Oruzgan at this point in time is to support Governor Shirzad's efforts to improve the social and economic opportunities of Afghan families.

Support for our troops

This week's budget showed that total funding of $1.2 billion is committed to operations in Afghanistan and the wider Middle East for the financial year 2011-12. As well, the government is continuing its investment in the package of enhanced force protection capabilities for our troops in Afghanistan. Over the period 2009-10 to 2012-13, $1.6 billion will be invested for these enhanced measures for force protection. This includes $480 million of expenditure in 2011-12. Our forces in Afghanistan are performing extremely well in dangerous circumstances on a daily basis and their support and protection is, rightly, our highest priority. During my recent visit, ADF Commanders in Oruzgan reported that the Counter-Rocket Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) Sense and Warn system is working well. The C-RAM provides vital warning of impending rocket attacks and mortar attacks, providing precious seconds for our people to take cover, rather than being exposed in the open. This follows on from the force protection review effected by my predecessor Minister Faulkner and underlines the commitment to provide our troops with the best available equipment.

Of the 48 recommendations made by the review, 41 are now complete or on track. They include enhanced counter-IED measures, better armour and heavier calibre weapons for our Bushmasters, the placement of medics with each platoon operating in Afghanistan and the introduction of 1,000 sets of lighter combat armour.

The new C-RAM capability follows the delivery of the first batch of the new, lighter Tiered Body Armour System now rolling off the production line in Bendigo. The ADF plans to have the next Mentoring Task Force equipped with this armour when it deploys to Afghanistan later this year.

The new Multicam combat uniform will also be available to all troops operating outside the wire in the first half of this year.

More Bushmasters for Afghanistan

As well, the government has approved the purchase of 101 Bushmaster protected mobility vehicles to support operations in Afghanistan.

The Bushmaster has proven to be a most effective combat vehicle, providing Australian troops with protection against improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. It has unquestionably saved lives in Afghanistan.

The purchase provides for operational attrition. 31 Bushmasters have been damaged beyond repair in recent years and their replacement, together with a further 70 Bushmasters, will support current and future operations in Afghanistan and will, in the government's view, continue to save lives in Afghanistan.

Detainee Management

In the period 1 August 2010 to 8 May 2011, Australia apprehended 590 detainees. Of these, 81 have been transferred to Afghan authorities and 40 to US authorities. The remainder have been released following initial screening.

Since 1 August 2010, 15 allegations of mistreatment from 13 detainees have been made against the ADF. Thirteen of these allegations have been thoroughly investigated. They were found to have had no substance and were dismissed. Two more recent allegations remain under review.

Over the same period, from 1 August 2010 to 8 May 2011, I am advised the ADF have captured five people who were subsequently released, then recaptured. Four of the individuals in question were released as there was insufficient evidence to warrant their continued detention.

In the case of the fifth individual, the second time he was apprehended there was sufficient evidence to provide a conclusive link to the insurgency. In accordance with Australia's detainee management framework, he was transferred to the detention centre in Parwan.

In my March report I updated the House on a number of related detainee matters.

I can advise that the Australian Defence Force Investigative Service (ADFIS) investigation into allegations of non-compliance with the management and administrative procedures for the processing of detainees at the ADF detainee screening facility is ongoing.

The CCTV system at the initial screening system is functioning and continuous footage is being recorded and archived.

Our detainee management approach to the management and treatment of juveniles has been updated to ensure there is clear guidance on the management of juveniles apprehended during the course of ADF operations.

The government currently has three detainee management issues under consideration, which I have previously detailed, and I expect to make an announcement on those in due course.

Afghan National Security Forces issue

Not only is Australia committed to holding our own personnel to the highest standards on detainee management, but if ADF personnel become aware of concerns regarding the treatment of detainees by our ISAF or Afghan partners, Australia also treats this with the utmost seriousness.

On 1 April, Australian soldiers witnessed a further Afghan detention incident in Oruzgan province. That incident has also been raised with the Afghan government and through the ISAF chain of command and I have been advised that the matter is being investigated.

As well, on my recent visit to Afghanistan, I discussed detainee management issues with my Afghan counterparts the Minister for Defence and the Minister of the Interior.

Osama Bin Laden

The death of Osama Bin Laden is for a number of Australian families and for very many people in the United States a reminder of a terrible tragic personal event where loved ones were taken away at the blink of an eye. It will provide closure in that respect.

While some might describe some reactions within the United States as triumphalism, we do need to understand the raw emotions that are there for a country, a people and individual families.

Osama Bin Laden was directly responsible for terrible acts of violence against innocent people, and he inspired acts of violence by others.

Australia's involvement in Afghanistan, under the continuing mandate of the United Nations, traces directly back to 11 September 2001, the day al-Qaeda killed over 3,000 people from more than 90 countries, including our own, in its terrible attacks in the United States.

Bin Laden's al-Qaeda also planned, carried out, or inspired many other terrorist atrocities in which Australians were killed and wounded: in Bali, in London, in Mumbai and in Jakarta.

While the death of Osama Bin Laden is undoubtedly a significant setback for al-Qaeda, it is not the end of the battle. The end of Osama Bin Laden does not mean either a change to or the end of our commitment to Afghanistan. It similarly does not mean an end to the threat of global terror.

Pakistan

Much has been said about Pakistan in the context of the United States mission against Osama Bin Laden. I urge care before leaping to conclusions about Pakistan's efforts to trace down Bin Laden. That is best left for the exhaustive assessment which is underway in the United States and also in Pakistan.

More broadly, Australia very much supports Pakistan in its counter-terrorism and counter-extremism efforts and that is reflected by the good cooperation that we have and the enhanced counter-terrorism assistance that we have provided to Pakistan in recent years.

We know the situation in Pakistan is complex, we know it is complicated, we know it is tough. We also know that Pakistan needs to do more to counter extremism and terrorism, particularly on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

There is certainly no point in walking away from Pakistan when Pakistan continues to face very considerable security and economic challenges and difficulties.

Casualties

Australians can be proud of the fact that our troops have a well-deserved reputation for their effectiveness and their conduct.

During my recent visit to Afghanistan I heard nothing but praise from Afghan government ministers and NATO/ISAF commanders.

It was a great honour to be able to address our troops on Anzac Day at the dawn service in Tarin Kowt. It was also a day to remember those 23 brave Australian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and the 169 courageous soldiers who have been wounded.

The sacrifice our men and women are making is great, as is the appreciation of our nation and our people. Our forces face a resilient insurgency, who, in coming months, will seek to retake ground. In this environment, we must, again, steel ourselves for the possibility of further fatalities and casualties. Despite these tragic losses and the challenges ahead, Australia remains resolute.

Conclusion

Australia's mission in Afghanistan remains vital to our national security interests. We are committed to stabilising the security situation in Afghanistan and to mentoring and training the Afghan security forces.

There will be setbacks and there will be adverse incidents. The Taliban will strike back and try to recover ground, and they will also, as we know, try to use high-profile incidents as propaganda to undermine confidence.

If we can hold the gains that we have made over the northern winter, we will be in a much improved position by the end of the year.

There is a long way to go, but I believe we have both the military and political strategy in place, the resources to match it and the people on the ground to deliver it.

I thank the House.

I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the honourable member for Fadden to speak for a period of 17 minutes.

Leave granted.

Mr STEPHEN SMITH: I move:

That so much of standing and sessional orders be suspended as will prevent Mr Robert speaking in reply to the ministerial statement for a period not exceeding 17 minutes.

Question agreed to.