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Tuesday, 23 February 2010
Page: 800

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (12:35 PM) —by leave—I thank Senator Faulkner for so quickly acquainting the Senate with the tragic circumstances that have again unfolded with a heavy loss of civilian life in a bombing raid in Afghanistan. The whole world will shudder at the news that this was not Taliban, it was civilians in a convoy, and the death toll does include four women and a child. The question has to immediately arise: how could this happen? It is not as if it is new. In the operation in neighbouring Helmand province there have been two bombing raids that have led a large loss of civilian life in the last fortnight, and that comes after similar losses of civilian life going into the many thousands and rapidly growing. Last year, after what is now almost a decade of operations, the loss of civilian life in Afghanistan was the highest by a long shot, by many thousands, in this whole conflict—and it is rapidly mounting. The Senate will know that I have had a great deal of criticism of the Karzai government, but the Afghan government has criticised and condemned, again, this destruction of the lives of innocent civilians.

The question is: how is it that the ISAF, which are led by the United States, can repeatedly make such horrendous mistakes causing such a loss of civilian life in an age of such technological wizardry? The answer surely is that the human factor is missing. The answer surely is that the relationship between the Afghani people and the ISAF is not satisfactory. It is a long way short of that and the hand on the trigger is far too easy in bombing raids which lead to the loss of civilian life. On this occasion, Senator Faulkner has explained it was a convoy. How on earth could information that said ‘this is Taliban, bomb them’ not be checked and not be corroborated before the disastrous consequences that we see again unfold?

I reiterate that the Greens believe the Australian defence forces should be withdrawn from Afghanistan and our effort should concentrate on civil assistance to that nation because of the intractable nature of the war that is going on in Afghanistan at the moment. We are seeing a surge in the number of troops coming, under President Obama, into the fray and to the big operation in the neighbouring Helmand province.

We are also seeing the collapse of the Dutch government over the very question of how rapidly the Dutch troops, who are in a very close relationship with the Australian troops, will be withdrawn. The question is not whether they will be withdrawn but how rapidly they should be withdrawn. The death toll of the troops and the shambles in Afghanistan have caused upheaval and massive public debate in Holland.

Because both the big political parties have determined there will not be a full-ranging parliamentary debate on this issue—that vote was taken just of fortnight ago—we do not have a similar debate in this parliament and we are unlikely to get it. But it behoves us to do so. This is a huge issue not just of international importance but of enormous significance to our Australian defence forces and to our relationship with the region.

There is no doubt that the Afghani people are going through enormous suffering and have been for many decades. Ultimately, it is up to them to determine their own future and their own affairs. This disaster that came across this group of civilians in convoy on Sunday is another very sorry chapter in mismanagement of the occupation of Afghanistan by the ISAF.

I have no doubt that General McChrystal wants to see success in the suppression of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of American troops from this theatre of death and destruction. But the management of the use of lethal force in an age of massive technology has to be much better than we have seen, repeatedly now, through the killing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, which not only leaves the world horrified but totally undermines the safety, security and wellbeing of our own troops in that country. The two things cannot be divorced.

I would be interested to hear from Senator Faulkner or from this government what representations are being made to General McChrystal or President Obama and his administration to have the death of innocent civilians in Afghanistan much reduced if not stopped. The repeated failure to stop these bombing raids, which kill innocent Afghanis and therefore increase the insecurity of our own defence forces, must be addressed. There seems to be a failure, a blind spot and an inability of the US administration, the ISAF generally and indeed our own government to tackle the root cause of this very destructive and, one would think, avoidable repeated killing of civilians in Afghanistan in these circumstances.