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Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Page: 1395

Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (09:55) by leave—I thank the Minister for Defence for his update on progress on the withdrawal from Afghanistan and pay tribute to the 40 service people from Australia who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. I want to extend our sympathy to their families and of course offer our support to the 261 who have been wounded in action and to all of the service men and women who have returned and are coming back from Afghanistan. The Australian Greens absolutely honour your contribution to our nation, and we commit to supporting you on your return. Mental health issues are very real and need to be addressed, and the Australian Greens will be here to support whatever efforts are needed to look after families, those who have been wounded and those who are suffering as a result of their engagement.

I need to point out that when you consider a war you need to think about what has been achieved, why we were there and who made the decision to go—because people lost their lives. The Greens did not oppose Australia joining military action under the auspices of the United Nations in Afghanistan in 2001 following the horrific September 11 2001 attacks. Like so many others, we hoped that swift military intervention under the auspices of the UN to capture and bring to justice the leaders of Al Qaeda could help make the world a safer place and prevent the loss of so many more lives. But we did not support the withdrawal in 2002 and the redeployment to Iraq and then the lost opportunities in Afghanistan, or the 2005-06 redeployment of the Special Forces to Afghanistan.

Over that period we have sent men and women to risk their lives, but the reason they were there was never clear after 2005 and 2006. Mission creep with no clear outcome was the result. Major General Cantwell says in his book Exit Wounds:

… we need to have a crystal clear understanding of why we're getting into the fight, how long for, what we hope to achieve, how we will leave, and what conditions might prompt us to change strategy—this has let us down in Afghanistan. Human beings die as a result of warfare.

The point he is clearly making is not that our troops have not done us proud—they absolutely have in Afghanistan and we thank them for it—but that responsibility lies with parliaments and with governments. From the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan we in the Australian Greens were calling for a parliamentary debate on our deployment. It was nine years from when the government of John Howard first committed our forces in September 2001 until the parliament officially debated our deployment, in October 2010. That is not good enough. If we are to honour and truly respect the sacrifices that our troops make, we have to be very clear about why they are being deployed and we should have the support of the parliament, not just the government of the day, in committing those troops.

Major General Cantwell asked the hard question, 'Is it worth it?' He went on to talk about that in some depth:

But will our efforts, no matter how impressive locally, significantly influence the myriad problems afflicting the government and people of Afghanistan? Ten years from now, will anyone in Afghanistan remember that Australians shed blood for them? For a man like me, a lifetime soldier inculcated with a sense of duty and service, these are difficult questions to confront.

He went onto say that, in his view, it was not worth it. He said:

I cannot justify any one of the Australian lives lost in Afghanistan.

That indeed is a tragic statement but it goes to the heart of this mission creep and why we were there and the increasing view around the world that Australia was committed in Afghanistan more to its alliance with the United States than to have an outcome that was achievable.

So at this point, out of respect for people who have served there, who have lost their lives or have come back injured physically and mentally, we need to now make sure that we do try to maintain the advances that have been made that were set out by the minister in his speech. This goes to the heart of Australia's deployment of aid in Afghanistan, to make sure that we continue to support the education of women and girls in particular, but it also means that we use our best efforts to make sure that the media remains interested in Afghanistan post the withdrawal of the troops so that the rest of the world comes to see what is actually going on there. There is a very real concern from NGOs in Afghanistan that they are not going to be able to continue to enable women to access medical facilities—for example, girls to access school—because, as one of their long-time activists and former parliamentarian Malalai Joya has said, history proves that these values cannot be imposed by foreign troops. She goes on to talk about the need for the countries that were engaged in the war in Afghanistan to now stand up to the administration in Afghanistan and insist that women's rights, that human rights, are upheld in Afghanistan. That is a critical issue for all of us in this parliament.

In closing, I want to acknowledge not only our own troops who have died and been injured but also the cost to the people of Afghanistan. A large number of civilians have died in Afghanistan in that violence. This has been a human tragedy at every scale and the Australian Greens, in paying tribute to the service of our men and women, ask that the parliament thinks very carefully about changing the way we deploy our troops to war in the future. It should use a reflection on this period in Afghanistan to change the law in this country to make sure that it is parliament which actually backs deployment of troops and not just the government of the day.