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Tuesday, 26 October 2010
Senator TROOD (1:35 PM) —A parliamentary debate on the topic of Afghanistan is long overdue. Indeed, not only is this debate overdue; the parliament generally does not devote anywhere near enough time to considerations of foreign affairs in its schedule. There are, no doubt, good reasons for this, but it certainly cannot be that we are short of issues. We live in a world of tumult and turmoil, and Australia faces a wide range of foreign policy challenges that should be the subject of a wider public debate.
Afghanistan is a very appropriate place to begin this public conversation because there we are confronted with a desperate struggle for the country’s future. This, of course, is not the first time that Afghanistan has been a crucible of conflict. As students of history would be well aware it has often been called ‘the graveyard of empires’. For some of the war’s critics, this remembrance of things past is enough to underscore the futility of the task we have undertaken there.
Certainly, Afghanistan has posed challenges for those emboldened to take an interest in its affairs. In an earlier life, well before I entered the Senate, I published a book entitled The Indian Ocean: Perspectives on a Strategic Arena. In the chapter on Afghanistan, there appears this passage:
Several factors will play critical roles in determining whether the Soviet Union succeeds in … Afghanistan. These include the policies adopted by Pakistan towards the insurgents, the extent of external support … the success or failure of Soviet attempts to convert divisions among the insurgents into open conflict, the Soviet’s ability to establish a government in Kabul that commands a large armed force (and has a wide base of support) and the scope and duration of the Soviet commitment.
That passage was written about a different time in Afghanistan’s history by Zalmay Khalizad. As some senators may be aware, Dr Khalizad has since gone on to greater things, including serving a term as the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan. While he and I strongly distance ourselves from Soviet ambitions in Afghanistan, Khalizad’s comments remind us that in this country some things seem not to change very much at all. Substitute the US or the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, for the Soviet Union, and we arguably have a pretty fair description of the range of challenges that confront us today.
If ever there was one truth about Afghanistan, it is that the historic struggles which have taken place there have never been just about the future of Afghanistan itself. They have always been about part of a much grander landscape. This is no less true today than it was in the 19th century or in the 1970s or 1980s. Afghanistan has always been part of a very volatile region in world affairs. If we are to comprehend the full extent of the challenge we confront there, we cannot engage in the comfortable delusion that it can be easily quarantined from the influence of its strategically unstable neighbourhood. As a landlocked state, it is surrounded by great powers, many of which see it as an arena for their own ambitions. No part of that neighbourhood is more strategically interconnected with Afghanistan than its eastern neighbour Pakistan. Democratic governance in Pakistan is already at grave risk from, among other things, a violent internal insurgency which includes al-Qaeda backed extremists. In recent times, intensified bombings and terrorist attacks testify to the growing self-confidence and a brutal and bloody determination to destroy an already brittle political order. The Pakistan government is struggling to contain this threat. Should its resolve falter and Pakistan fall under the influence of groups aligned with al-Qaeda or one of its indigenous variants, it would be a strategic disaster.
The fall of a democracy, however imperfect, to Islamic insurgents would give massive propaganda to al-Qaeda and embolden extremism in Asia and elsewhere, to say nothing of the threat that would emerge if Pakistan’s nuclear warheads fell into the hands of the terrorists. The chaos and instability in Afghanistan only serve to fuel this risk. As the analyst Stephen Biddle has written in relation to the United States—but it is an observation that applies to other Western countries, including Australia—we all have an interest in preventing Afghanistan from aggravating Pakistan’s internal problems and magnifying the danger of an al-Qaeda nuclear-armed sanctuary that might exist there. We are, of course, assisting Pakistan to confront the severe challenges it faces. I trust we will continue to do so to the full extent of our capacity. But Pakistan is a sovereign state, wary of outsiders’ offers of assistance and determined to be responsible for its own security. In Afghanistan, the circumstances are very different. There, our opportunities to assist in bringing peace and stability to a broken and divided country are that much greater.
Aside from our interest in Pakistan’s future, Australia has strong reasons for continuing to play a role as part of the international coalition that is striving to offer a better future for Afghanistan. These reasons have their origins in Australia’s membership of the international force that intervened to bring down the Taliban and liberate the country from its ugly, oppressive rule in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. There is little doubt that, at the time, the Taliban was providing a safe haven for al-Qaeda training camps and that Afghanistan occupied a central place in Osama bin Laden’s global network of terror. Certainly, things have changed since then. Al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan is much diminished, and the threat which existed in 2001 and al-Qaeda’s base of operations is now more likely to be found on the Horn of Africa or across the border in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the strategic reality is that the significant, dangerous and continuing linkages between the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain and are not seriously in doubt. They are a persistent threat to Afghanistan’s stability and to Western interests in the region. The insurgents’ freedom to move across the porous international border confronts ISAF with one of its greatest operational challenges in trying to eliminate their presence. We would be taking a massive strategic risk if ISAF were suddenly to leave Afghanistan without a high degree of confidence that al-Qaeda’s alliance with the elements of the Taliban had not been crushed.
Australia also has a national interest in Afghanistan borne of its alliance with the United States. The many critics of this argument seem to have wilfully ignored the circumstances under which the United States and its allies, including Australia, entered Afghanistan. As Fullilove and Bubalo from the Lowy Institute pointed out recently, 2001 was not an exercise in US unilateralism of the kind usually so widely condemned by the left. It was a case of Washington acting in concert with the international community and, of no less importance, it was an exercise in self-defence, sanctioned under international law as part of an international response to al-Qaeda’s terrorist attack of 9-11. Perhaps most significantly, the mission was undertaken with a mandate from the United Nations which has been renewed year after year. In short, for Australia, being part of the ISAF coalition in Afghanistan is not only an entirely appropriate exercise in alliance maintenance but also an organic part of the international obligations we have assumed in the struggle against Islamic extremism with other members of the global community.
There can be little doubt that we are facing a tough fight in Afghanistan. Our enemy is ruthless, enterprising and determined. The increasing casualties amongst ISAF troops, along with more violence against civilians and an alarming number of political assassinations, all point to stepped up insurgent activity and to higher levels of insecurity. In Kabul and elsewhere across the country, many Afghanis appear to have limited respect for their government, which they often see as dysfunctional, corrupt and lacking in legitimacy. The disruption of commercial and business activity and the fragility of economic enterprise are making everyday life extremely hard for most Afghanis. Beyond Afghanistan, among the populations of the countries contributing to ISAF there is a growing restiveness at the alarming human and financial costs of the war. In these circumstances it is hardly surprising that there is a considerable pessimism about Afghanistan’s future.
For all that, I think there is good reason to look forward with some confidence. There are some encouraging signs of progress in things like school attendance; the construction of road, health and telecommunications infrastructure; and small-scale business enterprise beginning to grow. On the security front, it is true that for a long period of time the international coalition struggled to design a strategy that would secure Afghanistan’s future. While the Taliban was never a movement with a widespread following or deep-seated historical legitimacy within Afghanistan’s society, it did manage to secure government in the 1990s. Now, however, it is a highly factionalised entity supported in some parts of the country but only tolerated in others and deeply hated elsewhere. The ISAF counterinsurgency strategy, now being led by General Petraeus, offers the best opportunity in nine years of conflict to further erode and degrade the Taliban’s strength. With its key elements of clear, hold, build and transfer, the strategy is designed to deliver Afghanistan’s security into the hands of its own people. Although results are agonisingly slow, I am cautiously encouraged that this strategy together with the massive program of civil reconstruction now underway offers Afghanis a more secure and stable future.
Were we now to abandon Afghanistan, all the military and economic good we have so far achieved would likely be a wasted legacy. I struggle to imagine that the Greens and others who continue to oppose our continued presence in Afghanistan would think this a desirable outcome after all we have sacrificed there. We should not have any illusions about the lengthy time it will take to secure Afghanistan’s future. We and our coalition partners are likely to be engaged in military operations for some years. A civilian presence will likely continue long afterwards. However long we are engaged, we cannot afford to lose sight of what is surely one of the most important salient realities of the Afghan conflict: we are acting as friends and allies of the Afghan people. It hardly needs saying, but this is their country and they will remain long after the international forces have departed. This means that, whatever our strategic ambitions might be, we have to respect the aspirations of the Afghani people. This requires us to temper our expectations of success. As much as we and, indeed, some Afghanis might wish it, prosecuting this conflict to the point of securing the unconditional surrender of the Taliban is unrealistic. As is now beginning to occur, they will have to be a party to the negotiations that ultimately will see an end to the conflict.
The reality is that we do not need a perfect Afghanistan to secure our strategic objectives there. Our aim should be a country that is stable and free enough to offer the opportunity for the Afghani people to decide on their political, economic and social future. It should also be sufficiently independent of the influence of the Taliban and its insurgent allies to ensure that Islamic extremism and the terrorism it begets does not regain a foothold. The challenge we now face is to create the conditions where these objectives can be achieved. As I have said, I consider the counterinsurgency strategy now in place makes this a realistic possibility.
Australia’s contribution is a significant one, and I express my gratitude and enormous respect for the professionalism of the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Federal Police, the officers of AusAID and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the other Australian citizens who daily risk so much in the service of our interests. The Australian contingent in Afghanistan may not be the largest among ISAF, but it is for the most part in the southern province of Oruzgan, one of the most violent and unstable parts of the country. Australians face constant danger, as we are tragically reminded when we recall the 21 members of the ADF who have already lost their lives.
Sadly, we face the prospect of further casualties before our commitment to Afghanistan comes to an end. But, like other senators, I am struck by the fact that many of the families who have lost loved ones in this conflict want it known that the soldiers who have fallen have been committed professionals and maintained a belief in the importance of their mission. At the moment, I am far from convinced that we are doing enough to degrade the Taliban’s insurgence. While our SAS commando and other forces are doing a magnificent job disrupting Taliban and insurgent networks as part of the Special Operations Task Group, there is a strong case for expanding their capabilities. I acknowledge that these types of military operations place our soldiers at higher risk, but they are vital to the ultimate success of our mission. For that reason, I trust that the government and its military advisers have the option of an expanded and enhanced force under serious consideration. But ultimately, as Mr Abbott said in his contribution to this debate, we on this side of the chamber recognise that this is necessarily a matter for the government.
In concluding my remarks, I note that, in her contribution to the House last week, the Prime Minister confirmed that Australia would continue to stay the course in Afghanistan. As the Leader of the Opposition made clear in his remarks, we in the opposition endorse that position very strongly. Part of the challenge we face in sustaining our commitment is to strive, as far as possible, to ensure that it has the support of the Australian people. A recent poll on this point is far from encouraging, with only 45 per cent of Australians being in favour. I cannot help but think that this is at least in part a consequence of the previous Labor government’s apparent reluctance to accept its responsibility and diligently strive to make a convincing case for our commitment.
I detected in the Prime Minister’s remarks the other day a determination to take a more muscular approach to our Afghanistan commitment. I much welcome this shift in policy. Following through on Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan is an immensely important enterprise. Its strategic rationale needs to be spelt out more clearly, the case for staying on needs to be made with greater conviction and the Australian people need to be convinced of the stakes. To that end, the government needs to go on the offensive to arrest the steady decline in public support for the war. The nation expects it and the brave men and women in the field deserve no less.