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Thursday, 21 October 2010
Page: 1092


Mr LAMING (11:02 AM) —Some things must be fought for. Not everyone shares our values. Talk alone will not always get you there. Not everyone is always ready to talk, but no group should ever be beyond talking to. Without making any references to Christian morality, even humanists will describe a just war, as Rothbard said, when people try to ‘ward off the threat of coercive domination by others’. Afghanistan fits that perfectly and it always has.

Sure, this debate comes at a time when it is not running that well. The PR battle and the bad stories at home are probably in some ways overwhelming the stories that we hear about victories on the ground. Many of us are truly seduced by the notion of war by remote control, without casualties, and the idea that perhaps we can pull away from battlefronts like this and our values and our lives will be unaffected. For many, making the connections and joining the dots between 9-11, the Horn of Africa, Bali, the Philippines and Times Square is all that little bit too difficult and perhaps they think militant Islam is something that we can afford to ignore. I suspect that because it was John Howard who joined those dots together so articulately it has become a potent political battle over the last decade.

So for Australians who have questions, it is only right that we lift that veil and answer them. Many Australians out there must feel, as Kipling described:

For undemocratic reasons and for motives not of State, They arrive at their conclusions—largely inarticulate. Being void of self-expression they confide their views to none; But sometimes, in a smoking-room, one learns why things were done.

Let us learn why things are done. Let us learn why we are in Afghanistan. It is far more complex than downloading a page from the Socialist Alliance website and running through the eight reasons why we need to ‘get out of Afghanistan now’.

The key questions that I would put to the Australian people would be these, because it is right that they be asked. Firstly, are our military leaders engaged in Afghanistan balancing military potency and effectiveness with doing everything they can to spare the lives of our military and civilians? I have no doubt that they are. Secondly, when can patrolling in the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan be taken over—in our case, by Oruzgan’s 4th Brigade of the 205th ‘Hero’ Corps of the Afghan National Army? When can they start pulling the load and doing their fair share? Finally, how vigorously can we proceed from defence to diplomacy and then to development?

But my great frustrations in this debate over the last three days have been many. The first is that this work in Afghanistan is immensely complex and nothing has infuriated me more than the member for Denison, whose glib conclusion ran like this:

The only way to turn Afghanistan around now is to hastily rebuild the governance, infrastructure, services and jobs which give people hope and underpin long-term peace.

There is no-one on this planet who knows how to do that. There is no way to hastily rebuild governance. If there was a way to do it we would have been doing it decades ago. This is one of the most complex engagements of our time.

Let us also remember that our Australian forces, like the coalition, work under extraordinary military scrutiny. Sure, in every war there have been those who have felt that we should come home, but never has it been under such ruthless media scrutiny of everything these fine soldiers do. That is a very tough ask, as we have learned.

This debate has still been a little too simplistic. We have not yet considered the role of Iran in maintaining the efforts of the Taliban. There has been inadequate attention paid to whether our withdrawal will strengthen or weaken Pakistan and what we are going to do with those federally administered tribal areas, FATA, in northern Pakistan, which in the end are responsible for creatures such as Najibullah Zazi and Faisal Shahzad, the Manhattan subway bomber and the Times Square bomber respectively. In the end there must be a solution to that.

We still have not truly examined in this debate the nature of the adversary—the Taliban, this heterogenous group of fighters around Afghanistan, who for generations have been fighting the British, the Sikhs, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Moguls, the Mongols, the Soviets and the list goes on. That is not a reason to stop trying; it is a reason to find a way to succeed.

There is an end state in Afghanistan and we must not lose hope of that. The end state, in all asymmetric wars, is to build a domestic force of police and on-the-ground military presence that is strong enough for democracy to take root. I am not saying that these elections in Afghanistan have been perfect and I am not saying that President Karzai is an immaculate president, free of any whiff of corruption. But consider the political conditions in which the administration operates. This is a $12 billion licit annual GDP, operating in parallel with a $14 billion military operation. It is almost impossible not to be involved in a cash grab with your hand out. It is almost impossible for schools not to cost 10 times what they should and it is almost impossible for ordinary everyday Afghans not to be unhappy about that. But we are a little tired of analyst reports being written by people across the border. In this debate we have not heard enough about what the Afghans are saying, and I hope to address that today. In Afghanistan, in 1992, I lived not with the military cordon, not under the hospitality of the Australian Army, not with a UN security clearance but in a small village in northern Afghanistan. I went to the markets, went to the hen fights, drank the ulubalu and talked to people by the river. There is not a clear solution and there is not an easy answer, but I think those words need to be heard.

Kay Danes is a humanitarian worker who is there right now. She has travelled from Nangahar in the east to Herat in the west. I am not going to select her quotes; I think I should be as non-selective as I can. But the main theme that comes through is (1) peace and security; (2) finishing and getting rid of corruption; and (3) the killing of innocent people by both international forces and the Taliban. It is not a clear picture. But the one thing that I hear over and over again from Afghans on the ground is that the schools that were empty and were bombed are now rebuilt and are full. To me, that is such a powerful endorsement of what we are doing there. The women in Afghanistan will say, ‘We’re at university. I beg you to stay the course until we can finish our studies. Our fathers and brothers are supporting us in our study, even though at night we get an anonymous note saying: we will come and kill you, as soon as the coalition forces withdraw.’

There are simple questions to be asked. Is this deployment relevant to Australia? I argue that despite the damage inflicted by this aggressor, the Taliban, and by its weakening links to al-Qaeda, by virtue of the fact that we are there and they cannot remain in contact as easily with those Arabic petrodollars that fund al-Qaeda, they are not as well connected as they were, but they still pose a risk to us of grave and lasting implications if we withdraw. Has every means, apart from war, been exhausted with these groups? The answer is yes. Is there a serious prospect of success in Afghanistan? Absolutely, simply by virtue of having got one election off the ground and then another election off the ground. And to walk away is to lose everything and to go back not just to 2005 but back potentially to 1992 when we were rebuilding towns, clearing the landmines. There is no greater look than on the face of a family who return to their home having had those landmines cleared.

If you talk to Afghanis, they will say that the international forces have failed to bring peace. It is a truism. Security conditions in some parts are getting worse day by day. The killing of innocent people is utterly regrettable and, in many cases, there is intense abhorrence at the fact that that has been done with only a small, flippant excuse from international forces. I am not going to gild that, but the clear message that comes with that from Afghanis is: ‘If you evacuate, you leave us in despair. The limited developments and the relative peace achieved in significant parts of the country would be entirely lost and that everything you have done will collapse. It will go back to anarchy, back to the Taliban era, civil strife, warlords re-emerging and total destruction of what we know.’ That is a clear message from Afghanis. Sure, they do not love everything we do, but if you do a poll in Afghanistan and ask, ‘Do you hate the war?’ of course most people will say yes. It is a truism.

We must endeavour, as the previous speaker, the member for Lyne, said, to negotiate with the Taliban. There is no secret about that. Secretary of State Clinton has not ruled that out. We know it is happening, but that is not what the debate is about. The debate is about pulling our troops out. The debate is being driven by a socialist alliance agenda. Two MPs who are in here, thanks to the vagaries of the preferential voting system, are saying, ‘Pull the troops out.’ And this is the list of Socialist Alliance reasons, and you can run through them: life is getting worse for Afghans. Wrong. Where were you during the Taliban? More people are dying and being displaced as a result of military operations. Before there was a military operation people were displaced for other reasons in equivalent numbers. Another reason: the war has cost us billions. The war cost the coalition $120 billion a year in Iraq. In Afghanistan we are spending just a fragment of that, at around $20 billion a year, for potentially far greater yields. This is not an economic war; it is a war to ensure there is nowhere left to hide.

The next argument is that the war has not liberated women. You cannot just quote one former MP from the Afghan assembly who thinks that is the case. Talk to women in Afghanistan before you make such a foolish comment that women are not slowly being emancipated, thanks to our presence. The next claim is that the Afghanistan government is corrupt and undemocratic. Consider the conditions. It is a democratic government, it has its warts, but what is the alternative? In fact, if you replace the current administration, you would end up with something very similar to what we now have, simply with a different head. The majority of the world wants the troops to leave and the Afghanis do not want the war. This sort of ordinary polling that we are meant to be making national decisions on is, frankly, really disappointing. Even attributing the spread of terrorism worldwide to our presence in Afghanistan is absolutely amazing. The member for Denison suggested that our presence in Afghanistan is somehow attributed to some terrorist here in Australia who wanted to attack the Holsworthy Barracks. Is the member for Denison suggesting we withdraw our troops so that this guy has a better day? Seriously, we are here to fight for the values that we regard as democratic values. Why are we there? Because we can be and we have the resources.

There is a simple conviction that, given a fair go, human beings can better themselves. They just need to be given a chance to do it and they can make a better world around them. These are values that we live by and, as awkward an ally as the Americans sometimes are, they are values they also live by and that is why I am proud that we continue to do it. It is one thing to shed tears for our wonderful troops who make the supreme sacrifice. Never forget the aid and care workers, who work in similarly dangerous conditions and often suffer even greater privations. Though, not necessarily risking their lives in such intensity, they never know their enemy but often still lose their lives. To all of those Australians I say to you that these are the values we live by. Yes, we are engaged in a titanic struggle to free ourselves of a group of individuals who wish to impose their values on us and by so doing remove our liberties. That to me is one of the strongest reasons to have this fight.

In closing, remember that the Taliban is not some crazy uniform entity. They are a conglomeration of warlords, of disenchanted mullahs and of young people. I said this in my first speech in 2004 before we were actually in Afghanistan—we had only one officer in Afghanistan in 2004 before we deployed. I said at that time that we have an urgent appointment with the Islamic world. On the one hand we need to ensure that trouble cannot be fomented in any corner of this planet by extremists, but on the other hand we need to provide the economic opportunities so that the young and, often, dispossessed can have an opportunity to gain capabilities rather than turning towards extremism. Those words are no less true than they were when they were said in 2004. They apply exactly to what we are doing in Afghanistan.

This will not be easy but, please, I beg the Australian people, do not assume that this is something that can easily be done without a military presence. Part of it—if you call it shoot and talk—is the fact that the Taliban will have to one day come to the table. We may not defeat them, but we can handle them if we engage their respective groups effectively. The Haqqani network is one. It has been pointed out by Tom Gregg, a young Australian who has been an analyst on the ground in Afghanistan, that the Haqqani network has an elderly leader who is probably in his final years. His 36-year-old son, Sirajuddin, is different. He is not a tribal elder. He is not a religious scholar. He has known nothing but war. He has never been part of a government nor lived in a peaceful society. Our one opportunity with the Taliban may be only a brief moment of sunshine. That is why I know that the US, Holbrook and the others are going to have to reach out. But it is a two-step process. The debate today is purely and simply a debate about withdrawing our troops and it is a step that would undermine everything that we have achieved so far.