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Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Page: 12727

Ms GILLARD (LalorPrime Minister) (09:01): by leave—Eleven years ago, under Taliban rule, terrorists trained freely in Afghanistan to kill Australians and to attack our ally the United States. Today, international terrorism finds no safe haven in Afghanistan. The 50 nations of the International Security Assistance Force, the 80 nations engaged in development and governance, the United Nations, our Afghan partners—we are all determined to make sure it never does again.

Today the House, and through it the people, should know what progress we are making in Australia’s mission in Afghanistan—and what this progress means for our commitment in the coming year and in the years ahead. The House and the people should know what the government is doing to help Afghanistan prepare for its future after transition is complete. And the House and the people should resolve not only to remember the 39 Australians who died in Afghanistan but to care for those they left at home and for their mates when they return.

2012 has brought important progress in transition in Afghanistan. Three years ago, at West Point, in December 2009, President Obama announced a new strategy: focused on counter-insurgency and designed to achieve transition. Two years ago, at Lisbon, in November 2010, the nations of NATO, ISAF and the Afghan government agreed to the transition plan: for Afghanistan to take charge of its security by the end of 2014.

These are the facts on the ground in Afghanistan today. Three of the five tranches of Afghan provinces and districts have begun transition. All the provincial capitals and 75 per cent of the country’s population are in areas where the Afghan National Security Forces lead on security. The ANSF are close to their full surge strength of 352,000. They lead on more than 80 per cent of all security operations and make up more than three-quarters of all uniformed personnel in the country.

As transition proceeds, international forces will do less partnering in the field and provide more support through smaller advisory teams. This does not mean the end of combat for international forces, but it does mean, gradually and carefully, international forces are moving to a supporting role. By the middle of next year, when the fifth and final tranche is due to begin, the ANSF will have lead responsibility for security across the whole country.

I met General John Allen, the ISAF Commander, on 14 October, during my visit to Kabul. He is pleased with what he sees as the ANSF continues to demonstrate this increasing capability and capacity. With two years remaining before the end of transition, he is confident that ISAF's mission will conclude with the ANSF well prepared to maintain long-term security in Afghanistan. The Minister for Defence will also update the parliament on detailed developments in Afghanistan.

We can and should conclude that today, across Afghanistan, the process of transition is on track. In Uruzgan province, where Australia’s efforts are centred, transition commenced on 17 July of this year and will follow this model. These are the facts on the ground there.

Transition has commenced and the 4th Brigade is assuming the lead on security operations. The main districts are under government control. The Afghan security presence in outlying districts has expanded over the past two years with the growth of the ANSF. Insurgent attacks have fallen. One of the 4th Brigade’s kandaks is now operating independently and, based on current progress, the other three should commence independent operations by the end of this year.

As transition proceeds in the province, Australia will adjust our military and civilian posture there. Our main focus will be at Brigade Headquarters and the provincial Operations Coordination Centre. The ADF will advise and train the Afghan National Army’s logistics, engineering and other combat support elements. Our Mentoring Task Force will shift to a smaller advisory task force model, we will cease routine partnered operations at the kandak level and our presence will consolidate in the multinational base at Tarin Kot.

Let me emphasise that this shift in posture, likely to occur around the end of the year, is not the end of our combat operations in Uruzgan. Our Special Operations Task Group will continue to operate against the insurgency and our advisory task force will retain a combat-ready capability. This is the course of transition in Uruzgan.

On 18 October, Australia assumed command of Combined Team-Uruzgan. We now oversee the critical phase of transition in the province. We will take account of the conditions on the ground and the evolving capabilities of the 4th Brigade. The shift in our posture will be gradual and measured, closely aligned with the broader ISAF transition strategy and consulting closely with Afghan and provincial authorities. This is the key judgement which will be before us in the year to come: judging the progress of transition and delivering the phases by which it is completed.

When I addressed the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in April, the government’s view was that, once started, transition in Uruzgan should take 12 to 18 months and that, when transition is complete, the majority of our troops will have returned home. Six months on, and three months in to transition, our analysis is that this remains the case. As we begin detailed planning for its final phases, which of course remain some time off, it is likely that we will identify the need for some additional personnel and resources to complete those final phases of practical extraction and repatriation. We will apply the lessons of previous operational drawdowns to ensure stability and security through the whole period. And, when transition in Uruzgan is complete, we will remain committed to the ISAF strategy for nationwide transition, advising the ANSF as they develop their command and logistics capabilities and providing institutional training.

The Australian Federal Police has done important work training the Afghan National Police at the Police Training Centre at Tarin Kot. As transition proceeds, our future effort will focus on leadership training and strategic advisory support at the national level. This will help the Afghan National Police manage their own transition: from paramilitary activity as part of the counterinsurgency, to a constabulary force performing conventional civilian policing roles.

Our development aid effort will continue. Australian aid is making a real difference to the lives of the Afghan people, and helping their nation on the path to development and peace. In Uruzgan, the Australian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team does great work: contributing to a sixfold increase in the number of schools operating, tripling the number of active health facilities and supporting a stronger provincial administration. As transition proceeds in Uruzgan, our aid workers and diplomats will continue their important task. This will be the work of transition through the year ahead.

A new threat to our mission has been emerging in Afghanistan for some time—insider attacks. In my discussions with President Karzai this month, it was clear to me that he understands the threat these attacks pose to our mission. In my discussions with General Allen, he expressed his personal sympathy for Australia’s losses. He was also just as conscious as our own commanders of the need for the right mix of force protection measures.

Australia is not alone. Many of our international partners have also suffered casualties. Overnight, we received reports of an insider attack on British troops in Helmand province. Indeed, insider attacks have targeted Afghan troops in even greater numbers than international troops.

This is how we are protecting our troops. First, in order to know how best to counter the threat, our commanders have analysed the attacks and their circumstances. Each attack has specific motivations and specific circumstances. We must understand them to defeat them.

Second, in the wake of the insider attack on 29 August this year, we reviewed force protection to counter the risks of insider threats. Naturally, we do not publicly detail the nature of these. The government continually reviews the professional advice on force protection measures to ensure the risks of such attacks are minimised: I am confident that we are doing all that we can.

Third, the Afghan government has now been conducting biometric screening and other information gathering for all ANSF recruits for two years. Recruits are subject to an eight-step vetting process, supported by information sharing and overseen by the international force. The Afghan Ministry of the Interior, along with coalition partners, works to identify insurgent sympathisers and subversive elements within the security forces. These are important countermeasures.

We know it would be a strategic mistake to overestimate the enemy’s strengths or achievements. To see an adversary’s hand where it may not exist only enhances the propaganda value of an attack. This difficult military environment and determined insurgent enemy breeds asymmetric threats—spectacular attacks, roadside bombs, insider attacks—often designed to influence international opinion. We know the impact of these attacks on the troops and their units, on their families and on the Australian public is very significant. Australia has suffered four insider attacks in all so far, with seven killed and 12 wounded. The greater strategic threat of insider attacks comes not from the attacks themselves, but from the risk that we respond to them wrongly.

The best evidence that we will prevail against the threat from insider attacks is this: we have not allowed it to disrupt our training and operations with the 4th Brigade. Every day, our troops and police, diplomats and development advisers get on with the job. I saw them during my most recent visit to Kabul and Tarin Kot on 14 October and I can tell the House this: their courage will not fail. They are getting the job done every day. And they are determined to complete their mission of training and transition.

2012 has brought important progress in Afghanistan. It has also brought important decisions on our future course there. As a partner of Afghanistan, as a member of ISAF and now as a member of the UN Security Council, Australia will be an active participant in this planning in the coming year. In May, when President Karzai and I signed a Comprehensive Long-Term Partnership agreement, Australia joined a growing group of countries, including the United States, India and China, who have partnerships with Afghanistan to help consolidate and build on the gains of the past 10 years. The Chicago NATO-ISAF Summit set milestones for transition and agreed to a new NATO training mission post-2014. The Tokyo Conference saw international agreement to an aid and development plan and specific pledges of support.

2013 will now bring important preparations for the period after transition is complete. When transition is complete across Afghanistan at the end of 2014, the government of Afghanistan will have full responsibility for security.

The broad outlines of a comprehensive framework for supporting Afghanistan beyond 2014 are now agreed. There will be substantial international financial support to sustain strong Afghan defence and police forces. The international community is looking to commit US$3.6 billion each year from 2015 to 2017. As I announced in Chicago, Australia is contributing US$100 million in three years. There will be a new NATO-led mission after 2014—not for combat, but to train, advise and assist the ANSF. Australia will make a contribution to this mission including through the Afghan National Army Officer Academy.

To guard against any possibility of a return of international terrorism in Afghanistan, I expect the United States and Afghan governments to discuss possible future arrangements for counter-terrorism training and operations. As I have stated previously, the Australian government is prepared to consider a limited Special Forces contribution, in the right circumstances and under the right mandate.

There will be substantial international development assistance and support for Afghanistan’s economic and social development: the ultimate proof against conflict and instability. At Chicago, I pledged Australian development assistance to Afghanistan will rise from A$165 million in 2011-12 to A$250 million by 2015-16, as part of the international community's commitment to provide US$16 billion over four years from 2014.

Beyond 2014, Australia will still have a national interest in denying international terrorism a safe haven in Afghanistan. It will still be in our national interest to remain part of the broad international effort to support Afghanistan—and to ensure the Afghan government remains an active partner. At Tokyo, Australia joined in the Mutual Accountability Framework, by which the Afghan government made important commitments in this respect.

Through our aid program we will encourage the Afghan government to fulfil its reform commitments. It must strengthen governance, combat corruption, promote the rule of law and uphold the rights and freedoms for Afghan men and women guaranteed in the Afghan constitution.

We will also help the Afghans prepare for the 2014 presidential elections. I welcome the Afghan government’s commitment to announce the elections time line soon. Credible, inclusive and transparent elections, following the presidential elections of 2004 and 2009 and the parliamentary elections of 2005 and 2010, are among the most important signs of Afghanistan’s decade-long transformation. So our aid will support the electoral process.

With Afghanistan firmly responsible for the security of its sovereign state after 2014, international political and diplomatic efforts to support peace and stability in Afghanistan and in its region will be central. We will continue to support an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process of peace building which protects the gains of the past decade in areas such as democracy and human rights, including the rights of women and children. We support reconciliation and the reintegration of insurgents who are prepared to lay down their arms, renounce violence, cut ties with al-Qaeda and respect the Afghanistan constitution.

The constructive engagement and support of Afghanistan's neighbours, in particular of Pakistan, is also essential over time. For instance, the Istanbul process to strengthen trade links and tackle common security concerns through what is known as the 'Heart of Asia' region is an important international initiative. In a conflict-riven region, there is growing recognition from regional leaders that all have a long-term interest in a secure, stable, self-governing Afghanistan. I welcome the comments of the President of Pakistan that his country respects and supports reconciliation and peace efforts by the government of Afghanistan. I also welcome the Pakistani government’s direct appeal to the Taliban to participate in these reconciliation and peace efforts. We will work with Afghanistan—and with Pakistan—in those areas where our best judgement is that cooperation against terrorism which threatens both states is effective and real. And we will do whatever else we judge best makes a difference in this difficult and sensitive task.

Our progress since 2009, our plans through to 2014 and beyond, should give Australians cause for measured confidence and resolve. We are part of a sound international strategy: transition to Afghan-led security, then support to Afghanistan for development and peace. Our contribution today is proportionate to our own interest and to the contribution of our allies and the world: our troops number around 1,550 out of a 100,000-strong coalition force, supporting a near 352,000-strong ANSF. Our mission in Uruzgan is clear and achievable: to prepare the 4th Brigade for a handover of full security responsibility. Our commitment to Afghanistan is in Australia’s national interest. We are there to deny international terrorism a safe haven, to stand firm with our ally the United States.

In Afghanistan and in Uruzgan, we see progress, but of course it is not perfect. We know this—I know this—and our plans reflect this. Throughout the three years of the new international strategy, the international coalition and the Afghan government have held a very realistic view of the evolving environment and changes in the nature of the insurgent threat.

We know that as Afghan forces increasingly take the lead through 2013, the Taliban will seek to test them. We know that not every valley or village in Uruzgan or Afghanistan will be peaceful or free from insurgency. There will be difficult days ahead, setbacks in the transition process, days when our resolve will be tested.

We will stand firm. As a nation, we have a job to do. It is a difficult and dangerous one and we are determined to complete it—not to make things perfect, but to ensure that Afghanistan will never again be what it was in 2001: a place where terrorists trained and prepared to attack us. Across Afghanistan, the national government and the Afghan and international forces are making progress in transition. And we are preparing for the future beyond 2014.

Thirty-nine Australians have been killed in action in our decade in Afghanistan. Each that we lose takes part of us. We have not known loss like this in 40 years. Seven Australians have died since my statement to the parliament on our mission last year. Sergeant Blaine Diddams was killed in a firefight with insurgents on 2 July. Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Private Robert Poate and Sapper James Martin were killed by an insider attack on 29 August. Private Nathanael Galagher and Lance Corporal Mervyn McDonald were killed in a helicopter crash on 30 August. Corporal Scott Smith was killed by an improvised explosive device on 21 October. His funeral will be held in coming days.

The poet John Manifold wrote of the 'cairn of words' we build over our silent dead. Yes, we will remember them. And it is right that we give words to our sorrow and pride. But we must do more. Their widows, their children, their wounded mates—these Australians live on, they live amongst us, as we who are left grow old.

I had the privilege of visiting some of them last week. I was overwhelmed by their determination to overcome, to return from their wounding to supreme physical fitness, to return to their duties. But they will never forget the bomb, the bullet, the helicopter crash. They could not forget, even if they tried. We have an obligation to them too. The next decade will see more young Australian combat veterans live in our community than since the 1970s. This is demanding changes in the way the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans' Affairs care for service personnel and veterans.

Organisations such as Legacy and the RSL have performed nearly a century of service to care for those to whom we owe so much. Their invaluable work goes on. In continuing to provide this support and care for Australian soldiers, these organisations will be seeking to adapt to the changing, younger profile of the Australian veteran. New organisations such as Soldier On have been established to help our wounded service men and women and their families achieve great things despite their wounds.

Every Australian should know—you can lend a hand. Give generously, buy a badge, visit, become a volunteer. Respect for our soldiers and veterans is precious: please say hello and say thanks. We have known loss in Afghanistan—but we have known more. We have seen astonishing courage. Some Australians have performed acts of the most extreme bravery in the presence of the enemy. Many more demonstrate a quiet courage, in their devotion to duty every day under the strain of war—in the villages, on the airfield, in the workshop. Their service has kept us safer from terrorism. They have given us cause for confidence and an example of resolve. For us, they march down a hard path in Afghanistan. They know that, for our nation, any other path would risk much more. We will support them as they serve us in Afghanistan and when they return. We will see them through.

I thank the House and I present a copy of my statement.