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Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Page: 879

Senator COONAN (12:02 PM) —I am very pleased to be able to make a contribution to the debate in support of Australia’s bipartisan commitment to Afghanistan. As this commitment is coming up to its ninth anniversary, it is, however, incumbent upon us to revisit our original objectives, evaluate progress and chart a clear course for the future. Of course, no mere words can lessen the immense loss to our nation, its grieving families and its communities of the 21 young lives lost—gallant Australians who have paid the ultimate price in the service of Australian interests. We owe it to them to at very least have a sensible, informed and thoughtful debate about Australia’s future mission in Afghanistan.

But we also owe it to an increasingly sceptical public, whose initial support for Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan may be waning, to explain what we can hope to achieve by the allied effort, in what time frame and at what cost. It may be that many, if not all, Australians’ understanding of why we are there goes not much further than the task of training the Afghan army in Oruzgan province, ensuring Afghanistan does not provide a safe haven for terrorists and honouring our commitment to our most important ally, the United States of America. It is understandable that, as some allies announce staged withdrawals from what must seem like an unwinnable war in support of a corrupt regime, some 60 per cent of Australians in a recent survey wanted to bring our troops home. It is fair to say that Australia’s interests and objectives have evolved over the course of the conflict. So the majority of us in this place who have resolved to support the continuing Australian troop commitment in Afghanistan must face the tough questions and make a convincing case for Australia’s continuing role in this war. Put simply: what is the rationale for us remaining?

As many commentators have noted, although the overthrow of the Taliban was the basis for destroying al-Qaeda and thereby securing our safety, it is well recognised that the real threat to safety is not to be found in Afghanistan but rather in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia. But this uncomfortable truth is in my opinion no reason to abandon Afghanistan, especially now that there is real progress towards bringing the Taliban to the peace table. The prospect of the Karzai government now discussing a political settlement with the Taliban is a development that could redefine the basis for our presence in Afghanistan. However, a political settlement that includes the Taliban brings a new set of risks and challenges in the hoped-for transition to a stable government.

The US-led troop surge that is now underway may be providing the necessary peace and stability on the ground to encourage a process of negotiation, but the hurdles to achieving what might be regarded as an effective and acceptable political settlement are formidable. More particularly, hitching our wagon in support of entrenching what is widely regarded as a corrupt Karzai regime is deeply repugnant to Western liberal values. Even so, I must say that, on a scale of awfulness, the allegations of corruption, fraud, bribery and drug running levelled at the Karzai government are a lesser evil than a restored fundamentalist Taliban brutalising women, opposing education for girls and ruthlessly suppressing the freedoms and development of half the population.

While the possibility of a political compact to end the need for massive troop numbers and continued loss of military and civilian lives must be given every chance to work, a full-scale Taliban resurgence must be resisted. Of course, it is important to engage with moderate or less hardline Taliban if they can be identified, but even so the extremes of sharia law and Pashtun customs will need to be guarded against. For me, at the end of the day, safeguarding the freedoms of Afghan women and girls is one of the justifications for our continued commitment. Of course, the Afghan people more broadly must be part of this proposition. There can be no moral justification for abandoning a people who have been abandoned repeatedly in the past.

It is important to consider what additional strategic steps we might take to ensure that freedom for Afghan women and girls is not bargained away or compromised in any deal or reconciliation between the Karzai government and the Taliban. This is especially so because local Afghan women have, with great courage and conviction, been able to insert gender-sensitive or gender-responsive legislation into the new constitution to ensure women’s education and employment, as well as participation in government and protection from violence and family bartering. Names like Lieutenant Colonel Malalai Kakar, head of Kandahar’s department of crimes against women, and Sitara Achakzai, a member of Kandahar’s provincial council, come to mind. They have both been assassinated by the Taliban in the last 18 months, probably for as little—in our eyes—as the equivalent of $2,500. There are many others starting to emerge as true Afghan reformers who are fighting for reform for their gender and correctly setting new benchmarks for women’s participation as major stakeholders in the political and military outcomes in their country. The rebuilding of Afghanistan cannot take place without the advancement of its women.

These achievements have taken place—and it is worth reminding the Senate of this—against a background in Afghanistan where women conventionally were traded for animals, female literacy was around 13 per cent and legally sanctioned marital rape was common. We cannot just abandon these courageous women and girls to a future under a resurgent Taliban, risking a reversal of the progress they have fought and indeed died for over the last nine years. Laura Bush, former first lady of the United States and an honorary adviser to the US-Afghan Women’s Council, said recently

Offences against women erode security for all Afghans, and a culture that tolerates injustice against one group of its people ultimately fails to respect all its citizens.

Mrs Bush went on to say:

Afghanistan’s leaders must defend women’s rights with action and policy, not just lofty rhetoric. True reconciliation cannot be realised by sacrificing the rights of Afghan women. To do so would reverse Afghanistan’s progress and return its people to the perilous circumstances that marked the Taliban’s rule.

There are clear choices for those entrusted with ensuring Afghanistan’s peace and prosperity. Will Afghanistan be a nation that empowers women, or one that oppresses them?

I think these are important and indeed vital questions that need resolution in the affirmative.

As parliamentarians, we have a responsibility to think outside the proverbial box and to find new pathways to engage with those who can influence a better transition to democ-racy in Afghanistan. At the time of announcing the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, President Obama said:

There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the al-Qaeda and Taliban bases along the border, and there will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What we can do—to quote President Obama’s words—to ‘expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan’ is what I wish to address in my remaining remarks. Tensions in the region include the need to resolve the instability in Afghanistan and the deterioration in relations not only between Afghanistan and Pakistan but also between Pakistan and India. I suggest that one way we can ‘think outside the box’ is to work to establish a ‘second-track dialogue’ process outside and in addition to formal diplomatic channels of engagement. Women parliamentarians and women more broadly share a common interest in securing safe and stable communities in which to live. Like parents everywhere, we all want opportunities for our families and the communities we represent, and those are very much denied people in those regions when internal and external conflicts are driven by violence, radicalism and historical tensions between communities or across borders. In my view, we should be exploring the opportunities to contribute to peace building by convening a forum of influential women leaders from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and perhaps Bangladesh, together with participants from Australia and the United States. The objective would be to draw on the experience and fresh perspectives of a diverse range of women leaders in a dialogue to develop practical, unifying initiatives and activities to greatly reduce conflict in the region, engaging these women in a conflict resolution agenda within countries and between neighbouring countries.

What outcomes might be achieved from such an investment in a women’s second-track peace-building initiative? From the start, it will re-energise and add momentum to women’s networks and their organisations in the region and give a greater public profile to both the issues and the players; it would create and sustain action agendas on issues within the regions to be followed up by women to work with governments in seeking to resolve destabilising tensions; and it would add a new framework of people-to-people contacts, creating a substantive process outside usual government activity to address national security issues within the region and seek resolution of them. And, in my view, it responds in an imaginative way to President Obama’s call to identify ‘spheres of opportunity’ to build lasting peace.

I want to add a thought about possible ways to keep and add value to this type of second-track diplomacy. Australia has an established, accepted and respected role through its AusAID programs in the region and in introducing different methods of governance. The women’s peace-building dialogue that I am suggesting could be reinforced with subsequent grants for specific dialogue between participants and relevant others. Scholarships or grants could be provided for further contacts between participants to help establish their standing in their communities and reinforce their capacities to reduce tensions. Further, aid could be targeted to keeping up the momentum of a peace-building dialogue with annual revisitation of issues addressed in workshop type sessions to check on progress and to continue relationships between attendees, and expanding that to perhaps even include Iran and Uzbekistan and other areas of conflict. At the least, it could address the need for political mobilisation of important players in the Afghan community as a way of ensuring that any political settlement in Afghanistan is not achieved at the expense of women and girls.

About 18 months ago I met a delegation of parliamentarians from Afghanistan who had come to Australia. Two of their female parliamentarians took me aside and begged Australia not to give up on Afghanistan. If this debate is anything to go by, the people of Afghanistan will know Australia will not be giving up on them. I trust the government might at least consider the suggestion of my second-track dialogue proposal of including the women of the region as an additional contribution that Australia could make from a leadership position to have a positive influence on the settlement of this terrible conflict.

In conclusion, I refer to a metaphor by Dylan Thomas, used in a very different context but I think it is apt. This conflict should not be ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’. Let us instead agree that we need to find lasting solutions.