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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 9079

Senator JOHNSTON (Western Australia) (20:04): I am surprised that the Leader of the Government in the Senate is not here for this very important debate this evening. That we have lost 32 fine Australians in Afghanistan is a measure of both the commitment of our soldiers and more broadly our national resolve to complete our mission there. It is not often appreciated that a safe haven for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was the launch pad of the 9-11 attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and the passenger aircraft on that fateful day.

Closer to home, over the past decade close on 100 Australians have been killed by terrorist attacks that were planned and executed from safe havens in the mountains of Afghanistan. On 12 October 2002 in Bali, 88 Australians were killed, and, in a bombing on 9 September 2004 at the Australian embassy, nine Indonesians were killed and 150-plus injured. In the 7 July 2005 London train bombings, one Australian was killed and 11 injured, with 56 killed and 700-plus injured overall. At Jimbaran Beach in Kuta, Bali, on 1 October 2005, four Australians were killed and 19 injured, with a total of 26 killed and 100 injured. In the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta, three Australians were killed out of a total of seven, with 53 people injured.

The Vice-President of the United States in 2006 said:

Hambali (the planner of the Australian Embassy attack and also the 2002 bombing—currently held in Guantanamo Bay) went to the training camps in Afghanistan that they ran back in the '90s, subsequently received funding from al Qaeda, went back then to Indonesia, and was behind some of the major attacks there. So you've got this sort of home-grown, but nonetheless affiliated, extremist operation going now in Indonesia. You'll find the same thing if you go to Morocco, where they had the attack in Casablanca; in Turkey, Istanbul, and so forth.

So Afghanistan was more than just a safe haven. It was a training ground. It was where they honed their terrorist skills.

Our mission was therefore originally the denial of Afghanistan as a training ground and an operational base for al-Qaeda from which to project its global terrorist activities. It was then to stabilise the Afghan state through the enhancement of security through military, police and civilian consolidation. More particularly, such work for Australia was to focus on Oruzgan province. As a necessary adjunct to the mission, those who gave that safe haven to al-Qaeda, namely the Taliban, had to be dealt with.

This was an organisation which, apart from providing that safe haven to al-Qaeda and all the terror that that caused around the world, imposed upon the Afghan people a number of atrocious, strict edicts. Women were banished from the workforce. Schools were closed to girls and women, and women were expelled from universities. Women were prohibited from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative—and so on and so forth. Women and girls in Afghanistan and the wider society were treated to atrocities by the Taliban. Women were beaten, publicly flogged and killed for violating Taliban decrees.

Today our work is ongoing and carried out under a United Nations mandate, renewed annually, through the participation of some 48 partner countries spread throughout Afghanistan, each in particular areas and provinces and each doing particular tasks and particular work. Our soldiers and their extended families should take some considerable comfort and great confidence from the fact that the Australian parliament is virtually unanimously supportive and committed to them and their sons and daughters engaged in our cause in Afghanistan. This is a most noble and legitimate cause and one which is and continues to be supported by both sides of the political divide in this country. It is a subject matter which is above partisan political politics, and I for one am greatly gratified by that and maintain that it should remain so.

There are extraordinarily large challenges for us in this particular theatre. The execution of this mandate is uniquely difficult in Afghanistan, and it was never for one single minute going to be easy. Afghanistan has a troubled and volatile history, with a disparate, semitribal society, geographically separated by an impossible natural topography of very, very high mountains running into deep, fertile valleys. It is a land of rough and underdeveloped roads, very limited communications infra­structure and few developed governmental administrative institutions. It was, in short, an ideal country for a safe haven for an international terrorist network.

Our mission there is an evolving one as we improve the capability of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan security forces, including police. As we assist in the establishment of governance of various qualities in each of the provinces, we are providing mentoring that is moving towards self-reliance and towards Afghan command. Indeed, I pause to say that some 10 of our forward operating bases in Afghanistan are now under exclusive Afghan command. That is a significant step forward, a step in the right direction.

We have participated in the preparation and training of the Afghan National Army in the removal of IEDs, improvised explosive devices, and in the location and destruction of caches of weapons, ammunition and bomb-making equipment. Further to all of this is training in the disruption of the narcotics trade and the cutting of the flow of money from such trade. As part of our commitment we have also deployed some 20 officers of the Australian Federal Police to mentor and train police officers for Afghanistan. I congratulate each and every one of those 20 Australian Federal Police officers on the fabulous work they are doing in our name.

Progress has been slow and not without difficulty, but there has been some signifi­cant progress. In education there are seven million students, of whom approximately three million are girls. There are now more children receiving an education than ever before in the country's history—and, importantly, more girls than ever before. The Australian Greens might see this as a positive.

Since 2001 there has been a 26 per cent decline in mortality in children under five years of age. The Australian Greens might see this as a positive. Millions of Afghans have benefited from ISAF water and sanitation programs. Again, the Greens might see this as a positive.

There have been two recent national elections. There was a presidential ballot with a voter turnout of 1.26 million voters, some 30 per cent of the voting population. The next was a general election on 18 September 2010, with 406 candidates out of 3,000 being women—16 per cent were females—and with a turnout of 4.33 million people, of whom 1.77 million were women. The Greens might see that as a positive.

In recent years, the economic growth of Afghanistan has been averaging, year in, year out, about 11 per cent. There has been the construction of around 10,000 kilometres of paved roads within the country. People can move around the country, and there are an ever-increasing number of cars on the roads. These are positive, positive things happening in the country due to our role and the role of our ISAF partners. The Australian Defence Force has provided reconstruction teams of engineers and other technical skills to build schools, to construct and run health clinics and for trade training. There have been many, many successes, with local markets and other commerce beginning to flourish.

I pause to mention the most recent success—that is, our great ally the United States firstly locating the architect of so much of the world's recent terrorist history and then bringing Osama bin Laden to the justice he charted for himself in his own evil. This was a very successful operation which was executed with professionalism and great skill. I am someone who believes that, following the demise of this man, the world can rest just a little bit easier in terms of the terrorist threat. A great blow has been struck against terrorism, with no casualties. This event is truly one of the successes that ISAF and, particularly, the United States have had in Afghanistan, and I for one want to thank the Navy Seals and all of the personnel involved in this achievement. It was a wonderful victory and a wonderful symbol for justice, given what we have seen, particularly in the last decade, in terms of international terrorism.

I turn now to Pakistan. Pakistan has had significant issues with the Taliban following their flight from Afghanistan into the Swat Valley in particular. It is trite to say but it is obvious there can be no regional security around Afghanistan without the commitment of its neighbours to peace and stability. Pakistan must do more to isolate the Taliban in the region. Counter-terrorism in this region must be at the very forefront of priority policy considerations. Pakistan would serve its own best interests if it were to do more to secure its border with Afghanistan and prevent the supply of weapons, ammunition and explosive material to the Taliban. Pakistan has been through a lot. It feels threatened, but it must do more to arrest the flow of weapons and explosives to the Taliban and into Afghanistan.

To put Australia's contribution into context, 1,550 Australian Defence Force personnel have been deployed into Afghanistan. Currently, the United States has more than 90,000 troops in Afghanistan and the United Kingdom has 9,500 out of a total of 130,638 ISAF troops. We rely upon our partners and particularly the United States for capability, enablers, air support, heli­copters and logistics generally. To that extent, our destiny in Afghanistan is subject to the timing and resolve of ISAF member states with a greater commitment than ours, particularly the United States. All of us agree that our people should not be there for one minute longer than is necessary. There is, however, no capacity for us to be half-committed to this mission. We have paid too high a price to be half-hearted or wavering. Having said that, there is no blank cheque here. All ISAF members want to see the job done and an appropriate level of self-reliance in indigenous capacity as soon as possible. Everyone is diligently pursuing that end. We want to get out as soon as possible.

I turn to the men and women of our Australian Defence Force. They have performed in this theatre magnificently, as difficult as it has been. They have been totally committed to the task, a task that we all have agreed is in the national interest. There have been extreme hardships and great tragedies, immense loss and miraculous survivals. Through it all, our soldiers have achieved great success, often in the most difficult of circumstances, from searing heat to subzero temperatures in remote locations for extended periods on combat rations. We at home have all become familiar with the Bushmaster—an Australian made and designed vehicle that has seen over 50 destroyed through IEDs and mine detonations, with not one loss of life. This is a truly great achievement for the Australian Defence Force and for the Australian manufacturing industry. Over 50 have been blown up, each with a number of personnel inside, and no-one has died. Our special forces, who have been called upon to conduct operations right around Afghanistan, have done so with great distinction. In this place previously I have cited many of their achievements, commendations and medals that have been awarded. We have been relatively small in number in Afghanistan but have made a significant contribution to making things better for the population of that country. The Australian Defence Force can take great pride in its achievement in Afghanistan.

While we have achieved much, the parliament continues to reserve the right to raise issues about combat clothing and equipment, about the quality of food and about the quality of flights to and from the MEAO. It is not too much to ask that our soldiers in Tarin Kowt have good food, that their combat clothing is fit for purpose and that when we fly them from Brisbane, Townsville, Sydney or Darwin into the MEAO we do so in quality aircraft. To that end, it is clear that we have an issue with the time that we are permitted to retain prisoners—96 hours is obviously insuffi­cient, particularly in comparison to the practice of the United States and the United Kingdom. It appears that we secure these suspects or combatants, as the case may be, at considerable risk to our own personnel, only to see them released in that 96-hour period to rejoin the fight. This is unacceptable. I call upon the Minister for Defence to fix this in line with the wishes of our people. When we travel to the MEAO our people tell us this is not working. So I say: come on, Minister, fix this—it is not difficult.

We have sustained, as I have said, 32 losses, and I have attended more than 20 funerals. No words suffice in talking of those killed in action or of those wounded in action. To the families, the wives, the girlfriends, the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and sons and daughters: I am in admiration of the selfless sacrifice of their loved ones and of themselves. Those that we have lost shall never be forgotten. It is inadequate but I shall simply say a sincere thankyou to them.