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Thursday, 7 February 2013
Page: 377


Mr STEPHEN SMITH (PerthMinister for Defence and Deputy Leader of the House) (09:01): by leave—

Introduction

The government is committed to providing regular reports and updates on Afghanistan, including to the parliament. I last reported to the parliament on 31 October 2012, following my visit to Afghanistan and my attendance at the NATO/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Defence ministers meeting in Brussels on 9 and 10 October. Prior to this, I had updated parliament on Afghanistan on four other occasions in 2012. This is my first report to parliament for 2013.

ADF battle fatalities and casualties in Afghanistan

Australia has suffered 39 fatalities in Afghanistan, with seven fatalities during 2012. The last fatality was Corporal Scott Smith on 21 October 2012. Overall, Australia has suffered 249 wounded in Afghanistan since 2001, with 33 wounded in 2012. Three ADF personnel have been wounded in 2013.

Update on operations and t ransition

There have been a number of significant developments since my last update to parliament on 31 October last year.

Afghan wide transition

Across Afghanistan, progress on the transition to Afghan-led security responsibility continues. On 31 December 2012, President Karzai announced the fourth tranche of districts and provinces to undergo transition. This will see Afghan security forces take lead responsibility for security for 87 per cent of the Afghan population and for 23 of the 34 Afghan provinces.

During President Karzai's visit to Washington in early January this year, President Obama welcomed President Karzai's desire to bring forward from mid-2013 to the northern spring the Chicago Summit milestone when the ANSF assume the operational lead across all of Afghanistan and ISAF moves into an adviser-support role. This milestone will see the announcement of the fifth and final tranche of transition, which would commence implementation in the northern summer, subject to final Afghan and NATO/ISAF approval.

In his annual report for 2012, published on 31 January this year, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen made a number of important observations about the continuing development of the capability and capacity of the Afghan security forces. Some are as follows:

Key for transition in Afghanistan is whether security is maintained once the transfer of responsibility from ISAF to Afghan forces is implemented - put simply, whether Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are able to do the job. Developments over the past year show they can, as areas included in the first two tranches of transition continue to be the most secure in Afghanistan and in some of those areas, security has improved.

To date, Afghan security forces lead 84 per cent of partnered operations. Overall, they have increased their ability to plan, carry out, and sustain large-scale operations. For example, a series of six large-scale operations were carried out from September to November 2012, involving some 11,000 Afghan security personnel from the Army, border police and intelligence services. And since October 2011, Afghan special forces have conducted more than 4,000 operations, leading 61 per cent of them.

Throughout 2012, the combined efforts of the Afghan National Security Forces and ISAF continued to push insurgents further away from population centres, therefore increasingly isolating them. Eighty per cent of enemy-initiated attacks occur where only 20 per cent of the population lives and nearly 50 per cent of all the attacks country-wide occur in just 17 districts, which only account for 5 per cent of the total Afghan population.

The general levels of violence throughout the country have dropped over the past two years. While spectacular attacks have grabbed headlines, in the first eight months of 2012, insurgent violence levels country-wide were effectively down by 7 per cent compared to the same period in 2011, and the 2011 figures were down by 9 per cent compared to 2010.

As transition proceeds, Afghanistan will remain difficult and dangerous. There will be challenges and setbacks ahead. The Taliban will target Afghan security forces as they take responsibility for the security of their country. The IED roadside bomb threat will continue and the Taliban will continue to focus on high profile propaganda motivated attacks, together with claiming responsibility for any insider attacks on ISAF forces.

I acknowledge the hard work, commitment and achievements of the Commander of ISAF forces, General John Allen. General Allen has been a steadfast ally and supporter of Australian forces in Afghanistan. Australia looks forward to continuing our close working relationship with him in his proposed new role as Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Australia now looks forward to working closely with General Joseph Dunford as the new Commander of ISAF when he assumes command shortly.

Reconciliation

Australia supports an Afghan-led reconciliation process, recognising that conflict in Afghanistan will not be ended by military force alone. Australia welcomes the recent efforts of Afghanistan and Pakistan to work together to progress reconciliation. In particular, I welcome the recent trilateral meeting held in the United Kingdom earlier this week between Afghanistan President Karzai, Pakistan President Zardari and British Prime Minister Cameron to discuss the Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process. The Chair of the Afghan High Peace Council, Chair Rabbani, also attended the meeting. All three leaders committed to take all necessary measures to achieve a peace settlement over the next six months. They affirmed their support for opening an office in Doha for the purpose of negotiations between the Taliban and the High Peace Council of Afghanistan as part of an Afghan-led peace process. These talks will necessarily be long, complex and inevitably subject to setbacks, but efforts at such talks must continue.

Uruzgan

In October last year, I advised that the ADF had officially assumed the leadership of Combined Team-Uruzgan (CT-U) and responsibility for ISAF operations in Uruzgan Province. CT-U was established following the withdrawal of the Dutch in August 2010 under United States command and consisting of Australian, Singaporean, Slovakian and US personnel. The United States had the leadership of CT-U from August 2010 to October 2012.Leadership of the CT-U is part of the transition process through which security responsibility will be transferred from ISAF to the ANSF and will help ensure that transition in Uruzgan is effected in a seamless way. Australia has been working on transition with our CT-U partners—the United States, Singapore and Slovakia. The ADF assumed responsibility from former CT-U member Slovakia for the security at Multinational Base Tarin Kot (MNB-TK) in October last year.

I thank Slovakia for their commitment and for their partnership, as I do Singapore and the United States for their commitment and cooperation with Australia in Uruzgan.

In November last year, I advised that all four infantry kandaks of the Afghan National Army (ANA) 4th Brigade are now operating independently without advisers in Uruzgan province. The commencement of independent operations by the 4th Brigade infantry kandaks is a significant step in the process of transition to Afghan-led security responsibility in Uruzgan and confirms that transition is on track in Uruzgan.

In July 2012, transition to an Afghan security lead in Uruzgan for the four infantry kandaks and the two combat support kandaks of the 4th Brigade of the 205 'Hero' Corps of the Afghan National Army commenced. In early October 2012, the 3rd infantry kandak of the 4th Brigade commenced operations independently without advisers. The 1st and 6th infantry kandaks commenced independent operations early in November and the final 2nd infantry kandak commenced independent operations on 15 November last year.

With the commencement of independent operations by the four infantry kandaks, the ADF transferred control of joint forward operating bases and patrol bases in Uruzgan province to the 4th Brigade. Australian troops no longer operate from forward operating bases or patrol bases in Uruzgan and have consolidated their presence at the Multinational Base Tarin Kot.

The ADF task group has shifted emphasis from partnering and mentoring at kandak level to advising at headquarters 4th Brigade level and at the Afghan Operational Coordination Centre-Provincial in Uruzgan. Independent operations for the 4th Brigade infantry kandaks do not mean the end of a role for the ADF in Uruzgan. The ADF will continue to advise the two combat support and combat service support or logistic kandaks of the 4th Brigade. The ADF task group will remain combat ready to assist Afghan forces should the need arise and the Special Operations Task Group continues to conduct partnered combat operations to disrupt the insurgency.

Only weeks after the end of joint patrols, the 4th Brigade launched a major three-week operation in Uruzgan targeting insurgents and capturing weapons caches. This operation was the final 205 Corp operation designed to prepare Afghan security forces to operate independently before the 2012 winter. Based on the most recent advice and assessment, Uruzgan is now expected to fully transition to Afghan-led security responsibility by the end of this year.

Redeployment

As transition proceeds, there will be changes in the composition of the ADF commitment in Afghanistan. Over the past few years, Australia has had approximately 1,550 personnel in Afghanistan. With the shift in focus from training and mentoring to advising and supporting, the 680-strong 3RAR Task Group was replaced by the 330-strong 7RAR Task Group in November last year.

Similarly, with the commencement of independent operations by the infantry kandaks of the ANA 4th Brigade, the 16 ASLAV vehicles which were used to provide firepower and fire support to patrols conducted by ADF personnel are no longer required. These vehicles are now in the process of being returned to Australia.

The overall number of ADF personnel will not substantially decrease until towards the end of this year as additional personnel are deployed temporarily to support the transition and redeployment effort. For example, in October last year, 65 ADF personnel deployed to Uruzgan to assume responsibility for security at the Multinational Base Tarin Kot following the departure of the Slovak Force Protection Platoon which had provided security at Tarin Kot since the formation of Combined Team-Uruzgan in August 2010.

An initial ADF transition redeployment planning team of around 20 personnel deployed to the Middle East last year to assist with planning for the redeployment of ADF troops and equipment and the disposal of ADF infrastructure. Additional redeployment personnel were deployed in December 2012 to support the task, with the bulk of the redeployment personnel scheduled to be deployed in March and June this year.

Australia's p ost-2014 mission

Australia is committed to supporting Afghanistan through to transition in December 2014 and beyond. Australia demonstrated this commitment to the people of Afghanistan and the international community at the Chicago Summit, with the signing of the Comprehensive Long-Term Partnership between Australia and Afghanistan. The Comprehensive Long-Term Partnership demonstrates that Australia is committed to supporting Afghanistan beyond 2014 through cooperation in the areas of security, trade and development, and building the capacity of Afghanistan's national institutions.

Australia is not alone in its long-term commitment to Afghanistan. The United States has signed a long-term strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. A number of our ISAF partners, including the United Kingdom, France and Italy, as well as India and NATO itself, have also signed similar agreements.

Beyond our training mission in Uruzgan and the completion of nationwide transition by the end of 2014, Australia will maintain an ADF presence in Afghanistan, in recognition that Australia has a vital national interest in supporting Afghanistan's stability and security after transition.

The ADF will continue to support the development of the Afghan National Security Forces through the provision of training and advisory support, including at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Kabul, with our British and New Zealand colleagues. We will also consider a special forces contribution under an appropriate mandate.

As well, Australia will contribute US$100 million annually for three years from 2015 as part of international efforts to sustain and support the Afghan National Security Forces beyond transition. Our commitment to Afghan National Security Forces funding reflects our enduring interest in Afghanistan's long-term security and stability. These commitments send a strong signal to the people of Afghanistan, the Taliban and the region that the international community will not walk away from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

Support to v eterans

The care of wounded, injured and ill veterans is a high priority for the government and the Australian community. Veteran care will become an increasingly important focus of our time in Afghanistan. As the Prime Minister said in her 31 October statement to the House on Afghanistan:

The next decade will see more young Australian combat veterans live in our community than since the 1970s.

At the time the Prime Minister said that this is:

… demanding changes in the way the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs care for service personnel and veterans.

I am pleased to say that these changes are being made. On Tuesday this week, the Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Science and Personnel and I attended the signing by the Department of Defence and Department of Veterans' Affairs of a memorandum of understanding for the cooperative delivery of care and support to eligible persons.

The MOU is aimed at better coordinating the delivery of care and support services between Defence and Veterans' Affairs. The MOU sets out the key principles which will govern the cooperative delivery of care and support and establishes governance arrangements designed to ensure that these support arrangements remain effective in an ongoing way.

The MOU also introduces the concept of the 'Support Continuum', the structure of systems that extends across both Defence and Veterans' Affairs to deliver the seamless care and support our service men and women, and their dependants, deserve. Put simply, it is to stop our wounded, injured and ill veterans from falling between the cracks in the system.

All ADF personnel will benefit from stronger ties between Defence and Veterans' Affairs, with services and support tailored to better meet the needs of members at any point during or after their ADF career.

The new MOU builds on the Support for Wounded, Injured or Ill Program, also designed to make sure that veterans do not fall through gaps between Defence and Veterans' Affairs. As well, the Simpson Assistance Program provides services to support the needs of severely wounded, injured or ill individuals and their families.

The Chief of Army's Wounded, Injured or Ill Digger Forum provides an important opportunity for Defence and Veterans' Affairs to understand the needs and requirements of wounded veterans and their families.

Private organisations have an important role to play as well. Everyone in the House and in the community will be familiar with the great work of the RSL and Legacy, which have been supporting veterans for about a century.

New organisations such as Soldier On are now also playing a role. Soldier On is a private foundation set up by two young former soldiers to provide support to Australian service men and women who have suffered either physical or psychological wounds in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In October last year I was pleased to attend the announcement of Corporal Mark Donaldson VC as the Patron-in-Chief of Soldier On.

The SAS Trust, the Commando Welfare Trust, and the Australian Defence Force Assistance Trust are helping to provide for the families and children of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. There is a particular focus here on the education of the children of our fallen.

Mental h ealth and p ost t raumatic stress d isorder

Defence continues to enhance its comprehensive approach to screening, assessment and treatment of mental health concerns, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ADF members dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder have access to the full range of mental health services and rehabilitation services.

Significant improvements have been made to the provision of mental health care across the ADF as part of a more than $90 million investment into Defence and DVA by government. These include establishing eight regional mental health teams supporting the delivery of mental health care. The ADF is also working hard with organisations like Soldier On to destigmatise mental health issues.

One of the most important factors in treating mental disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder is to seek support and treatment as soon as possible. Early identification of those at risk of developing mental health issues is a pathway to better health outcomes.

These arrangements result in a high return to work rate for rehabilitated members and provide good support for veterans. But it is essential that we continue to take steps to make the support system even better. Seeking assistance for mental health concerns was the theme of the inaugural Australian Defence Force Mental Health Day held on 10 October 2012.

The mental health and wellbeing of the men and women in uniform and our veterans will continue to be an essential government and community focus in the aftermath of our contribution in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Australia must continue to be clear-sighted about our objective in Afghanistan. Our objective is to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

Australian forces will not be in Afghanistan forever. Transition to Afghan-led security responsibility in Uruzgan has commenced and is on track to be finalised by the end of this year.

As transition proceeds, our role will evolve in close consultation with our ISAF, NATO and Afghan partners and in accordance with the implementation of the Lisbon and Chicago summit strategies.

As transition proceeds, Afghanistan will remain difficult and dangerous. Transition will not be a perfect process. The Taliban will target Afghan security forces as those forces take responsibility for the security of their country. The IED threat will continue and the Taliban will continue to focus on high-profile propaganda motivated attacks and claiming responsibility for any insider attacks on ISAF forces.

Australia will continue to remain firm in our support to Afghan security forces and firm in our commitment to the transition strategy that Australia and the international community, acting under a United Nations mandate, have agreed to implement.

I thank the House, and I present the following document: Afghanistan transition—Ministerial statement, 7 February 2013. I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Fadden to speak for 17 minutes.

Leave granted.

Mr STEPHEN SMITH: I move:

That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent the honourable member for Fadden speaking for a period not exceeding 17 minutes.

Question agreed to.