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Evans, Sen Chris (Leader of the Government in the Senate)
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Monday, 25 October 2010
Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Government in the Senate) (12:36 PM) —by leave—I move:
That the speaking times in relation to the ministerial statement relating to Afghanistan be as follows:
(a) that a senator speaking to the motion shall not speak for more than 20 minutes; and
(b) no time limit apply to the conclusion of the debate on the motion.
Question agreed to.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —On behalf of the Prime Minister (Ms Gillard), I table a statement on Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan, and seek leave to incorporate the statement in Hansard.
Senator CHRIS EVANS —I move:
That the Senate take note of the statement.
The statement read as follows
A national government has no more important task than defending the nation, its people and their interests. That is why we take so seriously any decision to go to war. The war in Afghanistan is no different. Today I will answer five questions Australians are asking about the war:
- why Australia is involved in Afghanistan;
- what the international community is seeking to achieve and how;
- what Australia’s contribution is to this international effort - our mission;
- what progress is being made; and
- what the future is of our commitment in Afghanistan.
Of course, while our troops remain in the field, I must be responsible in how much I say. But in answering those questions, I want to be as frank as I can be with the Australian people. I want to paint a very honest picture of the difficulties and challenges facing our mission in Afghanistan. The new international strategy and the surge in international troops responded to a deterioriating security situation. This means more fighting; more violence. It risks more casualties. There will be many hard days ahead.
1. Why Australia is Involved in Afghanistan
Australia has two vital national interests in Afghanistan. One, to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists, a place where attacks on us and our allies begin. Two, to stand firmly by our alliance commitment to the United States, formally invoked following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
Last month we marked the ninth anniversary ofaAl-Qaeda’s September 11 attacks. Before September 11 al-Qaeda had a safe haven in Afghanistan under the Taliban government, a safe haven where they could recruit, indoctrinate, train, plan, finance and conspire to kill. On September 11, al-Qaeda murdered more than 3,000 people—thousands of Americans, citizens of our ally the United States, people from many other countries and 10 Australians, 10 of our own, never forgotten. And millions of people were terrified.
So we went to Afghanistan to make sure it would never again be a safe haven for al-Qaeda. We went with our friends and allies, as part of the international community. We went with the support of the United Nations. The war has put pressure on al-Qaeda’s core leadership—killed some, captured others, forced many into hiding and forced them all on the defensive. Al-Qaeda has been dealt a severe blow.
But al-Qaeda remains a resilient and persistent network. Our successes against it in Afghanistan are only part of our effort against terrorism. We are working to counter the rise of affiliated groups in new areas such as Somalia and Yemen, and violent extremism and terrorist groups in Pakistan. That is why we support efforts in those countries, with those governments, to target terrorist groups there as well.
The terror did not end on September 11. Since 2001, some 100 Australians have been killed in extremists’ attacks overseas. Among them: 88 Australians were killed in the Bali bombing in 2002 and four Australians were killed in the second Bali bombing in 2005. Our embassy has been bombed in Jakarta. In each of these cases, the terrorist groups involved had links to Afghanistan. If the insurgency in Afghanistan were to succeed, if the international community were to withdraw, then Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for terrorists. Al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit, indoctrinate, train, plan, finance and conspire to kill would be far greater than it is today. And the propaganda victory for terrorists worldwide would be enormous. So the goal of Australia and the international community is clear: to deny terrorist networks a safe haven in Afghanistan.
2. What the international community is seeking to achieve: the new international strategy
The international community has been in Afghanistan a long time—nine years. The Australian people are entitled to know what we are trying to achieve and when our troops can come home. Removing the Taliban government in 2001 and pursuing al-Qaeda in the years since has made a crucial difference in preventing terrorist attacks. From 2001 to mid-2006, US and Coalition forces and Afghan troops fought relatively low levels of insurgent violence. The international force in Afghanistan was focussed on a stabilisation mission. And there were no Australian units deployed in Afghanistan between December 2002 and September 2005. Through this period, few would now argue, US and international attention turned heavily to Iraq.
Australia’s substantial military involvement in Afghanistan resumed when the Special Forces Task Force was redeployed there for twelve months from September 2005 in support of international efforts to target key insurgents. Violence increased further in mid-2006, particularly in the east and the south. Due to significant intimidation and the absence of effective governance in many rural areas, some Afghans turned to the Taliban at this time.
The mission moved to a counter-insurgency focus. Australia’s contribution increased from October 2008 on as we took a growing role in training and mentoring in the southern Afghanistan province of Uruzgan. However the international counter-insurgency mission was not adequately resourced until 2009. In December 2009 President Obama announced a revised strategy for Afghanistan and a surge of 30 000 US troops. NATO has contributed more. So has Australia. I believe we now have the right strategy, an experienced commander in General Petraeus, and the resources needed to deliver the strategy. The overarching goal of the new strategy is to enable transition. That is, to prepare the government of Afghanistan to take lead responsibility for its own security.
But our vital national interests, in preventing Afghanistan being a safe haven for terrorists who attack us and in supporting our ally, do not end with transition. Our aim is that the new international strategy sees a functioning Afghan state become able to assume responsibility for preventing the country from being a safe haven for terrorists. Australia’s key role in that mission, training and mentoring the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan, is expected to take 2 to 4 years. And President Karzai has said the Afghan Government expects the transition process to be complete by the end of 2014.
But let me be clear—this refers to the Afghan government taking lead responsibility for security. The international community will remain engaged in Afghanistan beyond 2014. And Australia will remain engaged. There will still be a need for Australians in a supporting role. There will still be a role for training and other defence cooperation. The civilian-led aid and development effort will continue. And we will continue to promote Afghan-led re-integration of former insurgents who are willing to lay down their arms, turn their backs on terrorism and accept the Afghan constitution. We expect this support, training and development task to continue in some form through this decade at least.
Our mission in Afghanistan is not nation building. That is the task of the Afghan government and people. With international aid and development, we will continue to help were we can, but entrenching a functioning democratic Afghan state could be the work of a generation of Afghan people.
The new international strategy is comprehensive.
It is focussed on:
- Protecting the civilian population—conducting operations together with the Afghan National Security Forces to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency.
- Training, mentoring and equipping the Afghan National Security Forces - to enable them to assume a lead role in providing security.
- And facilitating improvements in governance and socio-economic development - working with the Afghan authorities and the United Nations to strengthen institutions and deliver basic services.
The new strategy promotes efforts towards political reconciliation. It also includes a greater focus on partnership with Pakistan to address violent extremism in the border regions that threatens both Pakistan and Afghanistan. And the new international strategy is well resourced.
The international strategy is implemented by a combined civilian and military effort under the International Security Assistance Force. This involves 47 troop-contributing nations, working alongside a host of international bodies and aid agencies, with and at the invitation of the Afghan government, and under a United Nations Security Council mandate—a mandate renewed unanimously just this month.
This coalition includes many longstanding friends and allies of Australia, including the United States and New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and France. Singapore and Korea, among other Asian countries, contribute. And several Muslim countries are involved, including Turkey, Jordan and Malaysia.
At the Asia-Europe meeting, I spent some time with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib. I was particularly struck by what he said was one of Malaysia’s most important contributions to Afghanistan: doctors—doctors who are Islamic women. They are able to work with Afghan women as few foreign medical professionals can.
We are part of a truly international effort in Afghanistan. To ensure the new international strategy can be delivered, last December the United States committed to a military and civilian surge in Afghanistan. The elements of this surge are now reaching full-strength. Once fully deployed, this will take coalition force numbers to roughly 140,000. US forces on the ground have tripled since early 2009. The total force now has the resources required to deliver a comprehensive international strategy focussed on counter-insurgency and designed to deliver transition.
3. Australia’s Contribution to the International Effort
Australia’s involvement makes a real difference in Afghanistan. The government supports the new international strategy and we have supported the surge. Australia has increased our troop contribution to Afghanistan by around 40 per cent in the past 18 months. We now have around 1,550 military personnel deployed in Afghanistan. Our military force is complemented by around 50 Australian civilians.
Earlier this year we took over leadership of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Uruzgan to spearhead our civilian efforts, and increased our civilian commitment to Afghanistan by 50 per cent. In fact since 2001 we have committed over $740 million in development assistance to Afghanistan.
The main focus of the Australian effort in Afghanistan is directed towards Uruzgan province. It is a difficult job. Uruzgan province lies in southern Afghanistan. Around 500,000 people live there—roughly the population of Tasmania, across an area about one third the size of that state. Nearly three-quarters of the land is dry and mountainous. Most of the people live in a few major valleys alongside the rivers. Subsistence agriculture and poppy farming are the main ways to earn a living. Water is a precious and highly contested resource and overall economic prospects are poor. School attendance is low, and illiteracy is high. In fact, the female literacy rate in Uruzgan is less than one per cent. For men it is only 10 per cent.
In Uruzgan, Australia’s soldiers and civilians are part of Combined Team-Uruzgan. Combined Team-Uruzgan is a new structure that brings the military, policing, political and development elements of our assistance under a single command. The team is commanded by a senior United States military officer, Colonel Creighton, and the senior civilian official is an Australian diplomat, Mr Bernard Philip. I met them both during my visit. We are lucky to have them.
The team is built around an Australian-US partnership, with contributions from a number of countries including New Zealand, Singapore and Slovakia. Combined Team-Uruzgan was established following the Dutch drawdown in August. We appointed our senior civilian representative to lead the Uruzgan Provincial Reconstruction Team and coordinate all ISAF civilian activities in the province.
The government has worked closely with the Dutch and US governments to ensure Australian soldiers and civilians have every support they need through the period of this handover. I welcome the Dutch government’s decision to extend their attack helicopter support. This is part of a broader ISAF contribution from which Australia and all contributing nations benefit. Australia’s contribution of two Chinook helicopters is part of this.
While in Afghanistan and Europe I met with: Colonel Creighton, commanding Combined Team-Uruzgan; General Petraeus, commanding the International Security Assistance Force; NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen; and the then caretaker Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Jan Balkenende. In each of these meetings, I emphasised the strength of my view, my government’s view, that continuing this support was necessary. So I was glad to receive confirmation of the Dutch decision after my return.
Our advice is that the planned arrangements for support following the full Dutch draw-down will see equivalent support to Australian forces. While lighter in absolute numbers, the American support available to our forces is agile and highly effective in pursuing our common mission. In addition, Afghan forces in Uruzgan have increased from around 3,000 to 4,000 in the past 18 months, meaning total troop numbers are larger now than when Dutch forces were present. As Prime Minister, I am satisfied that our troops have the right support. And, of course, this is a matter we keep under constant review.
In Uruzgan, Australia’s substantial military, civilian and development assistance focuses on:
training and mentoring the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade to assume responsibility for the province’s security;
building the capacity of the Afghan National Police to assist with civil policing functions;
helping improve the Afghan government’s capacity to deliver core services and generate income-earning opportunities for its people.
As well as our efforts supporting transition in Uruzgan, Australia’s special forces are targeting the insurgent network in and around the province, disrupting insurgent operations and supply routes. While not part of Combined Team-Uruzgan, the Special Operations Task Group contributes to the province’s security. Our Special Air Service Regiment and our commando regiments are the equal of any special forces in the world. They will make a difference to the outcome of the war.
I know all this is very dangerous work for our soldiers and civilians. I give you my firm assurance that this government will listen to the professional advice and provide every necessary protection and support for our soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan. Over the past 12 months the government has announced more than $1.1 billion for additional force protection measures for Australian personnel. This includes upgraded body armour and rocket, artillery and mortar protection. The continuing and evolving threat posed to our troops by improvised explosive devices has seen us pursuing the right technologies to ensure our troops can detect these devices. Our troops are protected through hardened vehicles and other protective equipment. And, of course, we will keep these force protection measures under constant review.
I have spoken to Air Chief Marshal Houston, the Chief of the Defence Force. I have spoken to Major General Cantwell, our national commander on the ground. Their advice to the government is that, as we stand today, our force structure—the number of troops on the ground and the capabilities they have—is right for our mission in Afghanistan. As Prime Minister, I want to be very clear. The government receives the advice on this decision. But we take the responsibility for this decision.
There has also been some debate about the rules of engagement for our soldiers in Afghanistan. Of course I will not comment on the particular case which is subject to current proceedings. I do, however, want to respond to some of the public comments on the rules of engagement generally. Those rules of engagement are properly decided by the government. They are consistent with the guidance provided by General Petraeus. They are consistent with the International Security Assistance Force’s rules of engagement. They are consistent with the international law of armed conflict. As with troop levels, we take the advice, but we take the responsibility.
As Prime Minister, let me say I believe the rules of engagement are robust and sufficient for the mission in Uruzgan. The Australian Defence Force is a professional military force, respected in Australia and around the world. They operate under strict rules of engagement. That is what they do. Rules of engagement are central to the mission of the ADF. Strict rules of engagement are in the long-term interests of our troops in the field. But, more than that, they are the difference between us and our enemy. As much as anything, what marks us from them is precisely this. We respect innocent civilian life. I believe Australians would not have it any other way.
4. What progress is being made nationally
The new international strategy is in place. The elements of the surge to support the strategy are now reaching full strength. The hard work is underway. We will monitor events closely. The NATO Lisbon summit in November will assess further progress against the International Security Assistance Force’s strategy. Mapping out that strategy will be a key focus of the summit. Afghanistan is a war-ravaged country that faces immense development challenges.
While the challenges are huge, I can report tentative signs of progress to date. The Afghan National Security Forces are being mentored and trained. The Afghan National Army reached its October 2010 growth objective of 134,000 ahead of schedule, and the Afghan National Police is also ahead of its October 2010 goal of 109,000. The Afghan National Army is becoming increasingly capable and supporting coalition operations more effectively. Nearly 85 per cent of the army is now fully partnered with ISAF forces for operations in the field. Afghan forces are now in the lead in Kabul.
The ability of the Afghan government to provide services to its people is being built. In primary education, enrolments have increased from one million in 2001 to approximately six million today. Some two million of these enrolments are girls. There were none in 2001. Nothing better symbolises the fall of the Taliban than these two million Afghan girls learning to read. In basic health services, infant mortality decreased by 22 per cent between 2002 and 2008 and immunisation rates for children are now in the range of 70 to 90 per cent. In vital economic infrastructure, almost 10,000 kilometres of road has been rehabilitated and 10 million Afghans now have access to telecommunications, compared to only 20,000 in 2001.
With the increase in troop levels, the fight is being taken to the insurgency. Insurgents are being challenged in areas, particularly in the south and east of the country, where they previously operated with near-impunity. Indeed, much of the increase in violence this year is attributable to the fact that there is a larger international and Afghan presence pursuing the insurgency more aggressively.
In Afghan politics, efforts are being made to convince elements amongst the insurgents to put down their arms, to renounce violence and adopt a path back to constructive and purposeful civilian life. And although we know democracy remains rudimentary and fragile, Afghanistan has a free press and a functioning parliament. Last month parliamentary elections took place—elections with real and widely publicised problems—but elections did take place. And the international community is working closely with Pakistan. Stability in Pakistan, and the uprooting of extremist networks that have established themselves in the border regions and terrorised both countries, is essential to stability in Afghanistan.
Let me turn more specifically to the progress of Australia’s mission in Uruzgan. Our Mentoring Task Force is training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan national army. The 4th Brigade, as our commanders on the ground told me during my visit, is proving to be an increasingly professional force, fighting better and becoming more capable at conducting complex operations. The brigade’s recent efforts in successfully completing a series of resupply missions between Tarin Kot and Kandahar has demonstrated improving capability. Since late last year, they have moved from observing and participating, to planning and leading these activities. The brigade also recently provided security for parliamentary elections in the province.
Our civilians are making a difference in Uruzgan. Our AFP contingent has trained almost 700 Afghan national police at the police training centre for the province. It has also contributed to the successful targeting of corrupt officials and the tackling of major crimes. We are helping build local services. In Tarin Kot township, business is flourishing at the local bazaar. There are two bank branches, crime is down, and the town is becoming a genuine provincial trading hub. I visited our trade training school on the Tarin Kot base, which is turning out 60 graduates each quarter in basic trades such as plumbing and carpentry, most of whom then contribute to reconstruction and development in the province.
Our aid to Uruzgan is increasing to $20 million in 2010-11. Already we have supported 78 school reconstruction projects and the disbursal of over 950 microfinance loans. We have helped refurbish the Tarin Kot hospital and assisted the rehabilitation and operation of 11 health centres and 165 health posts. We are constructing a new building for the Department of Energy and Water, and building a bridge crossing to connect to the Tarin Kot-Chora Road. Our civilians are working to build capacity within the provincial administration and support the reach of central government programs into Uruzgan.
We are taking the fight to the insurgency. On the C130 flight into Afghanistan, a map of Uruzgan spread out on his knees, our national commander Major General John Cantwell briefed me on our work in the field. Valley by valley, we are gradually making a difference to security. He told me about the agriculture-rich Mirabad Valley, a strategically important region with a history of violence in recent years, just to the east of the provincial capital Tarin Kot. Mirabad was dominated by the Taliban for the last seven years. It was a place where the provincial government had no influence. But over the last two years the Afghan security forces, in partnership with the Australian, Dutch and now US forces, have methodically expanded their permanent presence into the valley with the establishment of three patrol bases. Insurgents, clearly threatened by the growing reach of the Afghan national army, attacked the bases unsuccessfully a number of times during construction. Now the bases, combined with two nearby outposts, will allow the Afghan national army to better protect Mirabad’s communities. Mirabad is far from a success story yet. Progress in development, education and democracy is yet to begin. But in the specific mission we have given our forces in Uruzgan—to train the Afghan national army to take the lead in security—we see progress being made. That is the beginning of transition.
General Cantwell also told me about Gizab. It is an isolated township in the far north of Uruzgan province that had long been a Taliban safe haven, and one which the Taliban used as a base to launch attacks against the Chora district. Earlier this year, in April, the local community rose in revolt against the Taliban and, with the assistance of Afghan and Australian forces, captured the local Taliban commander and expelled the insurgents. Gizab now has a local police force and a new district governor, and the provincial government is beginning to make its presence felt. Again, it is a place where progress is painstaking and incremental, where there will be new setbacks and where consolidation is needed. Again though, it is a place where the seeds of transition are being sewn.
I have shared some positive stories about the beginnings of transition. There are many stories which are not so positive. We should be realistic about the situation. Progress, even in security, is highly variable across the province. Any gains come off a low base. Any advances made are fragile. The challenges that face Uruzgan, and Afghanistan, are immense. But I do believe we should be cautiously encouraged.
5. The future of our commitment to Afghanistan
Australia’s national interests in Afghanistan are clear. There must be no safe haven for terrorists. We must stand firmly by our ally, the United States. There is a new international strategy in place—focused on counterinsurgency, designed to enable transition. Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan is not open-ended. We, along with the rest of ur partners in the International Security Assistance Force, want to bring our people home as soon as possible. The Afghan people want to stand on their own. But achieving our mission is critical to achieving both these things.
The international community and the Afghan government are agreed on a clear pathway forward. The Kabul conference in July welcomed the Afghan government’s determination that the Afghan National Security Forces should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014. At the upcoming NATO/ISAF Summit in Lisbon the international community and the Afghan government will assess progress against the international strategy. Mapping out the strategy for transition to Afghan leadership and responsibility will be a key focus of the summit.
Transition will not be a one-size-fits-all approach. It will be conditions based. It will happen faster in some places and slower in others. It will be a graduated process, not an event or a date. There is no ‘transition day’. International forces will be thinned out as Afghan forces step up and assume responsibility. In some places the transition process will be subject to setbacks. We need to be prepared for this. My firm view is that for transition to occur in an area the ability of Afghan forces to take the lead in security in that area must be irreversible. Our government will state this as a simple fact in discussions before and at Lisbon. We must not transition out, only to transition back in.
Australia will do everything in our power to ensure Afghanistan is never again a safe haven for terrorists. Australia will stand firm in our commitment to our alliance with the United States. The international community understands this. Our enemies understand this too. I believe that the new international strategy, backed by the surge in military and civilian forces, is sound. Protecting the Afghan people, training the Afghan security forces, building the Afghan government’s capacity, working with the international community, Australia is making a real difference in Afghanistan. Delivering on the international strategy in Uruzgan province—and supporting transition in the country as a whole.
Australia will not abandon Afghanistan but we must be very realistic about the future. Transition will take some years. We will be engaged through this decade at least. Good government in the country may be the work of an Afghan generation. There will be many hard days ahead, but I am cautiously encouraged by what I have seen.
I believe this debate is an important one for our people and our parliament. That is why today I announce as Prime Minister that I will make a statement like this one to the House each year that our Afghanistan involvement continues. This will be in addition to the continuing ministerial statements by the Minister for Defence in each session of the parliament.
Attending funerals for Australian soldiers is the hardest thing I have ever done. And it is nowhere near as hard for me as it is for the families. There is nothing I can say to change their long walk through life without a loved one. A loved one, lost for our sake. In the ultimate, I can promise them only this: we will remember them. Their names are written on the walls of the War Memorial in Canberra. Their names are written in the walls of our hearts. When I think of these Australians we have lost in Afghanistan, I think of the Australian poet James McAuley’s words:
I never shrank with fear
But fought the monsters of the lower world
Clearing a little space, and time, and light
For men to live in peace.
I know the professional soldiers of the Australian Defence Force are proud people. They offer their lives for us. They embrace wartime sacrifice as their highest duty. In return, we owe them our wisdom. Our highest duty is to make wise decisions about war. I look forward to the deliberations of this parliamentary debate on Afghanistan. I hope we do our duty as well as they do theirs.
I welcome this debate on Afghanistan. In the months since June we have lost 10 of our finest soldiers. In total we have now lost 21 brave individuals and suffered more than 150 soldiers wounded as a result of our involvement in this war. I, as all senators, have been deeply saddened, as has the rest of Australia, by these losses. Our thoughts and sympathies are with their families, friends and loved ones. Each time we mark the loss of a soldier this Senate has felt very deeply that loss and felt very deeply the burden we carry in committing our troops to war.
We owe it to them to have a serious national debate about our involvement in Afghanistan. I am greatly encouraged by what I have heard of the debate in the House of Representatives so far. I see the debate as a testimony to the strength of our community and the power of our democracy: even in times of war we can deliberate and have an honest discussion about what is best for Australia and our people. The families and loved ones of these Australian soldiers and the nation as a whole rightly demand to know the purpose for which such great sacrifices have been made and naturally seek reassurance. They should know that our commitment to Afghanistan is one that is fundamentally in our national interest and that the sacrifices, painful as they are, have not been in vain. They should know that we have the right strategy in place, the right tools and resources to make the strategy work and that our resolve is unwavering.
For my part, I will emphasise the reasons we are in Afghanistan, what the UN mandated international force is seeking to achieve there, how Australia is contributing to this and what the future of Australia’s commitment shall be. Australia is involved in Afghanistan for two critical reasons. The first is that we have a vital national interest in making sure Afghanistan never again becomes a base for terrorists to launch attacks against us. The second is to support our alliance with the United States against a shared threat. Last month we marked the ninth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, when some 3,000 people were murdered, of whom 10 were Australians. Since September 11 some 100 more Australians have been killed in terrorist attacks, including in the Bali bombings, which killed 88 Australians. It is well known that the September 11 attacks were planned and financed by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. What is less well known is that the perpetrators of several of the subsequent attacks that have killed Australians, including in Bali, have links back to Afghanistan.
Some have said in this debate that the terrorists have moved on from Afghanistan. The international community has indeed dealt al-Qaeda a severe blow there, removing its safe haven and training camps, but al-Qaeda remains a resilient and persistent network. Terrorism remains a global threat. We are working to counter the rise of affiliated groups in such new areas as Somalia and Yemen and the threat of violent terrorism and terrorist groups in Pakistan. Australia, along with the rest of the international community, continues an unprecedented global effort to combat terrorism wherever it may arise. It is categorically not true to say the terrorist threat is no longer real in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda maintains aspirations to re-establish a foothold in Afghanistan and it can do so under the Taliban umbrella. If we do not prevail, Afghanistan could once again become a base and a magnet for terrorists. In addition, defeat would provide an immense propaganda victory and morale boost for al-Qaeda and its affiliates. It would help their efforts to recruit, finance and inspire like minded groups elsewhere. It would also deeply discredit the resolve of Australia, the United States and our allies and raise serious doubts among our adversaries about our ability to deal with other security challenges.
The goal of Australia and our allies is clear: to deny terrorist groups a safe haven in Afghanistan by building the capacity of the Afghan government and security forces to manage their own affairs. In Afghanistan we are part of an international coalition of 47 nations—the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF—working under a United Nations Security Council mandate and at the invitation of the Afghan Government. It is worth noting that since the first UN Security Council Resolution—1386 of December 2001, legally authorising an international security force in Afghanistan—the council has renewed this mandate a further ten times, most recently on 13 October 2010 for a further 12 months. In doing so, the Security Council said that the situation in Afghanistan was still a threat to international peace and security and called on all nations to contribute to ISAF. The International Security Assistance Force is mandated by the UN but also, critically, in partnership with the Afghan government. ISAF is truly international, including a range of partners: New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, France and seven Muslim nations, to name a few.
Most significant amongst the contributors is the largest contributor and our most important and steadfast ally, the United States. Our alliance with the United States remains a cornerstone of Australia’s security. Alliances entail obligations, and Australia does not shirk from its responsibilities. Our contribution to Afghanistan supports our enduring alliance relationship with the United States under the ANZUS Treaty, which was formally invoked at the time of the September 11 attacks. We stand firm there together, as we have so often before in facing down threats to global security.
We, like other nations, do not want our troops in Afghanistan for a day longer than necessary. But we are not yet at the point where Afghanistan and its government can meet its challenges alone—it cannot yet deny terrorist networks a safe haven in Afghanistan. So the overarching goal of the international coalition is clear: it is to enable transition—that is, to prepare the government of Afghanistan to take lead responsibility for its own security. This strategy is comprehensive, containing a number of elements: protecting the civilian population and fighting the Taliban insurgency; training and expanding the Afghanistan National Security Forces to enable them to assume a lead role in providing security; strengthening and expanding the reach of the Afghan government, particularly through support for provision of basic services such as water and health; promoting efforts towards political reconciliation and the re-integration of former insurgents; and encouraging constructive engagement by Afghanistan’s neighbours, particularly Pakistan, whose role will be critical to the long-term stability of Afghanistan and the region.
To bolster this strategy, last December ISAF committed to a US-led military and civilian surge in Afghanistan. This will take the number of non-US forces in Afghanistan to over 50,000, while US force numbers will hit roughly 100,000—three times the number of US forces on the ground in early 2009. The elements of this surge are only just now reaching full strength, and so it is only now and in the months ahead that we will be in a fair position to judge the success of these efforts.
Engaging Pakistan is also an important component of the international community’s effort in Afghanistan. Stability in Pakistan and countering violent extremism there, particularly in the border regions, that terrorise both countries, is an important aspect to progress in Afghanistan. That is why the international community must maintain its commitment to help Pakistan.
We are pulling our weight in Afghanistan. We have around 1,550 military personnel deployed, making us the largest non-NATO contributor—and the 11th largest overall. Our military force is complemented by around 50 Australian civilians, including from the Australian Federal Police, foreign affairs and trade, and AusAID.
Since 2001 we have committed over $740 million in development assistance to Afghanistan. As senators would well know, our main focus is in Oruzgan province through Combined Team-Uruzgan, a structure that integrates our military, policing, political and development efforts under a single command. Australia’s key role in Oruzgan under the overarching international strategy is the training and mentoring of the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army.
Some will ask during the course of this debate whether our forces have all they need to get the job done. The advice of the ADF leadership is that our force structure, both in terms of the number of troops on the ground and the capabilities they have, is right for our mission. With the greatest respect for those who argue otherwise, I think some misunderstand the scope of our mission and its requirements and clearly we must rely on the advice of our military leadership.
This government will also provide every protective measure it reasonably can to our soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan. That is why we recently announced an additional $1.1 billion for force protection measures—including upgraded body armour and rocket, artillery and mortar protection. I know Senator Faulkner worked hard to respond to concerns to make sure we had the best possible protective measures in place and obviously we will keep these matters under constant review.
While it is still too early to take stock of the impact of the US-led surge, there have been some encouraging early signs. With the increase in troop levels, insurgents are being challenged in areas they previously operated with near-impunity, particularly in the south and east of the country. We can expect the fighting to become even more intense as our counterinsurgency effort increases.
But there have been encouraging signs of military progress only in recent days. According to the British commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban has taken heavy losses and ISAF has now seized the initiative in the Taliban’s heartland province of Kandahar. It remains early days, but this is encouraging.
Real progress is being made in strengthening the ANSF. The size of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police continues to grow. The ANA in particular is becoming increasingly capable and supporting coalition operations more effectively. Afghan forces are now in the lead in Kabul and a number of other areas.
On the political track, efforts are being made in the development of the peace and reintegration plan. Australia together with international participants at the recent London and Kabul conference welcomed Afghan-led efforts which would encourage insurgents to put down their arms, renounce violence and support the Afghan constitution.
There are some preliminary signs that some senior Taliban leaders may be beginning to consider taking the path towards negotiation. It is a process that Australia supports, while emphasising that it must be consistent with conditions set by the Afghan government: namely, acceptance of the Afghan constitution, renouncing of violence and the severance of links to international terrorist groups. We are also realistic. The reconciliation process is likely to be complex and subject to setbacks. It also requires continued military pressure on the Taliban—to be able to talk from a position of strength rather than weakness.
Progress is also being made in strengthening the ability of the Afghan government to provide services. It is worth noting that since 2001, primary school enrolments have increased from 1,000,000 to around six million today. Some two million of these enrolments are girls, excluded from education under the Taliban. Basic health services are now available to some 85 per cent of the population, compared to only 10 per cent under the Taliban.
Economic growth has averaged 11 per cent per year since 2002. Poppy cultivation has decreased, and 20 of 34 provinces are now poppy free.
Afghanistan has a functioning, democratic parliament and just last month parliamentary elections were held, although we know democracy remains rudimentary and fragile. Interestingly, media is flourishing: Afghans now have access to some 400 print publications, 150 radio stations and 26 television channels. This sort of progress is crucial to the Afghan government gaining legitimacy and public support. I do not want to overstate the case. This progress comes off a very low base. The gains made are fragile. The challenges that face the country are immense. But we should be cautiously encouraged.
In Oruzgan, Australia’s military and civilian elements are working together to increase security and strengthen capacity and governance throughout the province. Our mission of training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army is making headway. The 4th Brigade is proving to be an increasingly professional force, fighting better and becoming more capable at conducting complex operations.
Over the last two years the Afghan security forces, in partnership with Australian, Dutch and now US forces, have methodically expanded their permanent presence in key population centres in Oruzgan. This permanent presence has provided the security necessary for the provincial government to start to deliver goods and services to its people.
Our civilians are also making a difference in Oruzgan. It is a difficult job. Oruzgan is one of the least developed provinces in Afghanistan. But their efforts are yielding results. Our AFP contingent has trained almost 700 Afghan National Police. Our aid to Oruzgan is increasing to $20 million in 2010-11. Already we have supported 78 school reconstruction projects, over 100 kilometres of roadworks, and the disbursal of more than 950 microfinance loans. We have helped refurbish the Tarin Kowt hospital and assisted the rehabilitation and operation of 11 health centres and 165 health posts.
This effort to improve governance forms an integral part of the transition process—preparing Afghan institutions to be able to stand on their own two feet. Heartening as this progress is, again we need to be realistic. The challenges are immense and progress is highly variable, demanding painstaking, localised efforts. These must continue if the transition to Afghan-led responsibility for governance and security is to be irreversible.
Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan is not open-ended. The international community and the Afghan government are agreed on a clear pathway forward. This will involve a phased transition of lead security responsibility from ISAF to the Afghan government, with the goal that this process be complete by the end of 2014. At the upcoming NATO summit in Lisbon the international community and the Afghan government will discuss this transition strategy. It will not be a one-size-fits-all approach; it will be conditions based. It will take place in specific districts as security, governance and development circumstances permit. Transition will be a graduated process, not an event or a date. For Australia, transition means we are working towards the goal of completing our training of the 4th Brigade to a level at which it can assume lead responsibility for security in Oruzgan. We expect this to take place over the next two to four years. As we transfer security responsibility to the Afghan forces, the ADF may remain in an overwatch role, on hand if need be to assist the Afghan security forces—a function similar to that which they performed in Iraq. Even after transition is underway, we will need to continue our development programs for years. This will require a long-term investment by Australia and the rest of the international community.
In conclusion, we believe Australia’s national interests in Afghanistan are clear. There must be no safe haven for terrorists. We must stand firm by our ally, the United States. We should be under no illusions. Afghanistan has immense challenges. Most will take decades or more to address, with the people of Afghanistan necessarily taking the lead. Our aim is accordingly realistic and linked to our own vital interests: to transition security to Afghan forces as soon as practicable for them to continue to deny a safe haven for terrorists. As part of this we must also continue to help strengthen the Afghan government and institutions sufficiently so that they can tackle these challenges themselves, with the international community playing a supporting role only.
The past six months in Afghanistan have been tough ones for Australia. There will be further hard days. But the choice we face is stark: either we prevail in Afghanistan, or we risk allowing it once again to become a place from which attacks are launched. All Australians have a stake in never seeing this happen again. I think that is why there remains such strong bipartisan support for our mission, as evidenced in the debate in the House of Representatives. I think people recognise there are no easy options. That is why we should remain steadfast: because we have the right strategy in place and the resources needed to meet our objectives; because the way ahead is clear and well-understood, if difficult; because the international community and our allies are alongside us, sharing the burden; because our involvement in Afghanistan serves our national interests.