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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 392


Mr DREYFUS (3:00 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Defence. Can the minister please outline what steps the government has taken to ensure that NATO has a coherent military plan and overall strategy in place for success in Afghanistan?


Mr FITZGIBBON (Minister for Defence) —I thank the member for Isaacs for the question. I know that, like many new members to this place, he will be making a substantial contribution to the debate in Australia. In opposition, the Labor Party supported the intervention in Afghanistan. We did so because we wanted to ensure that the mission, so important to Australia’s national security, enjoyed broad public support. The new government continues to support the Afghanistan project. The international community cannot afford to sit back and allow a failed state to remain a breeding ground for terrorists prepared to kill innocent people en masse in the name of their extremist beliefs. I described the war in Afghanistan as a project, and I did so quite deliberately. I did so because the work of the international community there necessarily goes well beyond the military action—consolidating new democratic health and educational institutions, building economic capacity absent of narcotics and developing Afghanistan’s security forces to the point where the government can independently enforce the rule of law or require coherent and coordinated plans which marry all military and non-military strategies.

Unfortunately, such coordinated and coherent plans have been the absent part of the Afghanistan jigsaw. Indeed, the highly respected Lord Paddy Ashdown said only today that the absence of an agreed national strategy meant that in Afghanistan ‘defeat is now a real possibility’. What a tragedy failure in Afghanistan would be for all of those who have given their lives for the cause or have been badly injured. What an ominous development it would be for global security and for the Afghan people. What a tragedy it would be if all the good work done so far in the end were to count for nought.

There have been significant gains. Economic growth in the war-weary country is currently running at an impressive eight per cent. Health care in Afghanistan also continues to improve. Indeed, 80 per cent of the Afghani people now have access to basic health care services. Infant mortality rates continue to steadily decline. The number of Afghan children receiving an education now exceeds some six million. Importantly, a number of those, some two million people, are girls. The outcomes flowing from Australia’s military role have been significant and substantial. The work of our Special Forces, our infantry, our cavalry and other elements are very highly regarded by our partners. Our Defence Force engineers, tradespeople and project managers are rebuilding local infrastructure. They have helped construct schools and bridges. Amongst those schools is an important trade-training school. What a tragedy it would be if this were all for nil.

Unsurprisingly, the future of the Afghanistan project was an early priority for me when I was appointed the Minister for Defence. Alarmingly, early in the course of my work I found a lack of common objectives amongst the partners—no coherent strategy; confused chains of command and blurred lines of responsibility; a failing counternarcotics strategy; the absence of benchmarks for progress; a crisis in burden sharing, with a number of NATO countries failing to meet or live up to their side of the bargain; and poor progress in advancing Afghan security forces towards the critical mass in skill required for them to be able to hold our military gains. But what surprised me most was the extent to which Australia had been denied access to important war information and excluded from the strategic-planning processes. Our people have been going to war, some to make the ultimate sacrifice, but it seems their political masters have been happy to sit on the sidelines.


Mr Downer —That is not true.


Mr FITZGIBBON —I hear the interjection from the former foreign minister.


The SPEAKER —Order! The minister will ignore interjections, and the honourable member for Mayo will not interject.


Mr FITZGIBBON —He says, ‘That is not true.’ Let me refer the former Minister for Foreign Affairs and all members of the House to an ABC radio interview which occurred on AM just this morning. The interview was with a NATO spokesperson. The reporter asked the NATO spokesperson whether these complaints to NATO were new. He asked the spokesperson very deliberately, ‘Oh, do you mean Australia and other non-NATO countries have made these complaints before?’ And here is his response. It is very important. He said:

Countries like Sweden and Finland for example, that are very heavily deployed with us in Afghanistan, but are not NATO members have raised this issue in the past...

I repeat: ‘Countries like Sweden and Finland’. I did not hear any reference to Australia in the NATO spokesperson’s remarks. But the new government is determined that if we are to send our troops to war we must be privy to the war plan and we must always be part of the planning strategy. No government, surely, can make informed decisions about whether to send their people to war or keep them at war without access to the vital information required both to assess the risk involved and to assess the likelihood of success.

In Vilnius last week I told my NATO counterparts and the Secretary General that their failure to share information with the Australian government and to exclude us from those planning processes were both unsustainable. I am pleased to report to the House that no NATO country raised any objections to my appeals and that, along with a number of key defence ministers, including from the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Canada, the Secretary General made a personal commitment to me that he would do all he could to right this wrong. I was very pleased to hear the Secretary General’s spokesman today also reinforce that commitment that I heard in Vilnius last week. I was also very pleased to hear him acknowledge, on behalf of NATO, the very good work our troops are doing in Afghanistan. Advancing beyond the Vilnius promises will not be easy, nor will embracing or getting NATO to embrace new strategies, but the size of the challenge should be no reason not to try; the stakes are all too high.