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Wednesday, 14 March 2012
Page: 1732


Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Bob Brown is entitled to be heard in silence, as is everyone else who asks a question in this chamber.

Senator BOB BROWN ( Tasmania Leader of the Australian Greens ) ( 14:23 ): Mr President, I respect the opposition's deference to the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, so I have pleasure in asking him a question, to be his first question as minister, and I welcome him to the chamber.

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order! I need to hear the question. When everyone has finished having their discussion and the excitement is over we will proceed to hear Senator Brown. Those on my right and on my left, order!

Senator BOB BROWN: Thank you, Mr President.

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Brown, I think there is just a little bit too much excitement about this question.

Senator BOB BROWN: And a little bit of 'Carrphobia', Mr President, but I have not caught it. I ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs the following. Regarding Afghanistan, Britain has withdrawn 400 troops, the United States is intending to withdraw 33,000 troops by September, both Canada and the Netherlands have withdrawn their whole combat troop complement. How many Australian combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan this year and, if the answer is none, why is that?

Senator BOB CARR (New South Wales) (14:24): I can well understand that it is fear that overtakes any observer in looking at events in Afghanistan. The tragic deaths of 16 civilians killed by an American soldier in Kandahar require us to send our condolences to all the Afghan families affected. This is tragic, and it is tragic because it heightens that drift towards a clash of civilisations, which I think we would be united in wanting to deplore.

I wish to remind the Senate, however, that we are in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate. I want to remind the Senate that we are there because we sought to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven in the considerations that overtook the world after September 11. That was a legitimate aspiration. We are there as well to set up the Afghan people for a future in which they will not be intimidated by terrorism and in which women will not be denied their rights. I can point with pride to some of the concrete achievements of Australia and its partners working in Afghanistan, including: since 2001—and I think it is a very compelling indicator—the number of school enrolments in Afghanistan have increased from one million, virtually none of whom were girls, to over seven million today, and 2.5 million of those are young females; the increased access to basic health care; and the support of the delivery of no fewer than 45,000 community development projects in 25,000 communities.

We are committed with our partners to a transition. It is a transition that sees the Afghan people and their forces take responsibility for defence. We are moving with our forces— (Time expired)

Senator BOB BROWN (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (14:26): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I ask the foreign minister: is he aware that the Karzai government just last week promulgated regulations which, amongst other things, permit husbands to beat their wives? I ask him: is he aware of the comments by Malalai Joya, a former Afghan parliamentarian, who said:

I feel confident that if foreign countries stop meddling in Afghanistan and if we are left free from occupation, then a strong progressive and democratic force will emerge.

Senator BOB CARR (New South Wales) (14:27): Mr President, I think there would be considerable scepticism from people who have studied Afghanistan that the withdrawal of ISAF partners would lead to that happy outcome. How much all of us would wish that that would be the case, but there is no evidence that a withdrawal would produce such a happy result—that is, a democratic, secular Afghanistan in which rights were more respected than they are today. I take seriously the senator's reference to such objectionable laws as the one he instanced and I will ask our ambassador to Afghanistan, who I spoke to yesterday, to pursue that and to register a protest if, in fact, that is a statement of the case.

We are engaged in a transition process. We want to have our troops out of there as soon as we can, compatible with the achievement of our goals. We are absolutely in lockstep with our partners in this goal.

Senator BOB BROWN (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (14:28): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. I ask the minister: is he aware that each opinion poll shows an increasing number of Australians—most recently 72 per cent, in the Morgan poll—are opposed to having our troops remain in Afghanistan? I ask the minister: why is it that Australia is not in lockstep with its similar partners and has withdrawn no troops from Afghanistan?

Senator BOB CARR (New South Wales) (14:29): Every step in this transition process is performed by us in careful consultation with our partners. We are committed to that transition process. That transition process is already underway. Around half the Afghan population is now living in areas where transition has commenced, and more areas will commence transition later this year, including in Oruzgan province. Australian forces in that province will continue to focus on developing the capacity of the Afghan National Army's 4th Brigade so that it can take on the lead security role in that province before the end of 2014. Neither we nor our partners want to repeat the errors of the past, when a premature withdrawal of forces simply resulted in the emergence of a terrorist safe haven and, worse than that, a colossal degradation of the conditions and freedoms of the struggling people of Afghanistan. (Time expired)