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Thursday, 21 October 2010
Page: 1084


Mr CLARE (Minister for Defence Materiel) (10:26 AM) —This is an important debate. There is no more important decision for government than the decision to send its own citizens to war, and it is important that that decision and the ongoing mission have the support of this parliament and that the parliament and the people it represents understand why our troops have been deployed, what they are doing and what support the Australian government is providing them to get the job done. In my contribution to this debate, I will focus on these three things.

First, why we are there: we are in Afghanistan because it is in Australia’s national interest to be there. I believe it is in our national interest because the threat posed by an unstable Afghanistan reaches far beyond its own borders. It affects its neighbours. It affects us. We all remember where we were on September 11. The actions of al-Qaeda that day killed more than 3,000 people from more than 90 countries, including 10 Australians, but this was not the only act of terrorism planned or supported from Afghanistan. The 88 Australians killed in Bali died at the hands of Jemaah Islamiah terrorists trained and supported by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is just one example of the global reach of the violent extremism that was allowed to flourish in Afghanistan. That is why 46 other countries are contributing to the same effort under the mandate of the United Nations, including our closest ally, the United States. We are all there for the same reason: the threat posed to all countries by an Afghanistan where malign forces can take root again.

We cannot pretend that what happens in Afghanistan does not affect us here in Australia. It does, and because it does it is right that we are there. Australia and Australians would be less safe if Afghanistan became a place where terrorists could operate from again. It is true that creating a stable Afghanistan does not eliminate the threat of terrorism. Terrorist groups are active in a lot of places—Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Maghreb—but that does not mean that what happens in Afghanistan is without consequence. If we fail, if Afghanistan becomes a place that provides sanctuary to terrorists again, the impact to the cause espoused by organisations such as al-Qaeda would be enormous. It would be felt not just in the Middle East but in our own region, and that is why it is in our national interest that we play a role in establishing a stable and secure Afghanistan.

So how do we do that? This is not a conventional war and it will not be won by conventional means. Relentlessly seeking out and killing insurgents is not enough. The commander of Australian forces in the Middle East, Major General John Cantwell, tells the story of an Australian patrol conducting a meeting, a shura, with local elders in the Baluchi Valley where they met a young boy with a badly broken arm. His arm had been caught in a wheat-threshing machine and the bone was poking through his skin. The Australian soldiers asked local elders for permission to take the boy to be treated, but the boy’s father refused. General Cantwell recounts:

After two hours of pleading, he said that if the Taliban see that I have taken anything from you they will kill me and my family. That boy will either lose his arm or die.

I can understand that father’s concern. What happens when the soldiers leave the village? What happens when we leave Afghanistan and he is still there? Counterinsurgency relies on winning the hearts and minds of men like this, but that can only be done if there exists a sense of confidence that, when we are no longer there, the foundations of a stable, secure society will remain.

That is why the work that we are doing in Afghanistan training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army is so important. You cannot have a stable, secure society unless the government has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. There is a lot to do to improve governance in Afghanistan, but if you do not have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force you cannot do any of those things. Our job in Afghanistan is to help build that monopoly of force. The work we have done in Iraq and East Timor demonstrates that we are very good at it. That is why NATO has asked us to provide more artillery trainers. We have agreed to meet that need by providing up to 20 artillery trainers to support the establishment of the artillery school in Kabul. It is an important contribution to the broader coalition effort. ISAF forces are doing the same thing throughout Afghanistan. It takes time to train and build an army—it is expected to take two to four years to mentor and train the 4th Brigade before they take lead responsibility for security in Oruzgan—and beyond that we will play a supporting role for some time. But, as the Prime Minister has said, before that transition occurs the ability of the Afghan forces to assume responsibility for security must be irreversible. If that standard is not met, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past. We are making progress, but if we hand over responsibility to the Afghan army before they are ready to take over we will not leave a stable and secure Afghanistan.

I have spoken about why I believe that it is right that we are in Afghanistan and why our mission is the right one. The next issue is how we support our troops to get the work done. There has been a lot said and written in the past few weeks about troop numbers, tanks and other equipment. I welcome the comments by the Leader of the Opposition in this debate that the opposition supports the deployment and has accepted the advice of the commander on the ground and the Chief of the Defence Force that the mission has the resources it needs to get the job done. Bipartisanship is the bedrock on which this mission rests. In that spirit, I would like to make a few comments about the support we are providing our troops. Last year the former Minister for Defence initiated a review of force protection, and from this the government has allocated $1.1 billion in new measures to improve the protection of our troops in-theatre. They include upgrading the protection of our ASLAV and Bushmaster vehicles against improvised explosive devices and artillery fire, SPARK mine rollers that attach to the front of Bushmasters to help combat IEDs, the rollout of an early-warning system—which is called C-RAM and expected to be deployed later this year—against rocket and mortar attacks and the use of the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle to provide our troops with increased surveillance coverage.

We are always reviewing what is needed to protect our troops, particularly from the threat posed by IEDs. Our troops are well equipped. In June, the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, told a Senate estimates hearing:

The vast majority of troops acknowledged that they were among the best-equipped troops in the theatre.

This was confirmed by Warrant Officer, Regimental Sergeant Major of the Army, Stephen Ward. He is the Army’s most senior soldier, and he said:

The issued equipment that is given to our soldiers is of world leading quality. This is not just my observation; it is reinforced through statements by soldiers who have combat experience. It performs very well on operations.

An example of the quality and effectiveness of our equipment is the Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicle. They have been hit hard by IEDs and have done an incredible job protecting the lives of Australian soldiers inside them, most recently in northern Kandahar only two weeks ago. I went to the Bushmaster production line in Bendigo last week to thank the men and women who build the Bushmaster. It is a great Australian story—iron ore from the Pilbara and coking coal from the Hunter forged in Port Kembla, cut to size in Melbourne and welded together in Bendigo to make a vehicle that is saving the lives of Australians in Afghanistan. No equipment is perfect, and there are plenty of issues still to work through, but in the short time that I have been Minister for Defence Materiel I have seen a lot of evidence of Defence’s ability to respond to the issues raised by our soldiers in-theatre.

Perhaps the best example of this is what has been done about the combat body armour our troops are wearing. The standard issue MCBAS body armour is very effective; it is also very heavy. It worked well in Iraq, where troops required maximum ballistic protection and were not required to regularly patrol on foot. In Afghanistan, the feedback from troops is that it has made it very hard for them to do their job. Defence has responded by purchasing about 1,000 sets of the lighter body armour called Eagle Marine. That means our troops can now use light or heavy body armour depending on the mission. That flexibility will be enhanced next year. The Army is currently trialling new, tiered body armour that will allow troops to insert different armour plates in their rigs depending on the conditions. I am advised that Army is working towards having this ready for mission rehearsal exercises next year and expects that when Task Force 8 deploy in the middle of next year they will go with this new equipment. It is just one example of the work being done by the team equipping our soldiers. As Minister for Defence Materiel, I recognise how important this work is and that there is more work to do.

This is not an easy fight. The last nine years are proof of that. We have already mourned the loss of 21 young Australians. Many more have been wounded. I met one of them the other day when I visited Robertson Barracks in Darwin. While the rest of us were still celebrating Christmas two years ago, he was in a firefight in the Chora valley. His platoon was ambushed. They were hemmed in on both sides. As he ran to find cover behind a tree, he was shot through both legs. He survived because his mates dragged him 600 metres, through irrigation ditches, around small mud brick walls and a compound, taking us much cover as they could along the way. He was carried the last 200 metres to a Bushmaster by one of his mates who carried him over his shoulder. The Bushmaster got him to a medivac helicopter that got him back to Tarin Kowt. He was operated on there, and then again in Germany.

Meeting him had an enormous impact on me. I felt very fortunate to meet him and to shake his hand and more conscious than ever before of the importance of the decisions that we make. They are not easy decisions, but in our darkest moments in Afghanistan it is important to remember why we have made them, why we are there, why there are 46 other nations there and to contemplate what would happen if we were not. An unstable Afghanistan where malign forces could rise again is not just a threat to a father too afraid to let Australian soldiers help save his son. It is a threat to all of us. The impact of our success or our failure will be felt for many more years than those we have already spent in Afghanistan, and that is why it requires our support now and our endurance.

When asked how he measures progress, General Cantwell said:

It is a matter of doing small things whenever we can to move the campaign forward. It has to be a whole series of constant small chips.

Progress … is measured in small victories. We influence this community leader, we open a school, we clear an IED, we kill a Taliban who is trying to kill us or we capture someone and put them in gaol.

There’s a thousand things that need to be done. Some of those are military. Others are about being kind and generous and encouraging, to be sympathetic to the cultural issues, to understand that these people are scared.

He said it demands the endurance of commanders and soldiers, ‘And it demands endurance of our government if they want to see this thing come to an ending that is satisfactory’. It does. It demands the endurance of government and it also demands the endurance and support of this parliament.