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Wednesday, 27 October 2010
Page: 974

Senator JOHNSTON (6:21 PM) —I thank the Senate for the opportunity to speak on our commitment in Afghanistan and to acknowledge the contributions of my leader, Tony Abbott; the Prime Minister; and the Minister for Defence. This debate within both the House of Representatives and the Senate has been a welcome restatement of Australia’s objectives and mission and also of our resolve and determination to stay the course in this crucial conflict. It is significant that, of the 226 federal members and senators, I anticipate that there will be only approximately 10 parliamentarians who seek our immediate withdrawal. I feel it is very important to say that I respect their point of view and sincerely value their contribution on such an important subject for our parliament and for our country. While I understand their deep concerns, I cannot agree with them.

That our parliament is overwhelmingly in support of our mission and of our soldiers is in stark contrast with our coalition partners, particularly in Western Europe—particularly the Netherlands, Spain, France and Germany, where the deployment of those countries’ forces has come under intense and sustained political pressure, with coalition governments falling and election campaigns having Afghanistan as a central issue. In opposition, we naturally have very limited impact on day-to-day public policy outcomes. However, that said, the coalition has in a considered and very deliberate way endeavoured to support the government in Australia’s participation in this conflict. We have tried to avoid injecting partisan politics into this issue. I point to the statements and speeches of the Prime Minister and the vast majority of Labor and coalition speakers as to the extent and success of this bipartisan stance by the coalition. The only caveat I put on this bipartisan support is with respect to the resourcing and protection of our soldiers. If soldiers in the field have and voice concerns, I will fiercely advocate for them and articulate those concerns.

The Prime Minister has said that our mission has two aspects, and I want to quote what she said:

… (1) to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists, a place where attacks on us and our allies begin, and (2) to stand firmly by our alliance commitment to the United States, formally invoked following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

Tony Abbott, our Leader of the Opposition, has said:

Australia’s mission in Afghanistan is still to suppress the threat of terrorism. It is still to be a reliable member of the Western alliance, but it is also to help build a society where merely to be different is not to risk death. By resisting those who would impose on all a particular version of Islam our soldiers are asserting the universal right to a society where women are not discriminated against, dissent is not a capital crime and religion is more a reproach to selfishness than an instruction manual for everyday life.

On 29 April last year, former Prime Minister Rudd said:

President Obama has defined the new mission in Afghanistan as, and I quote him “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future”. Australia concurs with this mission.

It intersects with our own definition of our own mission within Afghanistan, which is as follows: Strategic denial of Afghanistan as a training ground and operating base for global terrorist organisations; second, stabilisation of the Afghan state through a combination of military, police and civilian effort to the extent necessary to consolidate this primary mission of strategic denial; and third, in Australia’s case, to make this contribution in Oruzgan Province in partnership with our allies, with the objective of training sufficient Afghan National Army and police forces and to enhance the capacity of the Oruzgan provincial administration in order to hand over responsibility for the province in a reasonable time-frame to the Afghans themselves.

I accept all of those descriptions as legitimate and as defining our intent and purpose in Afghanistan. Our soldiers and their families should take some considerable comfort and great confidence from the fact that the Australian parliament is almost unanimously supportive of and committed to them and their sons and daughters engaged in our cause in Afghanistan.

What has precipitated this conflict, and why are we so resolved? Obviously, the events of 11 September 2001 are the tangible and shocking results of a sovereign state falling to the accommodation of a terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda—an accommodation provided and sustained by the Taliban. Al-Qaeda’s currency of hatred and religious extremist inspired terrorism has a central tenet: the murder of innocent civilians both in the Islamic world and, especially, in the Western Hemisphere, particularly in the United States. We have observed this jihad in New York and Washington with the attack on the World Trade Centre in accord with al-Qaeda’s 1998 fatwa edict telling all Muslims to kill Americans. In 1996, Osama bin Laden was forced to leave the Sudan and relocate into Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda enjoyed the protection of the Taliban in Afghanistan and had an active role in their ministry of defence, although only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates recognised the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda has carried out six major terrorist attacks, four of them in its jihad against the United States. In addition to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, on 7 August 1998, at the US embassy in Nairobi, al-Qaeda detonated a truck bomb, killing 212 people and injuring 4,000. At the same time, at the US embassy in Dar es Salaam, another bomb was detonated, killing 11 people and injuring 85. Of course, in the year 2000 there was an attack in Yemen on the USS Cole wherein 17 United States sailors were killed. Lastly, in Istanbul, Turkey on 15 November 2003, al-Qaeda perpetrated an attack resulting in 57 deaths and over 700 people being injured. Closer to home, of course, we are all familiar with and have heard members and senators talk about the Bali bombings and the hotel and embassy bombings in Jakarta. As recently as last year, the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253 was linked to al-Qaeda. Also, the accused Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hassan, has apparently had contact with al-Qaeda sympathisers and operatives.

The Taliban, similarly, has notoriously been associated with the most extreme atrocities against men, women and children, with children as young as 10 years of age being jailed and tortured. Frankly, the list and description of the atrocities, brutality and deranged barbarism of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan are so horrible as to make it inappropriate to recount them in this contribution. With a full understanding of al-Qaeda and the Taliban and their motives and methods, there can be absolutely no doubt that our cause in Afghanistan is just. Of course, the United Nations agrees with us and with our coalition partners.

We have lost 21 of our finest Australians in this conflict and had more than 150 wounded in action. I pause to acknowledge the bold and selfless way each one of them stepped forward without hesitation in our national interest, exemplifying the finest traditions of our Australian Army. I also pause to acknowledge the enduring grief their families and loved ones carry.

In the last four months I have been to too many funerals and too many RAN ceremonies and met many outstanding Australians—the mothers, fathers, wives and girlfriends of our fallen heroes. The loss to our Army of all those killed in action in Afghanistan is immense and a cause for sorrow and for tears. Every Australian shares that sorrow. Every Australian has a tear for the mother or the father, the wife or the partner of each of our gallant 21. Our 21 casualties also underline the extreme danger our soldiers face, with almost half being lost through the detonation of improvised explosive devices. This is an insidious but simple and effective weapon and all of us are committed to the technological battle here at home to devise better levels of defence against this threat.

In 2009 there were 7,228 IED attacks in Afghanistan. Of the 512 coalition soldiers killed that year some 280 were killed by IEDs. Let no one be in any doubt—this is an incredibly dangerous place. Those we have lost shall never be forgotten. Our coalition allies have also made very significant sacrifices in pursuit of this mission. There have been as of 20 October some 2,095 coalition deaths in this conflict. The US has sustained 1,273 casualties; the UK, 341; Canada, 151; France, 50; Germany, 47; Denmark, 38; Italy, 34; Spain, 30; the Netherlands, 24—and I pause to acknowledge the trust and loyalty and the quite amazing relationship that the Australian defence forces had with our Dutch allies in Oruzgan province—Poland, 22; and of course our own, 21. Another 28 member countries have sustained various casualties below the Australian figure with the highest being Romania at 17.

The other countries to have lost soldiers are Norway, 9; Estonia, 8; Georgia, 5; Sweden, 5; Hungary, 4; the Czech Republic, 3; Latvia, 3; Portugal, 2; South Korea, 2; Turkey, 2; Belgium, 1; Finland, 1; Jordan, 1; Lithuania, 1; and our neighbour New Zealand, 1. I should also make mention of the loss of 62 Spanish soldiers who died in Turkey on 26 May 2003 when their plane crashed whilst returning home from this theatre. This is a special and unique commitment by so many countries and their soldiers. I also wish to honour their sacrifice.

I say again, there can be no doubt that this cause is good and that the cause is just. It is fashionable by those preoccupied with the negatives of this campaign to compare Afghanistan with Vietnam to exemplify the futility of our endeavours. Such a comparison misrepresents the topography, the climate and the consequences of failure. The terrain is extreme, the climate similar, the dust is choking and the extremist and fanatical enemy is immersed within the civilian population using human shields—often children—at every opportunity We fight an enemy almost indistinguishable from ordinary innocent Afghans.

Our contribution of 1,550 troops is our most significant combat commitment since Vietnam. With our deployments in the Solomon Islands and East Timor, Afghanistan is a demanding and difficult undertaking, given the size of our Defence Force. Afghanistan is the second-least developed country in the world. As a battle space for a counterinsurgency this theatre cannot readily be compared with any other region in the world. The terrain alone is a major obstacle to operations, particularly helicopter operations with dust, heat and very high mountains causing special problems. Movement is restricted and predictable. Oruzgan is a province of 22,000 square kilometres with a population of about 300,000. It is about the same size as the federal seat of Hume.

Such are the circumstances within which we fight and seek to successfully complete our mission, a mission that is simply described but most difficult and complex to execute. There are, however, many positive signs. Travel between towns and cities is beginning again, particularly air travel. Markets and bazaars are functional and busy. Children and particularly girls are attending school and reconstruction of vital infrastructure is proceeding at a steady but increasing pace. Quite amazingly, there has been on average a 40 per cent electoral turnout for the rounds of voting that have gone on within the country.

Our soldiers have acquitted themselves very well in a large number of significant engagements in executing the intent of the Australian government and the Australian parliament. Three months after the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, members of our Special Air Service Regiment—in Operation Anaconda in the Shahi-Kot Valley, in March 2002—provided significant and timely intelligence to air support elements to relieve US and coalition forces pinned down on the floor of the valley by around 1,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Signalman Martin ‘Jock’ Wallace received the Medal for Gallantry arising from this engagement. On 7 December 2004, in California, President George W Bush awarded our SAS Regiment a Presidential Unit Citation for action carried out between October 2001 and March 2002 in Afghanistan. This was only the third time such a citation had been awarded to an Australian unit, the first being in Korea and the second in Vietnam.

On 26 November 2006 a soldier identified only as Sergeant A from 4RAR (Commando) became the first recipient of the Star of Gallantry, our second-highest bravery award. Sergeant A was awarded the medal for his actions whilst assisting in the extraction of threatened coalition forces in Oruzgan province. Sergeant Matthew Locke of the SAS Regiment won the Medal for Gallantry, our third-highest bravery award, in October 2005 during Operation Spin Ghar, when his patrol came under heavy fire. Sergeant Locke, without regard for his own personal safety, led a two-man team to neutralise anticoalition forces to prevent the patrol from being overrun and repeatedly exposed himself to machine gun fire. He was awarded the medal in December 2006. It was less than one year later in October 2007 when Sergeant Matthew Locke, whilst on patrol, was fatally shot by small arms fire.

On 26 October 2007 4RAR (Commando) received a Unit Citation for Gallantry in action in Afghanistan for a period from 25 August 2005 to 2 September 2006 for being in operations fighting a series of battles and skirmishes against a resourceful enemy. The task group was able to neutralise the enemy on a number of occasions in previously impenetrable sanctuary areas. During the 374-day deployment, the combat element spent 309 days in the field undertaking over 100 missions resulting in 139 combat engagements. That was an absolutely amazing performance.

On 16 January 2009, Trooper Mark Donaldson was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery our country can bestow. Trooper Donaldson, an SAS trooper, during an operation without regard to his own safety sought to protect injured comrades and to rescue an interpreter under direct heavy enemy fire. He was subsequently named Young Australian of the Year in 2009.

Finally, Private S, Major M, Captain T and Lieutenant Colonel P were all recognised for acts of gallantry and service in Afghanistan in this year’s Australia Day honours list. Private S received the Star of Gallantry for his acts of conspicuous gallantry as a lead scout in Afghanistan. There are many more examples of outstanding bravery and courage by our soldiers in Afghanistan and I apologise to all of those that I have not mentioned. We can all take great confidence and satisfaction in the calibre and high quality of those in uniform who guard our best interests. I have had the honour and privilege of meeting many of them in Iraq and in Afghanistan and in my home state of Western Australia at Swanbourne. It is impossible not to be in awe of their skills and professional dedication. I know I speak for all parliamentarians when I say a heartfelt thankyou to all of them for their service.

I make one final observation. There is a flaw in our approach: there is a requirement for a broader range of thinking about what Australia can do in terms of work by NGOs and civilian contractors within this country. I know of a number of Australians working in Afghanistan providing assistance and support to the civilian population—yes, at some risk but nevertheless with some considerable measures of success. The Australian government must seek them out and take their advice and create another dimension to our task in Afghanistan—that is, a civilian dimension.

In an engagement such as this I am of the firm view that the only appropriate time to talk of withdrawal and exit strategies will be when it is obvious to all that the task and mission has been successfully completed, and not before. This campaign is tangled, intricate and lethal but we and our coalition partners are there for the right reasons and no-one should be in any doubt that we will prevail.