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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 13047

Mr HUNT (Flinders) (10:28): I want to begin this reflection on the Australian contribution to the mission in Afghanistan in a different place. I want to begin in East Timor on 29 August of this year. Along with Senator David Bushby, I was in East Timor as part of the parliamentary engagement with Australia's military forces. We were posted as part of the Australian mission for a period of days. On 29 August, we were at the forward operating training facility where Australian forces, along with New Zealand and American forces, were training the East Timorese military. They were teaching young Timorese soldiers critical physical skills in terms of engineering, road works, maintenance works, machinery works. They were also teaching young Timorese soldiers and the officer corps about broader soldiering skills relating to peacekeeping, interaction with civilian communities, the laws of war. During the course of that morning, a Kiwi officer came in and gave his commiserations. He was the first to pass on the message that three Australian soldiers had been killed due to an insider attack in Afghanistan. The deaths of Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Private Robert Poate and Sapper James Martin were sadly added to on the same day when subsequent news came through of the deaths of Private Nathanael Galagher and Lance Corporal Mervyn McDonald, who were killed in a helicopter crash.

That day turned out to be a very bleak day for Australia, for the Australian forces and, most particularly, of course, for the friends and family of these five magnificent young Australian soldiers. When this news came through, the room I was in contained a number of Australian enlisted soldiers and officer corps members. Many of them had served in Afghanistan. One was an extraordinary warrant officer who had recently been cross-posted back from forward operations in Afghanistan to East Timor. This gentleman was not only one of the most impressive Australian soldiers I have ever met but one of the most impressive Australians I have ever met. He had served in many of the most difficult front-line operations in Afghanistan. We did not know the names of those who were lost at that time, but, because they had been doing exactly what he had been doing in Afghanistan, he knew that it was highly likely that at least one, if not all of the three, would have been known to him.

This warrant officer, who was described by a senior officer as one of the 'princes' of the Army, looked at Senator Bushby and me, and said: 'Gentlemen, we know the risks of what we do. We understand the dangers, but we believe in the mission intensely, passionately and deeply and it is our choice to do these things. Please take back the message to the Australian parliament that this terrible loss should not be the basis for retreat.' At this moment, I am in small measure giving honour to his words. He was speaking on behalf of the Australian enlisted soldiers not just in East Timor but also in Afghanistan. It was a profoundly important moment, because, at that moment of tragedy, one of those who had been at the absolute front line still expressed his deep, profound belief in the mission. I have no doubt that that warrant officer was speaking on behalf of the overwhelming majority—I presume virtually all—of the Australian soldiers posted abroad at this moment. He had a sense of deep, personal commitment to the mission on the basis of having been part of the mission, having seen what is being achieved and understanding the deep strategic context.

I now want to turn to a second experience. That was five years ago, on 12 October 2007, in the lead-up to the election. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, I had the sad but extremely profound honour of representing the Australian government at the fifth anniversary of the Bali tragedy. I was in Bali with the Australian families. Five years on, the grief of those families—and my understanding is that 202 people died, including 88 Australians, as a consequence of the first Bali bombing—was still raw, their emotion was still high and their resolution to attempt, to the limits of human endeavour, to ensure that the events of Bali were never repeated remained firm. The commitment I made and the commitment the Australian government made—and it did not, and I mean this in the best sense, matter whether it was a Liberal or Labor government; the commitment was made on behalf of both sides—was to continue the push to ensure, to the extent of our ability, that Australian citizens are safe no matter where they are.

That brings me to the three points I want to make about the Afghanistan mission. I want to speak at the strategic level, I want to speak about the progress which has been made and then I want to speak about the future. I have referred to my recollections from five years ago of the event I attended marking the Bali bombings 10 years ago. We also recently marked the 11th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York. The strategic context of these events is a push by al-Qaeda and its affiliates and those within the Wahhabist movement for an Islamic caliphate. They are deeply unrepresentative of the great Islamic faith around the world. Indeed, many would argue that they are antipathetic to the broader movement—even heretical. It is offensive for anyone to presume that theirs is a representative view. Nevertheless, from that sliver, the push is for a caliphate. That means the political goal is to take, in the medium term, one of the great Islamic states—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan or Indonesia. The mechanism for doing that is to destabilise and to assume control of part or all of Afghanistan. That was the status of the Taliban and its relationship with al-Qaeda prior to 11 September 2001 and subsequent coalition operations.

Since that time, the strategic underpinning of al-Qaeda has been progressively undermined. It has been eroded both through public activities and through the close quarters work undertaken in Afghanistan. It is has come at a terrible price to the coalition as a whole and to Australia in particular. The 39 Australian soldiers who have lost their lives, five of whom I have referred to in particular today, have paid the ultimate price and their families are the true victims of this defence of Australia. But, 10 years ago, who would have imagined that the US homeland would have remained effectively free of any further attacks? In the context of September 11, you would have thought that the United States was almost certain, over the following 10 years, to have suffered other major terrorist attacks or a dirty bomb. The same could have been presumed for Australia. We did see Madrid and London. They were early additional activities by al-Qaeda and they were indicators of a much grander design.

But the constant activity in Afghanistan, in Iraq and through homeland security in Australia, the United States and across the Western world—as well as activities in states such as Indonesia, where there has been tremendous co-operation—has largely undermined the capacity of al-Qaeda for forward operations. It is not gone; the threat remains. But the threat is significantly less than it was and it is certainly dramatically less than it might have been had we not engaged in these activities. That is the grand strategic context.

The human side of this, which is the progress, is that in Afghanistan today what we see, to quote the Prime Minister, is that 'all of the provincial capitals and 75 per cent of the country's population are in areas now where the Afghan National Security Forces lead on security'. So they lead on more than 80 per cent of security operations and make up more than three-quarters of all uniformed personnel in the country. That transition is what we are engaged in now. That is the security success, and the security success has led to human success.

In Uruzgan province, where the Australians have primary responsibility, we have seen a six-fold increase in the number of schools operating—again, to use the Prime Minister's facts—and a tripling in the number of active health facilities. That is real. Health and education and security are dramatically better. There will be difficult days in Afghanistan once the coalition draws down and there will be a continuing role over many years, but our primary security operation will pass over the next 18 months and we will have small support operation but we will have effectively drawn down. That is the right thing to do. But it is this process of transitioning the whole of the country and then knowing it will be an imperfect time. That then takes me to the forward side of things.

Over the coming five years, it will be the progressive draw down. Firstly, in the next 18 months, will be the maintenance of backup in terms of a special operations provision to assist with particular crises. No group of Australians has done more on the front line than our special operations forces, who have literally been the best of Australia that we could hope to present. Then we will have the development role of encouraging and supporting the Afghan National Army and the police force. There will be internal difficulties, but those difficulties are part of the process of giving them the best chance of being the most independent and the most stable and secure that they can be. It will be a long and imperfect process over 20 and 30 years. But, going forwards, that is the only way that the country can aspire to a degree of internal stability, which will allow the health, the education and the personal opportunities resulting from the dramatic and radical transformation of much of the country, which was under the thrall of almost medieval leadership in the Taliban, into a modern state which will be going through a long period of development.

We look to the way in which Indonesia has been a beacon to the world in managing democracy and a range of religions but in a situation where it is, essentially, a successful Islamic state. I praise Indonesia for their cooperation. I set that out as a model in terms of the long-term direction for Afghanistan. Above all else, I thank our soldiers for the extraordinary commitment that they and their families have made and I extend my bipartisan support to the mission and those views as to the long term.