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Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Page: 911

Senator FORSHAW (2:32 PM) —This debate on our engagement in Afghanistan is a most important debate. It provides an opportunity for members of the Senate and the House of Representatives to discuss the war in Afghanistan in a single debate. It is an opportunity that many MPs and senators are, of course, taking. However, it should not be assumed that members of parliament have never previously had opportunities to discuss or debate our engagement in the war on terrorism in Afghanistan. Indeed, as a member of various parliamentary committees I have had that opportunity. I refer in particular to my roles as the Chair of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and as a member of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee and the joint intelligence committee. I and many other members of those committees have had an opportunity to discuss the progress of the war. We have met with ministers, defence chiefs, other defence personnel, intelligence officials and other experts both locally and from overseas. We have received briefings on the progress of the war. I and many others have had the opportunity to have discussions with diplomatic representatives from the many nations that are involved in the Afghanistan engagement and are represented in Australia. I have had the opportunity to meet with visiting delegations from some of those governments and parliaments as well as meet them when I have travelled overseas. I have met with the Afghan Ambassador here and also with representatives of the Afghan parliament when they have visited Australia. And I, like others, have met with our troops when they have returned from their tour of duty in Afghanistan. So there have been many opportunities for us to discuss the commitment and the progress being made and the difficulties faced in Afghanistan. I compliment the former Minister for Defence, Senator Faulkner, who, whilst he was minister, provided regular statements to the Senate on the conduct of the war and the progress being made.

I mention this only because an impression has been created not only by the very fact that we are having this debate but also by some media commentators that we in this parliament do not really care. Some media have characterised this debate as either insincere, grandstanding or just an apology. I will give one example. An article by Paul Toohey in the Daily Telegraph on 22 October had the headline: ‘Some fine words but do MPs really care?’ He was reflecting on the debate that commenced in the House of Representatives last week. Frankly, I do not really care what Mr Toohey thinks about us members of parliament—that is not important—but I do care what the Australian public think about our engagement. My message to the Australian people is that we do care; we do take our responsibilities seriously. The current Labor government under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the former Labor government under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the previous coalition government under John Howard have all treated our involvement in Afghanistan as the most serious issue facing the government of the day—and it could not be anything but that. The commitment of our armed forces and other personnel to this conflict has, of course, been the gravest decision that has been made by government since 2001 when the decision was first made.

This, as we know, is a long, drawn-out and, unfortunately, at times deadly conflict. It has huge consequences for our nation, for the region and for the world. It has taken the lives of 21 Australian soldiers and had a terrible impact on their families and friends. Those soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our nation. Another 156 personnel have been wounded. Each time a life is lost or a soldier is wounded, we ask ourselves the questions: ‘Are we doing the right thing? Is this cause justified? Should we continue to commit our forces and other personnel, such as the Federal Police, to this engagement?’ Our task as parliamentarians is to answer those questions honestly, and it is also to continue to reflect on them day by day as the war goes on.

In his speech in the House of Representatives last Thursday, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd, put the argument for our engagement in, I believe, a clear and concise way, and I know that many other members of both houses have also put forward similar reasons. I want to quote what Mr Rudd said:

After nine years into this hard war, and six years of continuous Australian military engagement, what is our national mission in Afghanistan today? Put simply, it is to help protect innocent people, including innocent Australians, from being murdered by terrorists. Put simply, it is to support our friends and our allies in achieving that mission. Put simply, it is to work with them to defend, maintain and strengthen an international order that does not tolerate terrorism. All other purposes associated with our mission in Afghanistan—including, for example, helping the Afghan people to develop a viable Afghan state—flow from these three primary purposes.

As the minister noted and as has been noted by many other speakers—I particularly note the speeches by the Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence, the Leader of the Opposition and the leaders of the government and the opposition in the Senate—our decision to commit military forces to Afghanistan is based on sound international legal decisions and principles. Firstly, it is authorised by a resolution of the United Nations Security Council, resolution 1386 of 2001. This resolution authorised action by the international community to establish a security force to remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. That regime openly harboured and supported the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation, which was responsible for the devastating terrorist attack on the United States—New York and Washington—on September 11 2001. That regime refused to hand over Osama bin Laden and withdraw its support for al-Qaeda. That original UN resolution has, of course, since been re-endorsed on 10 occasions.

Secondly, our commitment is consistent with our obligations under the ANZUS treaty. Thirdly, our commitment—recog-nis-ing the UN Security Council resolution and the obligations under ANZUS—is supported by a unanimous resolution of the House of Representatives, carried on 17 September 2001. Finally, I would also argue that our commitment is consistent with the principles which underpin the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect. The Responsibility to Protect doctrine, now adopted by the United Nations, essentially means that a state has a duty and an obligation to protect its own citizens, particularly from genocide and crimes against humanity, and that if it fails to do so then the international community can take action. I believe that this doctrine justifies the commitment that we have made to protect the people of Afghanistan from ever again being subjected to a murderous Taliban regime which would enslave its own people and sponsor international terrorism.

In outlining the legal, moral and human rights obligations which justify the presence of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, in Afghanistan and Australia’s participation in it, I note the inconsistency of the arguments that are advanced by those who state that we should withdraw our forces immediately and without conditions. In particular, there are fundamental inconsistencies in the views expressed by the Greens senators in this debate. The Greens are a party that argues strongly for adherence to the decisions of the United Nations. Yet in this case they ignore the specific and repeated decisions of the UN Security Council to support the ISAF in Afghanistan. The Greens are also persistent, of course, in pursuing their own policy objectives. They campaign ceaselessly for action on major international issues such as climate change, saving the rainforests, an end to whaling, the release of political prisoners, protection of human rights and so on. They are all noble objectives. They are causes that the Greens will continue to fight for no matter what the odds, whether they are successful or not. They never give up in espousing and arguing for these causes. Yet, when it comes to protecting the people of Afghanistan from a murderous regime that will, if it ever regains total power, deny its own people, particularly women, basic, fundamental human rights, the Greens wish to abandon the cause. They say we should just walk away. For the Greens, apparently, the future of the lives of the Afghan people is not a cause worth fighting for.

The Greens also argue—and I have listened to the speeches in this place particularly—that we are not improving the lives of the Afghan people. The truth is that we are. As the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, noted in her speech last week, there are a number of significant indicators which demonstrate that the lives of the Afghan people are being improved. The Prime Minister referred to the number of children in primary education, which has increased from one million in 2001 to approximately six million today. Two million of these young people are girls. In 2001 there were none; they were excluded from primary education. The infant mortality rate has been reduced by 22 per cent. Immunisation rates have increased substantially, to between 70 per cent and 90 per cent. Road construction and telecommunications services are improving. The Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police numbers have increased and training of these forces is continuing. Our own Army and AFP are actively engaged in this important endeavour. These are all huge challenges and progress is difficult and slow. Setbacks do occur. But at the end of the day you cannot deliver any of these improvements if there is no security or if there is no protection from the insurgents. To withdraw now would clearly place all of these gains in jeopardy.

There is demonstrable proof that the surge in forces announced by President Obama last year and provided by the United States and NATO is working. The response of those who argue that we should withdraw now is to say that the cause is hopeless and that we will eventually withdraw anyway. It is true that eventually we will withdraw. I agree. There has to be an exit strategy. But an exit strategy is not simply an exit deadline. It is not fixing a date by which time forces should or must be withdrawn. Rather, an exit strategy has to evolve—and is evolving, I would submit—having regard to the actual situation on the ground in Afghanistan.

It also depends on a number of associated issues being addressed and resolved. Those issues include the security situation in the neighbouring Pakistan border areas where the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations have sanctuary and operate from. An exit strategy ultimately includes what role, if any, elements of the Taliban may have in the future governance of Afghanistan. It includes assessing the ability of the Afghan military and police force to provide adequate security and protection for the population that is currently provided by the ISAF forces.

Finally, for Australia and indeed for those other nations it includes continuing consideration of the views of the Australian people on our engagement. I would also add that it may well involve, whenever the date comes that we withdraw forces, the maintenance of UN-sponsored peacekeeping forces for many years thereafter. That is not unusual. Since the foundation of the United Nations Australia has been a proud contributor to the funding of UN peacekeeping forces and to the provision of personnel for peacekeeping engagements around the world. The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade recognised that in its recent report. We have been party to and continue to be participants in UN peacekeeping forces in the Middle East, Cyprus, East Timor, the Solomon Islands and the African continent. Unlike our previous engagements in Vietnam and Iraq, ones which I did not support, I continue to believe that this commitment to Afghanistan is justified on security grounds, both domestic and international, and also for humanitarian reasons.

If we wish to prevent further devastating terrorist attacks such as those that occurred on 11 September 2001 and subsequently the bombings in London and Madrid then we must stay the course. If we are to continue to fight the terrorists who were responsible for the murder of over 100 Australians in Bali and in Jakarta in Indonesia then we must stay the course. We cannot walk away now.

We have an obligation to carry out the continuing mandate of the UN through the ISAF commitment in Afghanistan. We have an obligation to help rebuild an Afghanistan where its people can live their lives free from a murderous, totalitarian, genocidal, terrorist regime. At this stage we and the other 47 nations who are members of the International Security Assistance Force are their only hope. We cannot abandon them.