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Thursday, 24 November 2011
Page: 13747

Mr ROBERT (Fadden) (09:25): I rise to respond to the Minister for Defence's fifth update to the House. He said in his March update, the first of the five this year, that he would seek to make timely, relevant responses on combat operations in Afghanistan and, to his credit, he has kept his word. I note the machinations of this morning and the loss of Speaker Jenkins. Despite having been tossed out nine times in this parliament, I am sure none of which were my fault, I certainly echo the Leader of the Opposition's words that the House has wide regard and respect for Speaker Jenkins. I am sure he will be missed, certainly on the reruns of the Sunday television programs.

I rise for the fifth time this year to respond to the Minister for Defence. Last Tuesday I responded to the Prime Minister's update in respect of combat operations in Afghanistan. I thank the minister for the opportunity to respond to his comments. I note the time the minister spent with respect to transition and the way transition is going. The coalition offers wide, deep and lasting bipartisan support to combat operations in Afghanistan; the bipartisan support is not conditional, except on the national interest. Whilst bipartisan support is given freely and given widely with great trust, we do acknowledge that it is not a blank cheque. We do expect to be kept updated, both publicly through the House and privately through the statutes of the House. I acknowledge that the minister does both of those to his enduring credit.

The Lisbon treaty set the transition date for 2014, a date the coalition accepts and acknowledges. The government, to their credit, has also reinforced this by making it clear that any withdrawal from Afghanistan will be metrics-based and based on a sound judgment at a command level. We believe the government continues to hold to that account and I note the minister's comments on transition that we have now moved to a stage of mobile mentoring teams. We are moving away from an establishment of 30 footprints and forward patrol bases to manning 11 bases, and the minister hopes to have the permanent manning down to four patrol bases with the extensive use of the mobile mentoring teams to make up for the reduced footprint of Australian soldiers.

I note the minister's comments that the transition is going well. In terms of stability, economics, infrastructure and construction, things continue to improve. The Leader of the Opposition and I were at the forward patrol base in the upper reaches of the Mirabad Valley, six kilometres outside Tarin Kowt, in October 2010, when a massive firefight was underway to capture the ridgeline above the Mirabad Valley. In May 2011 I went back to that patrol base and sat down with the leaders of the community, including a number of former mujaheddin fighters, in a traditional shura for an hour and a half. The issues of security, defence and insurgency were not raised once in that hour and a half, yet six months before there was a brutal firefight on that ridgeline to capture the area. Six months later, such was the degree of security that in that one and a half hours of discussion the issues raised included: when is the road coming to the Mirabad Valley? Thank you for the mosque. When are we looking at replacement crops for poppies? How are we dealing with economic activity? When is the school replacement going in? How is the issue of markets being addressed?

There is no greater example of the transition from combat operations to economic activity than in the Musaza'i patrol base, seven kilometres outside Tarin Kowt in the Mirabad valley. Its testimony adds value and weight to the minister's words that the transition is moving sensibly and appropriately.

With respect to the minister's announcement, the coalition supports the commencement of the transfer of detainees to the Afghan National Director of Security, the NDS. It is fundamental that the NDS within Oruzgan are capable, are appropriate, have enough staff and resources and the proper processes to enable them to effectively take detainees to prosecute information available to them, to treat them humanely within the rules of armed conflict and, within a civil society, the law, and then release them or move them through to a court process. The minister has provided a range of assurances that the Afghan National Director of Security is operating within these norms. The investigation the minister alluded to has shown that in the Oruzgan facility no noncompliance was found. The coalition accepts that and supports the commencement of the transfer of detainees.

We also support the length of time to hold detainees increasing from 96 hours to 10 days, which is in line with our ISAF partners. In the previous four responses I have made to the minister—in March, May, July and October—I have called consistently for a number of things to occur, including for the time to hold detainees to be widened from 96 hours to the full 10 days in line with our ISAF partners. The minister, to his credit, has agreed to that and has given the instruction for that to occur. That will give the military a whole range of options to use. It is important that in armed conflict, which is ostensibly a battle of wills, we provide our military with the full gamut of combat power and the full gamut to achieve effects on the battlefield. One of the major ways to achieve an effect on the battlefield is a full and proper prosecution of information and processing that into intelligence.

It is impossible and has been impossible to fully prosecute that battlefield effect while holding detainees for only 96 hours and, in that, only allowing a limited degree of tactical questioning. In line with that, the coalition supports the minister's moving towards setting up a full primary interrogation centre which allows the full prosecution of information from detainees. Likewise, the coalition supports the full use of our detainee facility. The Commonwealth has spent $5 million on a state-of-the-art ostensible interrogation facility, and we have not used its full gamut of capabilities for 12 months. With the announcement by the minister that a full interrogation capability will be sent to Afghanistan, it will allow us to fully prosecute that information effect on the battlefield.

I join the minister in acknowledging that some people may have concerns, especially around the term 'interrogation' and what it actually means. I note the member for Eden-Monaro is here. He was in Iraq during the Abu Ghraib affair and played a significant role in bringing sanity to what was otherwise an insane situation. He and I both know, having served operationally overseas, that perception can tend to be a long way away from the fact. Let me assure people that interrogation is as much an art as a science, but it is an incredibly disciplined art and a disciplined science. We are talking about a primary interrogation centre that includes full medical support, full psychological support, substantially trained interrogators and where everything is captured on CCTV. There is also full access for the Red Cross and other humanitarian organisations. I can speak with some authority on the issue of interrogation, being a trained military interrogator—probably the only one the House has had for a while, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott.

Mr Stephen Smith: Forever.

Mr ROBERT: Or perhaps ever. As a trained interrogator I know patently well what is involved in the art and science of interrogation, how we deploy it and what we do with it. I also say to Minister Smith that I have spent 24 quality hours in one of our Australian interrogation centres. It is very hard to be an interrogator unless you have undergone the process of being interrogated to know how both sides of the fence work.

With that experience from my former military days—looking across at the member for Eden-Monaro, a former colonel in the military who has great experience in this matter as well—I can say with some authority that the minister's decision to employ the full gamut of interrogation capability, based on 12 months of deliberation and making sure things will work appropriately, is sound and sensible. It will be managed and monitored. I believe the minister has deployed a one-star general to manage detainee management, so there is tremendous oversight. We will have a full range of interrogators under a suitably senior officer, all videotaped, all managed, with every word and action accountable and this will finally allow Australian forces to fully prosecute all detainees and to seek out, through tactical questioning, the information detainees may hold and the value that information may have. We will be able to determine what is more appropriate for which detainees and which should be held for longer periods of time for the full extraction of information that may be worth while and of value.

For those who hear the word 'interrogation' and immediately picture Abu Ghraib, I say with great confidence and experience that that could not be further from the truth of what interrogation capability brings to the fore. We are talking about suitably trained intelligence corps officers. As we know, the intelligence corps of the Australian Army is one of the finest and most professional corps. It will do the nation proud in its use of interrogation.

I note the minister has told of 1,074 detainees from 1 August 2010 to 18 November 2011. That is an enormous number of people captured on the battlefield or detained at checkpoints because of information that had been gathered. People were detained by special forces because they were persons of interest. This enormous number of people needs to be tactically questioned and their information, alibis, equipment and what they have on them needs to be assessed by an intelligence professional. Decisions then need to be made about what to do with them.

With that number of people coming through a detainee management system, it is crucial that we have a viable NDS which we now do as the minister has assured the House, with 154 being passed to the NDS or US forces. That still leaves over 900 people passing through the Australian system, not going to the NDS or the US forces, that the Australian system will either release or now has the opportunity to pass through to a primary interrogation centre for the further extraction of valuable information. I think we can all be assured that our ISAF partners will be incredibly pleased with the decision that has been made. Whilst we look at a number of people recaptured, that is inevitable within a theatre of combat operations. Now, hopefully, with the implementation of the PIC, we will see the incidence of recapturing and redetaining certainly reduced as we can more formally address the issue of information extraction.

I note that the minister has said that of the 30 or 40 allegations that have been fully investigated, for those who have actually made complaints within our detaining facility, none have had any basis to them. I suggest with some confidence that probably none ever will. I think it is axiomatic that those detained on the battlefield—especially knowing full well that we are a First World nation and we operate within the rule of law, a nation that is accountable, and that detainee numbers will be reported to the people within parliament and that each investigation will have suitable oversight—are well aware of the First World rights that they enjoy within our First World facility, and I note that the Taliban would never afford us even a Fourth World right or, indeed, any of our soldiers such rights.

Having said that, we are better than that as a nation. We are better than who they are and what they do in terms of their actions. So it is important that we continue to thoroughly investigate each allegation as it arises, noting that those to date have had no basis, and we will continue to investigate and to show the Afghan authorities, as well as the nongovernment sector within Afghanistan, that we follow complaints to the letter of the law. It is important that our soldiers, sailors and airmen also understand that we will continue to follow those processes wherever we go.

I can only assume that the minister will continue next year his tradition this year of updating the House at least every quarter—I see a nod from the minister—to ensure that the parliament is fully abreast of where things are going in Afghanistan. The next year will be a decisive year in terms of combat operations. This year, over the last winter, the Taliban have not regained any of the losses through the last fighting season leading into the next. They have not regained any of the initiatives. As the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, prepares to transition across from MTF 3 to MTF 4 based on the 8th and 9th Battalion over the Christmas period, it is my expectation, from looking at what our soldiers, sailors and airmen have done to date, that that initiative will not be resumed by the Taliban. Next year we will see a transitioning down from more patrol bases to mobile mentoring teams. It will see the further destruction of the intelligence, communications and command elements of the Taliban, and further economic development within the community.

Let us not underestimate the value of economic activity or the work that the Provincial Reconstruction Team is doing. When the sealed road from Chora to Tarin Kowt went in, the price of palm oil in Chora, that used to be seven times that in Tarin Kowt, dropped to only twice that price. That type of productivity improvement—using the language we would use in parliament—is fundamental to the lives of people. And whilst many of the people will question the legitimacy of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Jawara, it is incredibly difficult to say that the ISAF forces are not delivering value when suddenly the price of palm oil has dropped from seven times down to two. It is a tangible reminder of the value of what we are doing in this theatre.

I thank the minister again for his update to the House. He knows that the government enjoys full coalition support in the prosecution of combat operations. The coalition support the minister's announcements on the commencement of the transfer of detainees to NDS, the ability to hold from 96 hours to 10 days. We support the implementation of the PIC and the full use of the detaining facility. I thank the minister for his update to the House.