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Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Page: 856


Senator CAMERON (10:17 AM) —I am pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the debate on Australia’s involvement in the Afghan war. At the outset I would like to recognise the commitment of the Australian Defence Force and particularly the ultimate sacrifice made by 21 of our military personnel. I would like to personally express my sympathy to the families, friends and comrades of our soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. Given the current circumstances in Afghanistan, I support the government’s policy on Afghanistan. In saying this, I have been a long-term peace activist in the trade union movement. I am not a pacifist, and support the need to defend our nation during times of war. Notwithstanding this, I am inclined to be anti war, not pro war. I have never served in the military. Nevertheless, I have a direct family experience of the horrible consequences for mainly working-class soldiers serving in the front line.

I was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland. This is a community just outside Glasgow that was part of the Scottish production line for front-line troops for the British Army. Like many other working-class Scots, my grandfather and father served in the British Army. My father was a sergeant major in the Cameronians, the Scottish Rifles, and saw active service in Burma and India. He was part of the British expeditionary forces under General Wavell who were known as the Chindits and he fought in the Burmese jungle behind Japanese lines in extremely tough conditions. My father was physically and psychologically affected by his wartime service. Apart from ongoing bouts of malaria, he, like many Scottish working-class soldiers, used alcohol as a crutch in those days when there was little or no recognition of the psychological effects of war. My father was a tough man. But, no matter how tough you are, the horror of war spares no-one. My family suffered the aftermath of my father’s wartime service. He died a relatively young man. My experience, which was consistent with the experience of many working-class Scottish and Australian families, confirms my opposition to and hate for war.

I am not in a position to know the psychological and physiological scars that will affect our returned soldiers from Afghanistan. There will be undoubtedly ongoing challenges for our returned servicemen and their families as a result of their service in Afghanistan. It is absolutely essential that high-quality and professional support for returned servicemen and their families is available if and when required. I am deeply concerned to think that we could be involved in the war in Afghanistan for another decade. It is worth remembering that the first contingent of the Special Forces Task Group left Perth on 22 October 2001.

I have an abhorrence for the behaviour of the Taliban. I have two grown-up daughters who have been extremely fortunate to have been brought up in Australia. They have not been faced with the horrendous challenges and discrimination faced by young girls and women in Afghanistan during the era of the Taliban. It is almost incomprehensible to me that any group within society could abuse young girls and women in the manner that the Taliban have.

I have often thought that if, by accident of birth, I had been born in Afghanistan and had two young daughters, I would have been prepared to do almost anything to achieve a better life for my children. Is it any wonder that many Afghans flee the country as a result of the activities of the Taliban or of the threat that the Taliban might one day control Afghanistan to the detriment of the community and, in particular, women? There is a great deal of hypocrisy from some who stand up and make speeches about the need to bring democracy and peace to Afghanistan while, at the same time, vilifying and marginalising those who flee Afghanistan because they genuinely fear for their lives and the welfare of their children.

Labor is committed to building a stable, equitable and peaceful future in Afghanistan as part of an international team consistent with relevant United Nations mandates. I support the need for a comprehensive approach to the situation in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. I support the development of aid and civilian assistance in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which both desperately need this aid. I support the training of the local Afghan National Police force and army forces, consistent with strategic objectives and international alliance commitments and obligations. Sustaining non-military assistance to Afghanistan to enhance, particularly, the education, skills and training of the Afghan people is essential. And we must work towards the capacity for the Afghan government to manage its own affairs. I support continued development assistance for Afghanistan.

I recognise that a lasting settlement in Afghanistan will require a political settlement, because war will not settle this. Ongoing commitments to decades of war are not the way forward in Afghanistan. There will have to be a political settlement, and it must be led by a government of Afghanistan. And, eventually, the military control in Afghanistan must be in the hands of a government of Afghanistan.

There is much merit in the analysis that the US war in Iraq has been responsible for a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. The strategic mistake made by the Bush administration, and compounded by those who supported the war in Iraq, has meant that it has become much more difficult to settle the war in Afghanistan. It meant that resources that should have been used to consolidate military gains in Afghanistan were diverted in a fruitless quest to find non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This simply complicated an existing complex situation in Afghanistan.

We should always remember not only the cost to soldiers in Afghanistan but the cost to civilians of war. Afghanistan is no different to past wars. While there is no official figure for the overall numbers of civilians killed by the war since 2001, estimates put it in the range of 14,000 to 34,000 persons. Much to my surprise, systematic collection of civilian fatality data only began in 2007. Talk about the fog of war!

Apart from the cost in military and civilian lives in the Afghanistan War, there is also a huge financial cost to Australia and the US administration. I note that, since our military involvement commenced in October 2001, the estimated cost to the budget has been over $6 billion. This does not take into account the cost of repatriating and medically assisting returned soldiers. This will be a long-term legacy as our troops return with physical and psychological damage that needs expert and lasting medical support.

The eminent Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has estimated that the total cost of the war in Iraq and in Afghanistan to the US government has been $3 trillion—not billion, but trillion. Stiglitz has estimated that the cost of direct US military operations, not including long-term costs such as taking care of the wounded, already exceeds the cost of the 12-year war in Vietnam and is more than double the cost of the Korean War. It is already 10 times the cost of the Gulf War, almost a third more than the cost of the Vietnam War, and twice that of the First World War. In 2008 the projected cost to the US for the Iraq War was $12 billion a month, and when Afghanistan is added to the total it is $16 billion a month. This is a huge investment from a country still reeling from the global financial crisis. Is it any wonder that there is increased opposition, not only to the war and the implications of the war but to the financial obligations that this war places on the US administration? There is no doubt that economic issues cannot be divorced from the capacity of the US government to continue its engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan in the long term.

I think this is one of the reasons that President Obama is seeking to have clear goals in the conduct of the Afghanistan War. One of these goals is to deny safe haven to al-Qaeda and to deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government. It is my view that Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan will be influenced by the success or otherwise of the six operational objectives that will be limited in scope and scale to what is necessary to obtain the US goal. These objectives are: reversing the Taliban’s momentum; denying the Taliban access to, and control of, key population and production lines and lines of communication; disrupting the Taliban outside the secure area and preventing al-Qaeda from gaining sanctuary in Afghanistan; degrading the Taliban to levels manageable by the Afghan national security force; increasing the size of the Afghan national security force and leaving the potential for local security forces so the US can position that responsibility for security to the Afghan government. This is seen as permitting the US to begin to decrease troop presence by July 2011. I find it quite disturbing that there have been calls for us to increase our troop engagement, involvement and numbers in Afghanistan, when it is clear that the US are looking to decrease their involvement in the Afghan war.

The US are also looking to selectively rebuild the capacity of the Afghan government with a military focus on the ministries of defence and the interior. President Obama has also raised the need for improved governance in Afghanistan, including on whether President Karzai has made progress in establishing merit based appointments in ministries, provinces and districts that are critical to the US mission. The US government are also seeking to demonstrate that they can assist the Afghans in promoting effective sub-national governance based on the campaign that the US are undertaking. Specifically, the US and Afghans need to generate sufficient civilian capacity to partner with the US in what is described as the ‘hold, build and transfer’ phases of the war, and they are estimating when these resources can begin to take effect.

These goals are complicated by the lack of proper governance in Afghanistan. The corruption in Afghanistan is very much complicating our approach and our capacity to achieve our goals in Afghanistan. These goals are further complicated by the situation in Pakistan. The US are looking to make sure they can shift what they call ‘the strategic calculus’ in Pakistan and end their active and passive support for extremists. They are also looking to ensure that Pakistan has dealt with al-Qaeda and other extremists, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network. Given these complications in this region of the world, I oppose any open-ended commitment to the Afghan war.

In conclusion I would like to touch on the words of Franklin D Roosevelt, one of the iconic political figures of the last century, who influenced political thinking around the world. In relation to war, Roosevelt said the following:

I have seen war. I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded … I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed … I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.

I also hate war and will be glad to see Australia disengage from this war as soon as practically possible.