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Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Page: 12733

Mr ABBOTT (WarringahLeader of the Opposition) (09:30): I rise to support the comprehensive statement of the Prime Minister and I welcome this chance to express the coalition's support for our continuing military commitment to Afghanistan. After another year of military operations, it is fitting that we in this parliament should recommit to the campaign. Again I place on record the coalition's pride in the magnificent work of the Australian forces there. Their job is difficult and dangerous but they undertake it with great skill and dedication.

We mourn the 39 Australians killed. They are our finest. We honour them and we will never forget them. They join the 60,000 Australians killed in World War I, the 39,000 killed in World War II, the 340 killed in the Korean War, the 521 killed in Vietnam and others on our national roll of honour. We also pay tribute to the 242 who have been wounded in the line of duty. Those who have not recovered fully from their injuries must have the best possible support.

We grieve with the families of the dead and the wounded. The dead, the wounded and the grieving have paid a heavy price but it has not been in vain. The best available assessments are that al-Qaeda has largely lost the capacity to inflict harm on Western countries, if not the will. It remains dangerous and we must remain vigilant, but it is on a path to defeat. In Afghanistan, the best advice is that the International Security Assistance Force and its Afghan partners have continued to make security gains. As the Prime Minister has noted, Afghan security forces now have lead responsibility for all the provincial capitals and for the areas with most of the country's population. But progress is fragile. The Taliban remains difficult to dislodge across significant parts of the country's south and the border with Pakistan, where insurgents continue to find safe haven, remains porous.

Assessments are mixed about whether the Afghan security forces will be ready to cope with taking on prime security responsibility after 2014. There is no certainty that hard-won gains can be held. There was never going to be a clear victory in this war. Still, each village that is no longer subject to extortion, each child whose horizons have been lifted and each girl who is now able to go to school and make her own life constitutes a kind of victory. Every day when life is better than it would otherwise have been is a victory and every day is better thanks to the presence of Australian forces.

Australia went to Afghanistan with our allies and we will leave with our allies. The United States, Britain and other contributors to the International Security Assistance Force have laid out a clear time frame for transition to full Afghan responsibility for combat operations by the end of 2014. All the contributors to the International Security Assistance Force emphasise that Afghanistan will not be abandoned beyond 2014 and I welcome the Prime Minister's commitment to an ongoing training role for our forces and to a likely and important anti-terrorist role for our special forces.

In Uruzgan, our area of prime responsibility, progress has been better than in the country as a whole, according to our own military commanders' assessments. That is why the task force can be smaller and troops can be withdrawn sooner than previously expected. In July, the Afghan government confirmed that Uruzgan was moving to Afghan-led security responsibility. If the transition goes to plan and the Afghan forces there are able to do their job, the bulk of the Australian forces should be able to return by the end of next year.

Our troop numbers are already dwindling. Within weeks the 750-strong 3RAR Task Group will be replaced by a smaller 7RAR Task Group, numbering about 450. Our role will shortly change from 'mentoring' the Afghan forces to 'advising' them. Our infantry will no longer be permanently at any of the current forward operating bases. They will do little, if any, patrolling with the Afghan Army but will, instead, advise them in the conduct of their own independent operations.

Our soldiers should not be in Afghanistan a moment longer than is necessary but should not leave while there is a job to do. If the transition from mentoring to advising to withdrawing leaves behind an Afghan Army capable of managing its own security, that will represent a job well done. In any event, our soldiers will be able to leave with their heads held high and their professionalism universally respected. They will have done all that and more than has ever been asked of them.

Australians were recently reminded of the evil we face in Afghanistan when the Pakistani Taliban attempted to murder a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai, for advocating a fair go for women, including girls' rights to education. Thanks to our soldiers' work, more schools are open in Uruzgan and many girls are getting an education for the first time.

Since the departure of the Dutch in mid-2010, the Australian mentoring task force has had a bigger job. With more responsibility has come more danger. This helps to explain the loss of 28 soldiers in the past three years, compared to 11 in the previous eight years of our involvement. I thank the Prime Minister for the very full account she has given of the efforts to protect our soldiers from treacherous allies. Betrayal like this saps our will to fight. That is why the Taliban devote such time to turning Afghan troops. It is reassuring that our own soldiers speak highly of their Afghan allies, most of whom they regard as worthy comrades. Having spoken to our soldiers, I cannot imagine a situation where our opponents have more determination or more warrior cunning than our Australian soldiers.   

The Howard government originally judged that it was in Australia's national interest to help evict the Taliban from power and to secure an Afghanistan that would never again grant sanctuary to al-Qaeda. It is to the credit of the Rudd and Gillard governments that they have maintained their predecessor's commitment and were even prepared to strengthen it following the withdrawal of most Australian forces from Iraq.

First, al-Qaeda represented a direct threat to all Western countries, as the September 11 atrocities demonstrated and as subsequent ones, such as in Bali and London, have confirmed. Al-Qaeda and its associates have murdered 108 Australians. It has also been a deadly threat to our own country from within, as shown by home-grown terrorist plots—all of which, thankfully, have so far been foiled. Second, it is in Australia's enduring national interest to be a reliable ally and friend. It is in our national character not to let down our friends when they need help. It is right that we have made a contribution to the worldwide struggle against Islamist extremism. Third, it is consistent with our best values as a nation to back efforts to remove an oppressive regime and to help establish a freer and fairer society in Afghanistan—especially for women.

I have to say that Afghanistan is unlikely to become a pluralist, liberal democracy any time soon. But that does not mean that Afghans have no wish to be free to choose their own rulers and their own way of life. Of course, after we have expended so much blood and treasure for so long, it is fair enough for Australians to ask why more has not been achieved. Still, the enthusiastic participation of great numbers of Afghans in multiparty elections in 2010, despite lethal intimidation, suggests that the desire for freedom and democracy is not merely a Western conceit.

We must count the cost of our continued commitment, but we must also count the cost of prematurely abandoning that mission. Should the international coalition's mission fail or end too soon, there is a strong risk that Afghanistan would once again descend into feudalism and once again become a base for international terrorism. If the Taliban were able to reassert control in Afghanistan, there would be a high risk that neighbouring Pakistan, a nuclear armed country under great internal pressure from its own extremists, could itself become critically destabilised. That is why this is not a distant struggle that we can safely ignore. I fully understand why many Australians would prefer to have our military forces out of harm's way, but we should be very wary of rushing for the exits and seeing much that has been achieved turn to dust. That would not be the right way to honour the sacrifice of our soldiers.

Whatever the future holds, there is no doubt that the Australians in Afghanistan have acquitted themselves in the best Anzac tradition. There is no doubt that the experience of Afghanistan has honed the skill and professionalism of our armed forces. We all hope and pray that they will never again have to be put in harm's way, but we would be foolish indeed to expect a world without conflict or to imagine an Australia that does not need powerful armed forces. One day, perhaps, the lion might lie down with the lamb and swords might be beaten into ploughshares. But, until that day comes, we would be unwise not to maintain armed forces fit to intervene wherever Australia's interests and values are at stake.