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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 13044

Mr ROBERT (Fadden) (10:16): It is my great pleasure to follow my friend and colleague, the member for Eden-Monaro, Mike Kelly, in providing a response to the Prime Minister's statement on Afghanistan. Having just returned from my fourth time into the Middle East and my fourth operations brief in the J3 at Al Minhad, it is a great pleasure to provide comments on this.

We are now in what I call phase 7 of combat operations in Afghanistan. For the sake of history, it is important. The post 9-11 phase 1 of our operations commenced in October 2001, when we sent a combat operations group to defeat the Taliban and government, ending in 2002. Phase 2 was what I call 'the hiatus', from January 2003 to July 2005, where literally we had two uniformed officers in Afghanistan—two men—rotating through the United Nations and land mine clearing operations.

Phase 3 was a Special Operations Task Group phase from August 2005 to June 2006. Australia re-entered the conflict. The government announced that, at the request of the Afghan government, the US and allies, we would deploy a force of approximately 150 personnel for 12 months to undertake security tasks similar to what we did from October 2001 to the end of 2002. Special Operations Task Group, based primarily around the Special Air Service Regiment, was deployed on 24 August 2005 and, of course, in March 2006 an Army CH-47 was deployed.

From July 2006 the task would change again—mission phase 4, the Reconstruction Task Force, the RTF. On 8 May 2006 the 1st Australian RTF for Afghanistan was announced—about 240 personnel. On 9 August the government announced an additional 150 people would be deployed to augment the 1st RTF. It quickly began a whole range of 'backyard blitz' projects to build faith and demonstrate effectiveness. A major redevelopment of the Tarin Kot hospital occurred, as did an all-weather causeway. Trade training schools were put in place, likewise airstrips at Tarin Kot were built. On 10 April 2007 Prime Minister Howard announced further special force troop rotations, and by mid-2007 to the end of 2007, phase 4 with the Reconstruction Task Force numbered about 1,000 personnel. At the end of 2007, of course, the Rudd government came and we entered phase 5. The Reconstruction Task Force mission changed to the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force. On 19 February 2008 the new defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon—that is three defence ministers ago—announced the government would maintain its current commitment but would place a new emphasis on training the Afghan National Army. US President Obama's election victory further reinforced that mission change from an open-ended US commitment of troops to a mission of training Afghan forces and leaving the country when they were ready. On 29 April 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that MRTF1, Mentoring Reconstruction Task Force 1, would increase from 1,100 to 1,550. Incidentally, though, that increase included no extra bayonets—no combat troops on the ground.

Phase 6 of our mission began when the Dutch withdrew after the collapse of their parliament regarding their Afghanistan involvement. On 23 June 2010 the then new defence minister announced that there would be a new structure for the US-led mission in Uruzgan province, which was the Combined Team-Uruzgan approach.

Now we enter phase 7. Not only are we commanding the Combined Team-Uruzgan, but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, our task of mentoring has now changed to advising. Lieutenant-Colonel Trent 'Wobbler' Scott, who is the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment will soon take his men and women out of combat operations in the coming weeks and hand over to the 7th Battalion. 'Wobbler' took in 750 men as part of the 3RAR Task Group which was to mentor the Afghan forces. His job was to ensure that their mentoring was complete and they were ready for independent combat operations. Accordingly, yesterday, 'Wobbler' handed over the third-last forward operating base and by the end of November he will have handed over the last two operating bases.

7RAR will have 300-odd fewer soldiers—about 450 in total—and their job is to advise. They will not be living out in the badlands outside the wire of TK in forward operating bases. Within the next three weeks we will have abandoned every one of our forward operating bases. Only the Afghan forces will man those 30-odd forward patrol bases, forward operating bases, out in the various valleys of Chura, Mirabad, Baluchi and so on in Uruzgan province. Those 450-odd men of the advising force of the 7RAR Task Group will be behind the wire in Tarin Kot, advising the Afghan 4th Brigade on the conduct of independent operations.

It is interesting to reflect that since June 2010 government ministers have made 54 statements, including yesterday, dealing with the time line for withdrawal from Afghanistan. The past and the current Chief of Defence Force have made eight statements. From 2010 to early 2012 all of these statements set out a path to 2014 as the eventual withdrawal date. This changed in February this year, when Minister Smith spoke of a withdrawal date of 2013. He backed this up with his comments on 9 February, 24 May, 31 May, 17 July, 16 August, 9 October, 11 October and yesterday. Of the current Prime Minister's 15 statements on a withdrawal date, they all framed 2014, except for her comments on 23 May, when 2013 was set as the date—backed up yesterday. Likewise, the current CDF, General Hurley, has made four comments that have all set 2014 as the withdrawal date, except for his comments on 28 May, where he used the same time line as the Prime Minister had used five days earlier of 12 to 18 months, representing a drawdown of our forces on May-November 2013.

That drawdown has commenced because, by the end of November, the 7RAR Task Group, whose mission is to advise, will not be engaging in sustained combat operations in partnership with Afghan forces as the 3rd Battalion or the 3RAR Task Group, which leaves in a few weeks time, was. The only force disposition outside the wire effecting a kinetic impact upon our enemy will be the men of the Special Operations Task Group. This change in time line to a withdrawal date of May-November 2013 is now being reflected by that force disposition on the ground.

We will also see, of course, a further up tempo logistics effort. As we wind down now from combat operations and partnering with Afghan forces in the badlands and move towards an advisory role for independent operations, we will ramp up our logistics effort as we seek to bring home something like $3 billion worth of equipment from a country that is literally landlocked. This will require extensive movements by air and extensive movements by land, which will of course necessitate the opening of the Pakistan-Afghan border to effect that quickly. This will be one of the greatest logistics exercises we have done since Vietnam or, indeed, since World War II. We are entering the time now of the 'loggies'.

The Special Operations Task Group, made up of men and women of the SAS regiment and the 2nd Commando Regiment, with augmentation from the 1st Commando Regiment, will be the prime force disposition to engage kinetically with the insurgent forces we face, to disrupt and dismantle their enemy command, control, communications and IED networks. This number will generally reduce over the non-fighting season but will increase again across the fighting season. On a separate note, 60 to 70 RAAF Air Defence Guards are being sent to Tarin Kot as we speak to bolster the security of Tarin Kot and replace the existing Slovak forces that have been providing this capability. The government has indicated that, from the withdrawal of our combat troops in 2013, there will be a fourth disposition that will remain, of which it enjoys the full support of the opposition. An SOTG element will establish or remain until 2014 and depend upon the command structures being envisaged under NATO has the propensity for longer engagement.

The government has agreed to assist the Brits in the Afghan officer training institution that the Brits call 'Sandhurst in the Sand'—which I think is a misnomer: it should be 'Duntroon in the Desert'—which we think is a fabulous idea in terms of continually supporting and training their officers.

I would encourage the government to continue to keep the command of the Afghan National Army Artillery School in Kabul under Australian command. We currently have something like 200 embedded officers at US command levels at either the ISAF joint command level or the ISAF level. The coalition's view is that a range of those embedded officers should continue until such time as those US headquarters draw down, and post 2014, if there is a NATO headquarter replacement, we should continue to engage strongly in that headquarters as well as keep a current two-star level J5 appointment, which is a Plans appointments, where we currently have a two-star as the J5 on the ISAF IJC. For those reading this, if you are not up on your military acronyms, that is the Head of Plans for the three-star corps level headquarters, which is actually running the operation, which is the ISAF Joint Command Headquarters.

I would also encourage the government to maintain our air liaison officers for the US in Qatar. We have a ship in the frigate on its 29th rotation. We have had that ship there since 1991. I would encourage the government to maintain that ship as part of the counterpiracy work that is being done there, working in concert with our allied forces. Of course, we have logistics and headquarters staff in Dubai at our forward mounting base at Al Minhad. Again, I would say to the government that it is our strong contention that we do not—now or ever in the foreseeable future—abandon our forward mounting base in Dubai, Al Minhad.

We need an administrative footprint on the ground from which to sustain and maintain our operations in Afghanistan and the littoral region. Our relationship with the government of the UAE, and especially with Dubai, is exceptional. It is a strong working relationship. We exist on that base in concert with other nations as part of the coalition of the willing, and the government should do everything that it can to ensure that we retain that footprint as our forward mounting base.

As always, the government enjoys a very strong bipartisan support from the coalition—a support we have been very strongly committed to ever since the government changed in 2007. The government can expect a very strong bipartisan commitment from the coalition. I thank the government for its continual support. The point I have made continually as the senior shadow for Defence in the House of Representatives is that bipartisanship is not a blank cheque. It requires strong engagement by the government, high levels of trust, and high levels of access—all of which the government has provided—signified by the joint visit to the Middle East last week by the Minister for Defence Personnel and me, where all of the briefings were joint, including the current ops brief at a classified level, and I thank the government for that.