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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 2675

Senator FURNER (Queensland) (19:09): It is my privilege and pleasure to speak on the report of the Joint Standing Committee's visit to the Middle East Area of Operations on 14 May through 18 May 2011. The visit to the ADF units in the Middle East Area of Operations forms part of the committee's wider program of inspections to ADF units and defence industry sites. Where practical the committee has sought to visit ADF personnel where they conduct their operations.

The delegation thanks the ADF for developing and coordinating a visit program that ensured the safety of delegates while giving them exposure to a wide range of issues, personnel and locations. The delegation thanks the Australian National Commander in the MEAO, Major General Angus Campbell, AM, and his staff for coordinating the visit and providing the delegation with the access required to meet its aims. In particular, the delegation thanks the Headquarters Joint Task Force 633 Chief of Staff, Colonel Andrew Maclean, for hosting the delegation throughout the visit. The delegation also thanks the Australian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mr Paul Foley, for hosting the delegation's visit to the Afghan parliament and for sharing his wealth of experience in Afghan politics with the delegation. Finally, the delegation expresses its appreciation for the efforts of the committee's defence adviser, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Kenny, CSC, who accompanied the delegation and who was intimately involved in the planning of the visit, and thanks the officers and soldiers of the 2nd Commando Regiment who provided security for the delegation throughout its visit—and did a sterling job, I must say.

The delegation consisted of myself as Chair of the defence subcommittee; the Deputy Chair and member for Tangney, Dr Dennis Jensen; the member for Canberra, Ms Gai Brodtmann; the member for Fadden, Stuart Robert; and also the defence adviser Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Kenny CSC.

The ADF involvement in this area goes back some time. In fact, it has deployed forces in the Middle East almost continuously since the 1991 Gulf War. Following the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2011, Australia has deployed maritime, land and air forces across the Middle East, most notably in the Arabian Gulf, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan. Australia's military contribution to the International Stabilisation and Assistant Forces in Afghanistan has developed under Operation Slipper. Australia's military contribution includes around 1,550 ADF personnel who are deployed within Afghanistan, with 1,241 personnel deployed in the Nuristan Province and around 300 in Kabul, Kandahar and elsewhere in Afghanistan. These numbers vary depending on the area of operations and on shifting seasonal conditions. Some 830 personnel provide support from locations within the boarder of the MEAO, including our maritime commitment, in keeping with ISAF strategy to strengthen the civilian engagement in Afghanistan and to better integrate civilian and military efforts. In April 2010 the Australian government announced a 50 per cent increase in Australia's civilian contribution to Afghanistan. Australia now has around 50 civilians working in Afghanistan in addition to around 10 Defence civilians. Australia's substantial military/civilian deployment assistance focuses on training and mentoring the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade in Oruzgan province to assume responsibility for the province's security; building the capacity of the ANP to assist with civil policing functions in Oruzgan; helping improve the Afghan government's capacity to deliver core services and to generate income-earning opportunities for its people; and operations in dispute insurgent operations and supply routes utilising this special operations task force group.

The first visit was to Al Minhad, the airbase in Dubai. The purpose of this visit to AMAB was to visit the headquarters and unit space at the airbase, to be provided with update briefs on issues affecting ADF operations in the MEAO and to conduct abbreviated force preparation training prior to being deployed in Afghanistan. The delegation was provided formal briefings from most of the ADF elements based at AMAB.

From there we flew into the country by way of Hercules to visit Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan. The province, for the sake of the location, is in the southern part of Afghanistan. The province is one of the poorest and the population the least educated of all Afghanistan's provinces. The province is dominated by the mountains and valleys on the south edge of the Hindu Kush. To its west is the violent Helmand province and to the south is Kandahar province and the birthplace of the Taliban. Oruzgan province is the focus of Australia's main effort, with the major concentration of Australian forces based at the multinational base at Tarin Kowt on the outskirts of the capital. The base provides easy access to Tarin Kowt and has recently upgraded a tarmac to airfield capability for C17 operations.

The purpose of the visit to Tarin Kowt was to visit the headquarters and unit space in Oruzgan, to develop an understanding of the issues affecting ADF operations in the province, to meet the province's Afghan leaders, to gain an appreciation of the true conditions of the situation in the province and to obtain an understanding of the progress of operations. Oruzgan's economy is dominated by agriculture, which in turn is currently dominated by poppies. However, Oruzgan produces good-quality almonds—supported by AusAID—wheat, pomegranates and also watermelons.

From there on the following day we took a trip up to a patrol base at Nasir in the Mirabad Valley. That was on the morning of 16 May, when the delegation was moved up there to the airfield. The members were provided with a tactical and safety brief and then flew up by two US Army S70 Black Hawk helicopters to patrol base Nasir in the Mirabad Valley, which houses the operation mentoring and liaison team from Combat Team Bravo.

On arrival there the delegation moved to the patrol base operation room and received a classified briefing on the valley. The key point to remember about this particular patrol base was that in April 2010 the only way the MTF1-ISAF could effectively move up the valley from Tarin Kowt was by helicopter. Now, with the improved security situation, ISAF can move up the valley in vehicles. PB Nasir was built in September 2010 by MTF1 over a two-week period under hostile fire by the Taliban. Since February 2011, the insurgent Taliban offensive actions against the patrol base have been spasmodic, with no effective action against the MTF2 elements for three months.

The local insurgency is community-rural based, with fathers, uncles and brothers involved. It is very much an opportunity based insurgency. Due to the increased government and ANA effectiveness, and the effect of increased ISAF numbers, the insurgency has lost relevance in the local area. However, this is very tenuous due to the need for further economic and social development and the possible effects of the Afghan government's poppy eradication program. The effectiveness of the ANA in the Mirabad Valley has improved. Some elements of the local ANA can operate independently of Australian mentors. In fact, out of the four patrol bases in the valley, two are now manned by ANA only.

On the completion of the brief the delegation moved to the fortified meeting area to meet with local village leaders. This was a real opportunity to hear from local Afghan people of the success we are having in this country. Local leaders discussed the positive outcomes of the MTF, ISAF and ANA presence in the Mirabad Valley and the improved security situation. Local leaders stated that they are very pleased with the Australian Army's professionalism and positive approach, which provided the local population with confidence. The local leaders believe that the visit by the Australian parliamentarians sets a very good example to Afghan politicians about accountability and the need to see what is occurring on the ground.

Leaders are concerned about Pakistani and Iranian interference in Afghanistan's security, and alleged that these countries are harbouring terrorists. They asked that the delegation take back to the Australian parliament the need to apply pressure on Pakistan and Iran to stop their interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.

On that note, I seek leave to continue my remarks on the rest of the report on the other parts of the country that we visited.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.