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Speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Boeing National Security Luncheon: "We are serving our national interest in Afghanistan", Canberra



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"We are serving our national interest in Afghanistan", Speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Boeing National Security Luncheon, Canberra

TUE 17 APRIL 2012

Prime Minister

Some of you here will remember that the Council of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute met for the first time in late winter 2001 - less than a fortnight before the September 11 attacks on the United States.

One thing that did not change after September 11 was Australia’s need for the work of an Institute such as this.

Independent and non-partisan, of course.

But more: informed and informative.

Giving us the possibility, at least, of a public conversation which is more empirical than opinionated - and in strategic policy, this is what we must have.

Here, the facts are a matter of life and death.

This is why, on several occasions in the past two years, I have spoken directly to the Australian people about our mission in Afghanistan.

My annual statement to the Parliament has been an important formal mechanism to engage the nation as a whole.

So have the Defence Minister’s regular statements to the House.

And sadly, the deaths of Australians serving in Afghanistan have also been occasions for me to express the nation’s grief and to restate the nation’s resolve.

To reassure Australians not only about what we are doing there and why - but for how long.

For two reasons, this is another important time for an extended statement on our commitment to Afghanistan.

First, ever since 1915, April in Australia has been memory’s season.

It is our most solemn national promise that in the morning of the 25th of this month, we remember the service of Australians in all the wars of our history.

And that remembrance amply includes the men and women of the Australian Defence Force who - alongside their civilian counterparts - are serving us now, in Afghanistan and around the world.

They more than meet the grave demands the ANZAC tradition makes of them.

And I am sure that in the period leading up to ANZAC Day, there will be renewed discussion of the strategy and policies which see our Defence Force committed overseas.

So this is a symbolically significant period for Australians - and it is a strategically significant period.

In the next four weeks, the nations that make up the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan - ISAF -will make critical decisions about the future of the mission.

On Thursday, the Foreign Minister Senator Carr and Defence Minister Smith will participate in ISAF Ministerial discussions in Brussels.

And on 21 May, I will attend the NATO/ISAF Leaders Summit in Chicago.

There, I will put Australia’s view on the key questions before the international coalition.

I believe it is important I explain to Australians the decisions the Government is making and the position we will take to the table this month and next.

This audience is more than familiar with the origin of our commitment to Afghanistan.

You know that successive Australian Governments have seen our national interest in making sure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists.

That the September 11 attacks - and most of the terrorist attacks since which have targeted Australian interests directly or in which Australians have been killed - had links to Afghanistan.

You know too, that successive Australian Governments have stood firmly by our alliance with the United States, invoked after September 11, against a shared threat.

And you know that Australia’s commitment - in our national interest, with our ally - is part of a strategy which enjoys wide international support.

In coalition with 49 international partners - under a United Nations mandate - at the invitation of and in co-operation with the Afghan government.

These facts of the origin of our commitment to Afghanistan are widely known and the fact that they have endured since 2001 is widely known too.

This consistency of purpose must not be mistaken for persistence in a strategy which is not working.

Quite the contrary.

In reality the current international strategy for Afghanistan has only taken shape since 2009.

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Two and a half years ago, in December that year, President Obama announced a new international strategy.

Based on counter-insurgency.

Backed by a surge of 30 000 US troops and increased contributions from NATO/ISAF nations.

And designed to facilitate transition: to prepare the Government of Afghanistan to take responsibility for its own security.

It was the right approach.

To quote ISAF's military commander, General Allen:

Throughout history, insurgencies have seldom been defeated by foreign forces. Instead, they have been ultimately beaten by indigenous forces.

So in the long run our goals can only be achieved and then secured by Afghan forces. Transition, then, is the linchpin of our strategy, not merely the way out.

This is why eighteen months ago, at Lisbon in November 2010, Australia, our international partners and the Afghan government laid out a clear process and a clear timeframe for transition of full security responsibility to the Afghan National Security Forces.

And why we committed to supporting Afghanistan’s security and stability over the longer term.

This should be clear.

The requirements of the new international strategy led to the adoption of the timeline.

Not the other way around.

While the challenges in Afghanistan are significant and there will inevitably be setbacks, the new international strategy has been accompanied by security gains over the past year and a half.

Bin Laden is dead.

Most of al Qaeda’s senior leaders have been killed or captured.

We have pushed al Qaeda’s remaining leaders to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.

Their freedom of movement, and capacity to plan and execute terrorist operations from Afghan soil, have been significantly degraded.

We continue to see steady gains in the fight against the Afghan insurgency.

In some areas these are fragile and are not beyond reverse.

But in each month since May 2011, there have been fewer attacks by insurgents than in the same month the previous year.

Afghan forces are now leading more than a quarter of special operations and just under half of conventional operations.

We are also seeing progress in Uruzgan province - the main focus of Australia’s contribution.

The Afghan National Army’s 4th Brigade is increasingly capable of planning and conducting operations on its own and the Afghan security presence across the province is expanding.

The Brigade is conducting combined operations with the Afghan National Police. And it is leading on many operations, with our Mentoring Taskforce in a tactical support role.

For example, Commander 4th Brigade oversaw a two-week operation to clear a contested valley last month.

Led by the 6th Kandak, this operation demonstrated the 4th Brigade's ability to plan, execute and sustain an operation over an extended period. It was marked as a keen success.

The Brigade was able to disrupt insurgent resupply, to manoeuvre through an insurgent stronghold without taking major casualties - and to make contact with the enemy in an area the insurgency previously considered to be a safe haven.

Although we still face a dangerous enemy, this is the kind of progress we see - in Uruzgan and across the country.

And this view is increasingly shared by our Afghan partners.

With all this in mind, Australia, the international community and Afghan authorities have now reached another point where key decisions need to be made.

This is the vital business of the Chicago summit in May.

To review our progress in transition - to map out how we intend to complete the handover of security responsibility to the Afghan Government.

To ensure sustainment - to build the international commitment necessary to fund, train and support the Afghan National Security Forces after transition is complete.

And to highlight our long-term support - to recommit to and define our continued contribution in the years after 2014.

In Afghanistan, transition is already happening.

Today, around half of the population lives in areas where the Afghan National Security Forces have begun taking lead security responsibility.

The next stage of transition - tranche three - will be announced soon.

And it's likely that by the middle of next year, mid-2013, the fifth and final tranche of districts and provinces will have commenced transition.

ISAF has made clear that this will not mean the end of combat, combat support or training.

But I’m now confident Chicago will recognise mid-2013 as a key milestone in the international strategy.

A crucial point: when the international forces will be able to move to a supporting role across all of Afghanistan.

I also expect President Karzai to make an announcement on transition in Uruzgan and other provinces in the coming months, including which areas of Uruzgan will begin the process first.

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Once started, this should take twelve to eighteen months.

And when this is complete, Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan will look very different to that we have today.

We will have completed our training and mentoring mission with the 4th Brigade.

We will no longer be conducting routine frontline operations with the Afghan National Security Forces.

The Australian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team will have completed its work

And the majority of our troops will have returned home.

When transition is complete, the international community will need to continue to support the Afghan National Security Forces.

This is what we mean by ensuring sustainment.

The ANSF - which includes the police, the Afghan National Army and Afghan Air Force - is building up to a surge force of some 352,000.

We expect the final size of the ANSF to be smaller than this.

Indeed, the Government of Afghanistan, in consultation with ISAF, has made some initial decisions about likely future size and force structure.

Importantly, the ISAF Summit will discuss a funding arrangement for the costs of ensuring sustainment.

To maintain full responsibility for security in Afghanistan after 2014, the Afghan National Security Forces will need the right support - including funding and training - from the international community.

In Chicago, I will be arguing strongly for broad and substantial international support.

And I will go to Chicago prepared for Australia to pay our fair share.

Australia will also be prepared to provide niche training to the Afghan National Security Forces after 2014.

We are already involved in institutional training, through the Afghan National Army Artillery Training School.

In future, we will support the proposed UK-led Afghan National Army Officer Academy.

We will maintain a role providing training and support to policing in Afghanistan.

The AFP will progressively refocus its police development efforts from training in Southern Afghanistan to institutional capability development of the Afghan National Police in Kabul.

And, finally, as I have stated previously, we are prepared to consider a limited Special Forces contribution - in the right circumstances and under the right mandate.

There may be a continuing role to train the ANSF to conduct - and to work alongside them in carrying out - counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.

Australia has an enduring national interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists.

Reviewing progress in transition - and ensuring sustainment - are vital work for Chicago.

Stating our commitment to Afghanistan's human and economic development is vital too.

Strengthening the capacity of the Afghan government, economy and institutions will be essential to ensuring that the gains made to date are not reversed.

Sustaining development and growing the economy will be enormous challenges in the years ahead.

The people of Afghanistan enjoy greater freedoms and a better quality of life now than in 2001.

In that time life expectancy has increased by five years to 48 today.

85 per cent have access to basic health care services, compared to 10 per cent under the Taliban.

Over 7 million children, including 2.5 million girls, are now enrolled in school.

But clearly, development and capacity-building programs will need to continue well beyond 2014.

Above all, Afghanistan must grow economically, including by developing its mineral resources.

Mining, education and agriculture will be crucial sectors - all areas in which Australia can offer some technical expertise.

Like many in Afghanistan, I believe that a successful democratic transition at the end of President Karzai’s second term will be a critical point in the development of Afghanistan's democratic norms.

Previous elections in Afghanistan have been criticised and many in Afghanistan and the international community have urged electoral reform.

Electoral assistance will continue to be an important focus of the Australian aid program.

We will maintain our support to Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission.

During my visit to Afghanistan in October last year, President Karzai and I discussed formalising a comprehensive, long-term framework for the future of the Australia-Afghanistan partnership.

Indeed we hope to be in a position to sign the agreement when we meet at the Chicago summit in May.

This will set out Australia’s enduring partnership with Afghanistan in development - along with security, trade and investment, as well as cultural and people-to-people links.

The Government of Japan will host an important ministerial conference in Tokyo in July.

At Tokyo, the focus will be on the coordination of international assistance through to 2014 and beyond - and on the Afghan Government’s strategy for sustainable development.

At Chicago, it is vital that the nations of the Coalition restate our commitment to this cause.

I will use the opportunity that the Chicago summit creates to announce the details of increased Australian development assistance to

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Afghanistan through to 2015-16 - and of our commitment to maintain that contribution in subsequent years.

At Chicago and at Tokyo, the international community will meet in a spirit of mutual commitment - so these are also opportunities for the Government of Afghanistan.

Opportunities to demonstrate its determination that our mutual gains over the last decade in democracy, development, tackling corruption and protecting human rights are maintained.

Australia and the international community also have a key role to play in supporting political reconciliation within Afghanistan.

Reconciliation is not a precondition for successful transition - our strategy is designed to ensure Afghanistan can wage counter-insurgency beyond 2014.

To be part of a settlement, those looking to reconcile need to lay down their weapons, renounce violence, cut links with al Qaeda and accept Afghanistan’s democratic constitution.

And by taking the fight to the insurgents, and strengthening the Afghan forces in that fight, we help create the conditions for a successful Afghan-owned and led process.

It is clear talks are in their very early stages. They are likely to be long and complex and will inevitably involve setbacks.

We will continue to support these efforts to pursue reconciliation.

We will also continue to work for a secure external environment for Afghanistan.

Australia welcomes regional initiatives - such as the Istanbul Process - which bring together Afghanistan’s neighbours to identify ways to improve regional cooperation, including on economic linkages.

And Pakistan is critical to Afghanistan’s stability.

We well know that Pakistan has been at the frontline of the threat of violent extremism in its region.

Terrorist groups have attacked its people and Government.

Pakistan has launched numerous operations against these groups including in areas near the border with Afghanistan.

And in this fight the people and the military of Pakistan have suffered losses in the thousands, indeed the tens of thousands, over the last decade.

Nevertheless, there is also no doubt that parts of Pakistan are being used by terrorist groups.

Particularly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.

I am realistic about the threat that poses - realistic too about what can be done to limit that threat.

And our strategy, to build Afghanistan’s own security forces, is founded in that realistic assessment of the country’s future strategic environment.

The Government of Pakistan is in no doubt about Australia’s determination - or our concerns.

We will work with Afghanistan - and with Pakistan - in those areas where our best judgement is that co-operation against terrorism which threatens both states is effective and real.

So for instance, there is scope to improve the tracking and control of items that assist terrorist groups in their attacks - as we see in the problem of Pakistani fertilisers being used to produce IEDs in Afghanistan.

And we will do whatever else we judge best makes a difference in this difficult and sensitive task.

The people of Afghanistan face immense challenges for their national future.

Harsh natural terrain and turbulent history, tribal politics and the impact of thirty years of war, contemporary problems of corruption and narcotics.

National progress is the ultimate responsibility of the Afghan Government and people.

But the world can help - and Australia can do its part.

I welcome a genuine public debate on our commitment to Afghanistan.

I say this because I am confident that the Government’s approach is one which is soundly in Australia’s national interest.

As well, because our people are entitled to a genuine questioning of national policies in a matter so serious - and difficult - as this.

In 2011, eleven Australian soldiers were killed in action in Afghanistan and fifty were wounded.

Four died and ten were wounded as a result of attacks by rogue members of the Afghan National Army

Several other nations have also suffered such attacks.

These raised legitimate questions about the success of our mission to train the Afghan National Security Forces.

I also know that for many of our Defence Force families, the impact of these attacks was especially deep.

We are working with our Afghan partners to tighten vetting and screening and to implement a counter-infiltration plan.

I can assure Australians - through you - that we will do our very best to protect our soldiers from this threat.

Events of recent months have underscored the challenges for Australia and our ISAF and Afghan partners.

February’s deeply unfortunate incident in which Islamic holy books were burned at Bagram Air Base caused offence to many in Afghanistan and around the world.

While in March, we were all appalled by the killing of Afghan civilians by a US soldier. A shocking crime condemned by US and ISAF leaders alike - and by public demonstrations across Afghanistan.

These actions of an individual are no mark against the tens of thousands of courageous professionals deployed by Australia, the United States and other coalition countries.

Any more than attacks by rogue ANA members are a mark against the hundreds of thousands of patriotic Afghans training in uniform to

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build a capable national security force.

In March, an Australian Civilian Corps Adviser working with local communities on development activities in Uruzgan was injured in a suicide attack.

A reminder that our civilian staff in Afghanistan - our diplomats, aid workers, police and civilian corps workers - are also doing a magnificent job in dangerous circumstances.

And the weekend’s renewed insurgent attacks in Kabul remind us that as the insurgency comes under greater sustained pressure in the field, the prospect of high-profile attacks aimed at disproportionate global public impact remains.

What remains too is the fact that these attacks were successfully countered by the Afghan National Security forces without substantial direct support from ISAF forces in Kabul.

An encouraging sign for the future of the counter-insurgency and for the success of transition to Afghan security lead.

And the shared endeavour between ISAF and Afghan forces across the country goes on.

None of this is easy.

There will be hard days ahead - there will be new days of grief.

We did not enter this conflict lightly and we do not persist in it without great care.

I know that the peoples of the world's democracies want to see their sons and daughters return from war.

This is as it should be.

I recognise that the global economic climate leads many, especially in Europe, to think of the pressing needs at home.

And I see that the people and leaders of Afghanistan rightly look forward to the day when they can truly lead in their own country.

These are considerations I weigh heavily, as do the leaders of all the ISAF nations.

They are why I argue strongly for the integrity of the transition strategy.

Because the international strategy for transition in Afghanistan is the responsible, orderly, sustainable approach to full and permanent Afghan responsibility for security.

The judgement of the Australian Government, which I will take with me to Chicago, is this.

We can proceed with the transition we agreed to in Lisbon: understanding that it is a difficult mission, but confident it is on track.

We will see our mission of training and transition through.

When transition in Uruzgan is complete, Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan will look very different to that we have today.

We will have completed our training and mentoring mission.

We will no longer be conducting routine frontline operations.

The Provincial Reconstruction Team will have done its job.

The majority of our troops will have returned home.

And there will still be some work to do.

We will ensure sustainment of the Afghan National Security Forces after 2014.

And we will support the long-term development of the Afghan government, economy and institutions.

We will not abandon this mission for which so many have worked so hard - and for which some have lost so much.

So I can say today: to our people, whatever their view of the war.

To this audience, which consider these issues so carefully.

To the Australian civilians working in Afghanistan.

To our troops and their families.

This is a war with a purpose. This is a war with an end.

We have a strategy, a mission, and a timeframe for achieving it.

We are serving our national interest in Afghanistan.

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