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Feeney, Sen David
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Monday, 25 October 2010
Senator FEENEY (Parliamentary Secretary for Defence) (1:49 PM) —This is the first time I have had the privilege of speaking in this Senate on defence matters since my appointment to my current position. It is hard to think of a more important occasion upon which to make my first contribution here on defence issues than this debate. It is quite right that our national parliament should have a wide-ranging national debate about what we are doing in Afghanistan. The parliament, the press and the public have every right to ask searching questions about our commitment there.
It is a great honour to become part of the defence ministerial team, but it is also a heavy responsibility, and never is the responsibility of a defence minister or parliamentary secretary heavier than when discussing the commitment of our defence forces to the battlefield. Defence has been a department at war for the best part of a decade—in Iraq, in East Timor, in the Solomon Islands and, of course, in Afghanistan. I am acutely conscious that the war in Afghanistan has cost the lives of 21 of our service personnel since 2002, 10 of them just this year, the youngest of them just 21 years old. Each of those deaths is a tragedy for their families, for their friends, for their Defence Force comrades and, of course, for the nation as a whole. We in government, and indeed all of us in this parliament, need to be absolutely clear that, in asking our ADF personnel to run these risks and make these sacrifices, we do so in order to support a cause which we believe to be just and in pursuit of clear and achievable objectives. We also have an obligation to give the ADF the equipment and support they need to carry out the tasks that we assign to them. We as civilians have no moral right to ask our young men and women in uniform to put themselves in harm’s way unless these preconditions are met. In the time available to me, I want to address each of these questions.
What is the basis for our presence in Afghanistan? We, of course, are not in Afghanistan on a military offensive to gain territory, as some others have tried to do in the past. We are there in partnership with the Afghan government and under a United Nations mandate as part of a 47-member International Security Assistance Force to prevent Afghanistan from again being used as a safe haven for terrorists to recruit, train and sustain and plot attacks against us and our allies, and to enable the country to look after its own security in these important respects.
In 2009, the defence white paper set out the tasks that our defence forces may be asked to carry out. They include:
… to contribute to military contingencies in the rest of the world, in support of efforts by the international community to uphold global security and a rules-based international order, where our interests align and where we have the capacity to do so.
The key phrase here is ‘where our interests align’. We cannot take on ourselves the duty of liberating all the people in the world who live under oppressive regimes. Sadly, such a task is impossible. But when participation in an operation such as this contributes directly to the security of Australia and Australian citizens, it is indeed in our interests to take part. It is my strong view that our role in Afghanistan does make such a contribution.
Since 2001 over 100 Australians have died in terrorist attacks: on 9/11 in New York, in the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, in the 2005 London bombings and, of course, in the 2009 Jakarta bombings. All of these attacks can be traced back to the international jihadist network loosely labelled as al-Qaeda, which in 2001 had control of Afghanistan and was using its territory to train semi-military formations—indeed, formations up to brigade strength. History now teaches us it is critically important that we deny terrorist organisations state capabilities; that we deny them the capacity to occupy failed states and thereby gain financial, diplomatic and procurement capabilities that are otherwise denied them.
Jemaah Islamiyah, responsible for the Bali and Jakarta bombings, was the Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda, and scores of JI operatives were trained in Afghanistan. Stamping out the al-Qaeda infrastructure in Afghanistan, which armed, funded, trained and sustained so many terrorist networks in our own region, is thus a vital part of the defence of Australia and protecting the lives of Australians. The jihadist network cannot be allowed to regain control of Afghanistan. The best way to prevent that is, of course, to create a stable Afghan state and army based upon the support of the Afghan people.
No one pretends that this will be an easy task. Afghanistan has now endured more than 30 years of continuous war, revolution, foreign invasion, persecution, religious fanaticism and mass immigration. Its infrastructure and economy were largely destroyed. In 2001 it was in the grip of one of the most oppressive regimes in the world; a regime that openly harboured terrorists and enabled them to use Afghanistan as a base to train and to plot attacks—most famously, of course, the attack of 11 September 2001. Despite setbacks, I am confident that we are now pursuing a sound strategy and possess the right resources to implement that strategy.
So what are our concrete objectives in Afghanistan? We are there as part of an International Security Assistance Force—ISAF—a NATO-led security mission which has a mandate from the United Nations Security Council. The legal basis for our presence is thus clear in a way that was not the case with the government’s war in Iraq. That is why 47 nations have contributed to the ISAF’s work in Afghanistan.
Within ISAF’s overall mission Australia’s task is training and mentoring the 4th brigade of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police in Oruzgan province. Australian personnel undertake a range of other activities as part of the ISAF strategy. These include the work of the Special Operations Task Group in disrupting and dismantling the insurgency, the work of the Rotary Wing Group based in Kandahar, our work with the National Army’s artillery school in Kabul and other specialist tasks which time does not permit me to go into. Our objective is, of course, to train the Afghan National Army and its security forces so that it can take over the security of the province as soon as is possible and practicable.
It is a pity that more Australians cannot see the work that our personnel are doing in Afghanistan: the new classrooms at the Tarin Kowt primary school, the construction of the girls school in Malalai, the Dorafshan basic health centre or the 116-metre long all-weather Kotwal crossing. This work that our personnel are doing in Afghanistan is something that all Australians should and will be very proud of.
Since my portfolio responsibilities include the ADF Reserves, I want to particularly commend the work that our reservists have done in Afghanistan. This government believes in the closest possible integration of our part-time and full-time forces. They give us a surge capacity in times of stress, and give us access to a range of specialist skills which we are able to deploy as required. There are currently some 65 reservists serving in Afghanistan, including medical and legal specialists as well as personnel in operational units. These are men and women who voluntarily leave their civilian lives and who expose themselves to considerable risk in the service of their country and to help the people of Afghanistan. They deserve recognition.
Many are pessimistic about our prospects for Afghanistan. Defeating insurgencies is always difficult, but it is not impossible and it has been achieved successfully elsewhere. To support the task, the international security assistance force is undertaking a range of activities to build up the capacity of the Afghan government to govern, supporting the development of civil society and institutions and the provision of essential services. We are also working with the Pakistani government to counter serious problems of violent extremism in neighbouring Pakistan. More needs to be done.
But we need to remember that our objectives are limited: we are not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland. We are trying to help the Afghan people to build a state and an army capable of preventing it from once again being turned into the base camp for international terrorism and the world’s extremists. This is a realistic goal, and we have made a great deal of progress towards achieving it. If we withdraw from Afghanistan before it is in a position to defend itself we will pay a price in terms of our own security and the safety of our own citizenry. The speeches of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives last week were an impressive display of bipartisan commitment to sustaining our mission in Afghanistan until it is complete. It would be very unfortunate if our mission were to become the subject of partisan bickering.
That is why I was disappointed by some of the comments made over the past few weeks about the level of support which we are supplying to our forces in Afghanistan. We are guided in these important matters by the advice drawn from the Chief of the Defence Force, in whom we have the greatest confidence.