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Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Page: 911


Mr FITZGIBBON (12:48 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to debate Australia’s part in the international community’s efforts to stabilise Afghanistan. It is an initiative which, when I was Minister for Defence, seemed unnecessary. Back then, regular ministerial statements and shadow ministerial responses seemed to suffice. But two things have changed since then. First, 19 months on and 11 more deaths on, the Australian community is more and more sceptical about our prospects of success and increasingly doubtful about the merit in us being there at all.

Second, cracks have been appearing in the bipartisan support for the campaign. This latter development would be disappointing in any circumstance, but it is particularly disappointing given it appears, to me, to have been more about domestic politics than about the national interest or indeed about the interests of our troops in theatre—and this from a political party which, when in government, took its eye off the ball to pursue a non-UN-sanctioned foray into Iraq and was sending our troops into harm’s way in Afghanistan without insisting on being part of the strategic planning processes. I remember very well preparing to travel to Vilnius, Lithuania, to be the first Australian defence minister to speak at a NATO conference on Afghanistan. ‘Please make sure I have the NATO planning documents among my travel papers,’ I said to a senior official. The astonishing response was: ‘Sorry, Minister. As a non-NATO partner we don’t have access to them.’ I am delighted to report that that quickly changed.

I welcome the fact that the Leader of the Opposition has taken the opportunity of this debate to clarify the opposition’s position and to reaffirm their support for the mission in Afghanistan. My own contribution to the debate will be one which reaffirms my own belief in the mission and the manner in which we are pursuing our objectives. Let me provide three important reasons. First, when the twin towers came down on September 11 2001, the terms of ANZUS, our most important alliance, were invoked. It is easy for people to dismiss our participation in Afghanistan as a ‘suck to the US’. Let me send a very important message to all and sundry: our relationship with the US matters; it matters a great deal. American expectations that we might come to their aid should be no less than our own expectations if we were to find ourselves in trouble. And any assistance they might provide to us in the future could be in response to an existential threat. The assistance we provide them in Afghanistan helps them to establish moral authority. The assistance they may provide us in the future may be far more important. In any case, the United States is unequivocally a force for good in the community of nations, and despite Uncle Sam’s great wealth, power and dominance he should not be expected to carry the weight of global peace on his shoulders alone.

Second, Afghanistan matters to Australia’s security. Just ask the family and friends of those who lost their lives at the hands of terrorists in Bali and Jakarta or indeed those who survived but live with physical disability or emotional scarring. We cannot and should not sit back and allow Afghanistan to once again descend into a breeding ground and safe haven for extremists with such a dedication to their cause that they are willing to murder innocent men, women and children.

Third, even if you are of the view that the intervention in Afghanistan was unjustified, you must accept that any precipitous withdrawal would lead to a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale as the Taliban reimposes its murderous system of justice and sets upon a course to punish all those who sided with those trying to establish new democratic, economic and social models and, of course, a lasting peace. Our commitment to this cause has been expensive in economic terms but more importantly, in human terms. Every life lost is one too many and to have lost 21 is devastating, but the brutal reality is that people die in armed conflict.

The second brutal reality is that in relative terms our losses in Afghanistan have been modest, thankfully—modest when compared to comparable countries such as Canada and modest in historical terms, when compared with other conflicts. I am often asked whether I really believe we ‘can win’ in Afghanistan. I believe we can. But it is really important to understand what ‘winning’ means. ISAF will have won in Afghanistan when the majority of Afghans come to the conclusion that the political, economic and social model we are offering is better than any being offered by the insurgents. We do not expect to offer a model democracy but we do expect to offer something much better than what is being offered by the Taliban.

Arriving at that point requires not just an effective military campaign but an effective nation-building campaign and a resolution to the complex political issues within both Afghanistan and the region, particularly in Pakistan and along the Durand Line where the Pashtun people have been divided by an international boundary imposed upon them long ago. In this civil-military-political campaign, each piece of the matrix is as important as the next. We will not kill and capture our way to success in Afghanistan. We will not win without an economy, a legal system and something to enforce it, and a public service and a government largely free of corruption. And we will not win if too many people in Pakistan are willing us to lose.

That Australia has but a relatively minor role to play in the outcome in Afghanistan is yet another reality. Oruzgan province is not that important in the big strategic picture. The fate of ISAF’s military campaign will be determined in Helmand province, Kandahar province and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

The civil and political campaigns will be won or lost in Kabul, Islamabad and Washington. Beijing and Moscow also have roles to play on the political front but, as yet, seem unwilling to play with any great enthusiasm. None of these points are intended to undervalue the excellent work being done by the ADF and its partners in Oruzgan. Every contribution is important and our people are doing wonderful work there at great risk to themselves, but we must be open and transparent with the Australian people.

Oruzgan is important because it is often a northern safe haven for insurgents seeking respite from the main game in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. It is also an important transit route from the east for the insurgents. But it is a relatively small piece of a very complex and large strategic jigsaw puzzle. Our role there now is to train the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army to a point where it can take care of security in the province. I was minister when the National Security Committee redefined our mission. In doing so we effectively put in place an exit strategy. It was a difficult decision for me as minister because I knew it would increase the risk to ADF personnel, particularly our infantry and engineers. And sadly it has come at a cost, but it was the right decision and one I firmly believe was welcomed by and remains welcomed by the ADF members it affected.

We are undoubtedly a long way from achieving the aim of bringing the 4th Brigade to the standard required of them. That standard will not be determined by us; it we will be determined by NATO. The challenge is to build a force from soldiers with only the most rudimentary infantry and artillery skills. At the moment they enjoy the support of Australia’s special forces, our infantry fighting alongside them, our UAVs and our intel, and ISAF’s artillery guns, attack helicopters and fast jets. When Australia and its partners in Oruzgan leave, the ANA will be expected to provide security without our special forces clearing and disrupting, without our infantry mentors, without ISAF’s artillery and without close air support. That is a very big task. Indeed, they will never be in a position to do so in the absence of ISAF’s success in the broader military, nation-building and political strategy.

Anyone who thinks they will be able to handle alone an aggressive, determined and well-armed insurgency at some point in the future is not thinking at all. However, will they be capable of handling rogue elements and tribal leaders acting alone in a more stable Afghanistan? The answer is yes, but they will never be in a position to win a protracted campaign against an enemy fighting in an environment lacking a political settlement. So political reconciliation is critical. Therefore political negotiation is necessary. There is of course a difference between negotiating with moderates and doing deals with hardliners—that is an important point. Of course negotiation is most likely to meet with success if we are negotiating from a position of strength, and that in turn takes us back to the importance of the military campaign, the nation-building campaign, and the roles of Kabul, Islamabad and Pakistan’s ISI.

In the meantime it is incumbent upon Australia to do its bit. It is morally right to play a role rather than to simply allow the US to carry the burden alone. Just as important, our participation helps to provide moral legitimacy to the ISAF campaign. Along with the participation of other nation states, it sends a message that the Afghanistan project is one being undertaken by the community of nations, not just one or two nation states which may be perceived to have other agendas.

I would like to say something about our troops and the Afghan people. Our troops are the finest in the world and all Australians should be proud of them and grateful for what they do. They are volunteers, all of them, and they put their lives on the line for us without complaint or question. The majority of Afghan people want peace. They are sick and tired of war. I vividly remember their defence minister telling me so, and on all the evidence I have seen I am sure that is true. Our people in Afghanistan are helping them win the peace. We have also built them schools, hospitals, dams, roads and bridges. We have also made it possible for girls to obtain a school education. Education, of course, is the ultimate tool of empowerment.

Finally, one of the things that makes the debate about Afghanistan difficult is that members of the National Security Committee cannot share with the Australian people every detail of the campaign. Sometimes secrecy is critical both to our success and to the safety of our troops in theatre, our police, our aid workers, our advisers and, of course, our diplomats.

I appeal to the Australian electorate to have faith in the decisions of their government on these issues—a government which would never, ever send or leave our troops in harm’s way without good reason and a government which would never let them down by failing to give them everything they need in theatre, everything they need to make their task as safe as it is possible.

Having said that, both the government and the ADF need to be as open, honest and transparent as is possible to secure the trust of the electorate. Defence, in particular, has a tendency to be unjustifiably secretive. That is why as minister I insisted on having journalists be allowed to embed with our troops, something that the ADF leadership resisted with some determination.

Indeed, the same people ran interference on my own determination to venture—to use the defence vernacular—‘outside the wire’, to visit our troops in the field, to see the schools and hospitals we had built, to witness these projects with my own eyes and to walk the streets of Tarin Kowt for a friendly chat with the locals. There I saw the gratitude in their eyes. I saw people appreciative of what we Australians are doing in Afghanistan. I saw people with the hope of peace in their eyes and people who believe, as we should believe, that peace is worth fighting for.

In this debate I have heard a number of contributors use the perceived, or alleged, corruption within the Karzai government as an excuse to do nothing. As I said earlier, we would be foolish to expect within 10 years or even 20 years to have a model democracy in Afghanistan. No government, even in the Western world, can possibly hope to be absolutely free of some form of corruption and we certainly should not expect that outcome in Kabul. Certainly, the model we are seeking to put in place and, in turn, the model we want the Afghan government and its security forces to protect in the future is far better than anything on offer from the Taliban or any other group. These are the reasons why it is so important that we should stay the course. As members of parliament, we should remain determined to ensure that those people who have given their lives in Afghanistan have not given their lives in vain.

Debate (on motion by Ms Ley) adjourned.