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Monday, 23 February 2009
Page: 1429


Mr FITZGIBBON (Minister for Defence) (4:54 PM) —by leave—I rise to provide the parliament and the Australian people with an update on the government’s view of the situation in Afghanistan and an assessment of the progress of the international effort to stabilise the war-torn country.

Members will be aware that on 19 February I attended a meeting of defence ministers from the partner countries. Held in Krakow, Poland, it was only the second time an Australian defence minister has participated in such a meeting. The first occurred when I participated in the same forum in Vilnius, Lithuania, in April last year.

Afghanistan remains an enormous challenge and a dangerous place. For the Australian government, the objective of our mission there is quite clear: to ensure that Afghanistan does not, once again, descend into a safe haven and a training ground for terrorist organisations with links to tragic events like the Bali bombing, in which 88 Australians lost their lives and many more were wounded.

The key to achieving that goal is to ensure we do not have a government in Kabul prepared to provide terrorist organisations with those opportunities or, worse, one prepared to sponsor terrorist organisations. Thanks to the work of the international community to bolster the processes of democracy, we currently do not have a government in Afghanistan that is prepared to sponsor or turn a blind eye to terrorism activity in its country. But, unfortunately, nor do we have a government capable, on its own, to enforce the rule of law or capable, without support, of preventing terrorist activity within its own borders.

Of course, there is agreement among the International Security Assistance Force partners that achieving our key objective in Afghanistan will take much more than a military effort alone. Rather, success will require properly resourced and coordinated military, civil and political efforts. The military effort must be at the forefront of eliminating and strategically disrupting the key leaders of those extreme Islamist groups which are determined to destroy the government in Kabul, take back control of the country and return it to a launching pad for their global terror ambitions. Second, it is critical to the elimination of the narcotics trade which funds terror both within and outside Afghanistan. Third, the military campaign is key to the training and development of the Afghan national army—an army which, in the not-too-distant future, will number some 130,000 troops. It is crucial for the future of the country that the Afghan national security forces are able to take care of their own security and enforce their own rule of law.

But the ability and capacity of the local security forces is only one part of that equation. No security force can hope to keep the peace while so many among its population feel marginalised, discriminated against or simply permanently consigned to abject poverty. That is where the civil and political campaigns come into play. In a country so ethnically and tribally diverse as Afghanistan, accommodating the needs of the majority is a challenging task but an absolutely critical one. The evolution of political structures, political relationships and power-sharing arrangements are bound to be slow in a country with Afghanistan’s history. On this front, we need to be patient, flexible and never lose sight of our key objectives. The idea of creating a world best practice Western style democracy overnight in Afghanistan is folly. But creating a functional democracy over time in which people feel empowered and safe is not. It is achievable if we have the collective will.

Our job in Afghanistan is about convincing a strong majority of the population that the economic, social and political model we are offering in partnership with the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is better than that on offer from the Taliban or any other group. That is where the civil effort comes into play: building economic capacity and developing the systems and institutions of good governance. A counter-insurgency campaign is about clearing, holding and building: clearing out and strategically denying the spoilers, holding those gains and building local infrastructure and governance. This infrastructure includes roads, bridges, dams, schools, trade schools and hospitals. On the governance front, it includes a quality public service, a policing system, a justice system and a prisons system all largely free of corruption and coercion.

Of course, we will not achieve these aims without a concerted effort on the regional front. On a daily basis insurgents and their armaments are making their way across the border from their training grounds and safe havens in Pakistan’s frontier provinces. We cannot meet with success while that remains the case. We know that closing the long and porous border is unrealistic so the problem must be fixed at its source. That will take the combined efforts of both the international community and the government of Pakistan. On this front, the newly elected United States President, Barack Obama, has appointed Mr Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to the region. This commitment, and Mr Holbrooke’s well-recognised skill and insight, will be critical to the effort to meet the challenges in Pakistan, as will the efforts of individual countries, including Australia. As members would be aware, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, was in Pakistan only last week talking with the government and military leadership, urging action and reinforcing our offer to assist where we can—and, of course, the minister has just given the House an update on that visit.

There exists a popular belief in Australia that, because the British and Soviets were militarily unsuccessful in Afghanistan, our own efforts are destined to meet with the same fate. In my view, this conclusion ignores a number of key points. Firstly, we are not fighting against the incumbent government in Afghanistan, we are fighting with it. Secondly, this is not a state-on-state conflict, it is a community of states effort against non-state groups. Thirdly, and very importantly, the people of Afghanistan are tired of war. The majority want peace and security and they want to raise their families in relative prosperity just like we do. ‘They are sick of the fighting. They want peace’—those are not my words, they are the words of Afghanistan’s Defence Minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, whom I spoke with at length last week.

Progress in Afghanistan has been all too slow and patchy. The insurgency is tough and resilient and the international community’s efforts have hitherto lacked focus, direction, resources, coordination, collective will and commitment. The question is: will this change? It is changing, but too slowly for Australia’s liking. On the military front, the confusion over the lines of command has been resolved and the United States is about to make an additional troop contribution numbering some 17,000. Importantly, the United States Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, confirmed to me in Krakow last week that the majority of these troops will go to the south, where, of course, they are most needed, and where we are operating.

One of the very pleasing aspects of the latest additional commitment by the United States is the commitment of an Aviation Combat Brigade, which will put an additional 93 helicopters into southern Afghanistan—that is, more Chinooks and Blackhawk transporters and Apache gunships. They will provide much needed helicopter capacity, reducing aeromedical evacuation times—which I have been concerned about for some time—and providing our troops and the troops of other nations with additional options for movement across the southern provinces. We also welcome recent announcements by France, Germany and Italy that they will increase their troop deployments to Afghanistan. It is also clear that lessons have been learnt in relation to civilian casualties. There is a growing realisation amongst the contributing nations that the hearts and minds of the local population will not be won while innocent civilians continue to be victims of poorly targeted air and other military strikes.

A welcome development in Afghanistan is the establishment of the Afghan National Army Trust Fund. This fund will raise money from partner and non-partner nations to finance both the expansion of the Afghan National Army to 130,000 troops and the training and sustainment of those troops. Again, capacity-building in the Afghan National Army is critical to success in Afghanistan, and Australian troops are playing an important role in this training effort.

Foreign aid is on the increase in Afghanistan. Australia has committed $600 million in aid to Afghanistan since 2001. This has been focused on building the capacity of Afghan government institutions, removing landmines and providing food and healthcare assistance. In addition, the Australian Defence Force has completed a large number of development projects in Oruzgan province that have improved the transport, health, education and law enforcement infrastructure in the province. Other countries are doing likewise in other provinces. All Australia’s development activities are coordinated with those of the international community. In particular, the Australian government works closely with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and its head, Mr Kai Eide, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. All this is encouraging as we approach the presidential elections later this year and the legislature elections next year. Of course, the peaceful and successful conduct of those elections will be important watersheds in the development of Afghanistan’s democracy.

Much has been said of late about the prospect of Australia being asked to do more on the military front in Afghanistan. Again, I can inform the House that the Australian government remains committed to the Afghanistan project and will always consider any reasonable request from our closest and most important ally that is likely to assist in improving and accelerating the pace of success in Afghanistan. As I have also said, the government will carefully, thoroughly and responsibly consider any request that may be forthcoming. The critical test will be whether the task is likely to make a difference in a strategic sense. A second test will be that the task assigned is part of a convincing, broader new plan for greater and faster success in Afghanistan. Further, the Australian government will consider any request in the context of military commitments from other partner countries. Of course, the government would also need to be convinced that the risk to the safety of our troops in any additional role is acceptable.

Success in Afghanistan is important to global security and the security of Australians and, of course, all of us want to do all we can to prevent Afghanistan from falling back into the hands of those who have no respect for human life and for the rights of women and children in particular. We do not want the people of Afghanistan to again be forced to live in fear and without hope of being lifted out of poverty. The Australian government remains committed to playing an ongoing role in securing that success. I pay tribute to the men and women of the Australian Defence Force who are carrying the weight of that commitment on the front line. For their commitment and sacrifices the Australian government and the Australian people are eternally grateful.

I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Paterson to speak for 13 minutes.

Leave granted.


Mr FITZGIBBON —I move:

That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent Mr Baldwin speaking for a period not exceeding 13 minutes.

Question agreed to.