Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Committee
|Source||House of Reps
|Main Committee/Federation Chamber
|Speaker||Robert, Stuart, MP
Mr ROBERT (Fadden) (11:50): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to rise and make some comments about the joint delegation that had the opportunity to go into theatre to review combat operations within the wider Middle East area of operations, in this case in Afghanistan. It was my third visit into Afghanistan to review the state of combat operations and the state of our engagement within the wider International Security Assistance Force in coalition with the partners of freedom-loving nations across the world.
First of all, let me put on the record my great thanks for the committee's assistance, for those who supported the committee's work and also for the Department of Defence, which facilitated the work of the delegation going in. For those who are unaware of a delegation going into a combat operation, a not insubstantial amount of administrative work is required. There is a special forces protection group of up to 15 people who are there to make sure that anything untoward does not happen to us. That was very kind of them, I must say. It is a significant impost on our special forces personnel. They were taken away from their homes, their families and their wives and children not only for the two-week period while we were in theatre but for the preparation for us to go in and the post work outside. So let me thank the members of the Special Air Service Regiment and the 2nd Commando Regiment based in Holsworthy for their commitment to duty, their support and their work. It was incredibly appreciated. I do not need a man with an M4A1 machine gun 'bombed up' standing outside the bathroom, but I appreciated the gesture anyway. It made me feel incredibly safe within the wider Tarin Kowt fire support base, which was already surrounded by 2,500 soldiers. That gives an indication of the degree of professionalism they have, the support they give and the work they do.
I also thank the governmentâthe Minister for Defence and the wider governmentâfor allowing the committee to go in and do its work to review the state of combat operations and the work of the Australian military force within theatre. We covered everything from Al Mihad, which is a forward staging area, to the work of our administrative and logistics command and support personnel; the joint support unitâall three services right through to Tarin Kowt; the work of our fire support base; our patrol base personnel; our headquarters; our mentoring task force; our provincial reconstruction teams through to KAF, Kandahar Airfield; and the work of our allies right through to IJC, ISAF Joint Command, which is a three-star core level command. Then we went into Kabul to visit a range of Afghan parliamentarians and the Afghan parliament and to commence a dialogue.
To give an understanding of how difficult the environment is, some of the key members of the Afghan parliament, including the Governor of Oruzgan province, have subsequently been killed, having been attacked by insurgents with improvised explosive devices. I think half the parliamentarians we met with, commenced a discussion with and continued a dialogue with have now been killed for service to their country. That shows some of the ongoing challenges of representing their people and building a legitimate democracy.
Speaking on behalf of the delegates who went alongâSenator Furner, Dr Jensen, Ms Brodtmann and meâI would like to say not only how much we admired what our fighting men and women are doing but how much we respect what they do. We had the opportunity to leave the fire support base Tarin Kowt and go to the patrol bases in the upper reaches of the Mirabad Valley. It is instructive that, when we got off the helicopters and walked to the forward operating position on top of the hill and went down into the patrol base, we actually walked across the remnants of war. There were machine gun spent rounds by the thousands lying on the ground, spent smoke cartridges and 'link' from Minimi machine guns lying around. The entire scene was out of a battle. When I was there for the second time in theatre, seven or eight months beforehand, the battle for that upper reach of the Mirabad Valley was indeed being fought. It was being fought with fighter aircraft in the air; it was being fought by combat troops on the ground. There is a marvellous story of a young section commanderâa young lance corporalâfighting in that battle of the upper reach of the Mirabad Valley. He was under such sustained direct fire that he actually lay down on the ground and played dead to act as a ruse so the enemy fire would lift from him while his mates attracted more fire, allowing him to get up. The reason that he was moving between the patrol base that they were building and the fire support position was resupply for ammunition. He was an incredibly brave young soldier and that is one of the many stories of the battle there in the upper regions.
Here we were, a group of parliamentarians, six, seven, eight months later, walking across that ground quite freely, up to the hill to be briefed by the young captain of the Australian patrol base and then down into the patrol base proper, to get a feel for how they live and the conditions they fight in. Then there was a traditional shura with the Afghani elders and the local people, which 40 or 50 people attended. We met for an hour and a half in the traditional shura, a traditional talking fest, to discuss issues. In that hour and half, not once was the issue of security raised. Within seven months, the mentoring task force had established their patrol base, had gained supremacy on the ground, had destroyed the insurgency in the upper base of the Mirabad Valley and had begun the consultation, the dialogue and the build process in terms of putting in place a situation where there were both economics and security so that people could get on with their lives. Many of the elders had fought the Russians as part of the original mujaheddin and, from their wise and crinkled faces and grey beards, they looked like they had fought the great battles of the mujaheddin. These men spoke of schools and health clinics. They said, 'thank you for the bitumen road' and 'when will the road continue up to the Chora Valley'âwhich extends past the Mirabad Valley into Baluchi and then extends up to the upper reaches of the Chora. They wanted to know: when could marketplaces be put in place? When are health clinics coming? These men spoke of community and the infrastructure that you and I take for granted that build, enshrine and empower that community. Not once, in 90 minutes, did they actually talk national security, about feeling safe, about being threatened by a Taliban. They spoke of alternative cropsâin terms of cash crops, in terms of wheat and almondsâto the crops that the Taliban are forcing them to grow, such as narcotics and poppy. But not once did they mention national security. I think that is instructive of the value of the mentoring task force and the hard work that our men and women are doing on the ground.
It was great to see a whole range of areas within Tarin Kowtânot just the mentoring task force but also the provincial reconstruction team led by a civilian out of AusAID. He is a tremendous man. Incidentally, when we actually went out to the patrol base in the upper reaches of the Mirabad Valley, he went off to look at a bridge. Such was the security situation, where he could go and look at a bridge to be built as part of the provincial reconstruction team. One hundred and eighty-nine people were in that reconstruction team at that time. Once you are safe, once security is assured, communities can move on. They can establish their sense of economics. They can establish their sense of infrastructure. Provincial reconstruction teams and other donor nations like AusAID can get out and build into that infrastructure.
It is interesting to reflect that, upon our return, the bitumen road up to the extents of the Chora Valley has now been finished. Almost within a week, two or three of that road being finished, the price of palm oilânormally seven times the cost in the Chora Valley compared to Tarin Kowtâhad instantly reduced to one and a half times. Because you could drive up the road, up to the Chora Valley. We in Australia might take that for granted, but let us not forget that the average person in Afghan society or the average Afghan family might not, in their entire life, move more than three kilometres away from their village. Ever. It has been that way for thousands and thousands of years. The level of infrastructure that is being put in place is empowering communities to do a lot more in terms of their lives. We also had time to work and look at what the headquarters was doing. The headquarter elements. We visited the men and women of the special operations task forceâSATG or task groupâto look at what they were doing in terms of their kinetic operations in dismantling, disrupting the enemy insurgencyâand especially the IED and the bomb making components. We looked at the unmanned aerial vehicle side of things, we looked at the Heron detachment, where Heron was going and what it is doing, and of course Scan Eagle now in Tarin Kowt has been replaced by the new Shadow system. I am looking forward to seeing how that works. It was my great pleasure to travel with the member for Canberra and to be on the rifle range with her. I say you shot very well, ma'am, to your great credit. I know the member for Canberra had an opportunity to speak to a number of the women who in their time off, which I think is one of the greatest misnomers of combat operations but in the eight hours when they are not working in a day, actually go into the township of Tarin Kowt and surrounding areas to connect with other women. In a time when you would want to sit back and perhaps do nothing but rest and get a little control of your environment, call home, write some letters, read letters from home, these women were going out to connect with Afghani women as part of how they could build a society. That is incredibly impressive. It can be a dangerous place, so all power to those women who are in combat and who are going out and doing some really good stuff.
The time in KAF, Kandahar airfield, was instructive in terms of the higher headquarter elements looking at the wider battle picture. Remember KAF is the busiest airport in the world. There is an aircraft taking off or landing literally every 30 seconds; it is busier than Heathrow. An entire airborne brigade of the 101st Airborne Division is there with hundreds and hundreds of helicopters, let alone the transport aircraft landing, the fighter jets and the unmanned aerial vehicles in the space at the same time. The time in Kabul was at a political level, a higher headquarter corps level command to get a feel for how the operation is going.
I think it is fair to say, and I look forward to the member for Canberra's contribution, that we came away deeply impressed with what our fighting men and women are doing. They are seriously batting well above their weight. Over 150 Australian officers are embedded in all levels, from the ISAF four-star to the IJC three-star corps level to the CTU and patrol base level, embedded at various command levels because of their expertise and their capacity to do a great job across a whole range of different nations. Forty-seven nations coming together is no mean feat in the battle for freedom. Australian officers have a great propensity to move seamlessly across those nations and to act as a glue that pulls a lot of things together. We were deeply impressed with the capacity and capability of our men and women.
I came away encouraged by the equipment at our soldier level. The only comment I was getting from some of our soldiers was, can we make this bit of gear a bit smaller so we can put it here on our gear. I think we are servicing our men and women very well in terms of gear. My first time in theatre many years ago in Afghanistan was 18 kilograms of body armour with nothing else on it. This time I saw the new integrated body armour, the lightweight gear that is being worn, the personal bubbles being used for protection from IEDs. I was greatly encouraged at some of the work especially that Colonel Blaine is doing at Digger Works, which is directly feeding back to soldier on the ground and having a tremendous impact.
The committee was incredibly impressed at our command level, at our soldier level, at our equipment level. We came away very cautiously optimistic. We note the Prime Minister's comments on 16 April this year that she expects President Karzai to announce that within the next 12 to 18 months the transition from MTF training the 4th Afghan national army brigades will be complete and the MTF will come home. She said the PRT but I think she meant the MTF. If that is the case, the Prime Minister has announced that we would be bringing the bulk of our combat forces, except for a few kinetic areas as well as reconstruction and some trainers, home by Christmas 2013. We have always asked that it will be a command judgment and metrics-based withdrawal. There is nothing to indicate that the Prime Minister has not taken such advice and that the announcement is anything other than based upon sound metrics and sound commanders' advice. We take what she has said on face value. As I said to the Minister for Defence this morning, we look forward to reviewing those metrics and getting a chance, as we do as part of our bipartisan support, to sit down with our commanders and get a better feel on the ground. Bipartisanship is not a blank cheque but we certainly support the government 100 per cent.
We thank the government of the day and the minister for his generosity of spirit in allowing the committee full access at every classified level to combat operations. There was nothing that was denied to us, to the minister's credit. The nation was well served by a very strongly bipartisan team going into the theatre to review operations. I thank the House.