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Statement on Afghanistan

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Statement on Afghanistan


The Afghanistan debate matters: to the families of the dead and wounded; to every Australian who’s concerned about the wider world and our role in it; and to our coalition partners who are looking for reassurance that others will still do some of the heavy-lifting in the struggle against Islamist extremism.

It’s right that the parliament should now debate our commitment: first, because something as grave as a serious military campaign should be justified to the parliament; second, because our major coalition partners have been rethinking their troop numbers and their campaign objectives; and finally, because the increased tempo of military operations has almost doubled Australian combat deaths in just four months.

Compared to the United States’ 80,000 troops, Britain’s 10,000 and even Canada’s 2800, Australia’s military commitment is relatively modest. Still, our 1550 soldiers have the lion’s share of security responsibility in a province that has long been Taliban heartland; 21 combat deaths and 152 combat injuries so far make this our most serious fight since Vietnam; and Afghanistan has been the central front in the most important civilisational struggle of our times.

This is also a critical time in Afghanistan itself. The Karzai government is probably the best available amalgam of local legitimacy and concern for human rights but it’s hardly a model of incorruptible efficiency. The American-led military surge of the current fighting season has challenged the insurgency but at a high price in coalition casualties.

After nine years of inconclusive fighting, the risk is that the PR war will be lost at a time when the ground war is finally starting to go significantly better. At stake is the cause for which those 21 Australians have given their lives. Ultimately at stake is the West’s ability to assert itself against deadly threats before they have materialised into another September 11-style atrocity or into something even worse.

This debate should honour the Australian battle casualties so far. We owe it to those who have died to remain confident that the cause has been worthy of their sacrifice. Even so, this debate is not just about them. It’s also about the 10 Australians who died in the World Trade Centre, the 88 killed in

the first Bali bombing and the eight Australians killed in other acts of Islamist terrorism. Our soldiers are in Afghanistan because terrorists trained there were targeting innocent people including Australians.

It’s true that the fall of the Taliban in the retaliation that followed September 11 2001 ended al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan. These days, terrorists are as likely to have trained in neighbouring Pakistan or in the horn of Africa as in southern Afghanistan. Even so, the return of Taliban government would swiftly restore that country to its former position as terror central.

At nine years and counting, compared to just six years for World War Two, the Afghan campaign has lasted for what seems like an eternity but this is not a conventional war. It’s not a war against a government but against the violent manifestations of a pernicious ideology. A case could doubtless be made for relying on stand-off weapons to suppress any renewal of terror bases. Like the no-fly zone that used to be enforced over northern Iraq it might not be very effective in stopping organised terrorism and plenty of Afghan civilians could be killed in misdirected air strikes but, at least in the short-term, fewer coalition soldiers would die. Cruise missiles and drones, though, can’t make the case for democracy, for pluralism, and for the universal decencies of mankind.

In a way that even the smartest weapons can’t, soldiers on the ground can distinguish between people who are hostile, and those who are not; between those who might not themselves accept Western customs but have no particular axe to grind against us, and those convinced that the Western way of life is a satanic perversion. If properly trained and supported, soldiers on the ground can be peacemakers as well as war-fighters. They can be builders as well as warriors. Trying to keep Australians safe from terrorism doesn’t just mean killing terrorists. It means engaging with the societies that might otherwise be terrorist breeding grounds.

Australia’s mission in Afghanistan is still to suppress the threat of terrorism. It’s still to be a reliable member of the Western alliance but it’s also to 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.

That young Australians should die even for the best of causes is tragic beyond words. The idea, though, that an end to Australian involvement would inspire the lion to lie down with the lamb or swords to be beaten into ploughshares is wishful thinking at best. A premature end to our involvement would tell the Americans and the British that Australia is an unreliable ally and fair weather friend. It would tell the Afghan people that our commitment to human rights is more rhetorical than real and certainly doesn’t extend to protecting them where we can. It would announce to the world that very little, certainly not the protection of the weak or the promotion of what’s right, is worth a significant price in Australian lives.

No country should lightly commit its armed forces to combat and a democratic electorate would almost certainly punish any government that did. Still, a country that was not prepared to defend itself against an aggressor could hardly be taken seriously. If self-defence is justifiable, mightn’t the

defence of others be even more so? War should never be glamorised or idealised but might there not be at least some nobility of purpose about a military campaign to defend other people against their persecutors?

We shouldn’t forget that the military expedition to East Timor was to stop defenceless people from being brutalised. It’s hard to see the moral difference between our military campaign there and the campaign in Afghanistan just because the latter is yet to come to a more-or-less-satisfactory conclusion.

Of course, to qualify as a “just war”, under the traditional ethical theory, there had to be a reasonable chance of success. Time and time again, Afghanistan has proved impossible to conquer but that, it needs to be stressed, is not our aim. Our objective is not to impose a foreign government and an alien system. Rather, it’s to help the Afghan people to choose their own government as freely as they can without, as far as possible, the coercion of warlords or the indoctrination of religion.

Our objective is to allow Afghans to choose what they think is right for them. The Taliban’s objective is to impose what it regards as the one right system. We are prepared to accept choices by the Afghan people that we don’t like. Our key stipulation is merely that Afghanistan should never again become a base for international terrorism. By contrast, the Taliban and even more so their al Qaeda allies insist that their version of Islam is not only right for Afghanistan but mandatory for the whole world. To them, it’s not enough to execute women in a sports stadium for moral transgressions; this is the law by which the whole world should be ruled.

It’s not the coalition partners that are the imperialists in this conflict. It’s the Taliban, actually, through their alliance with al Qaeda, who are trying to impose their values on others and who, as it happens, are at least as dependent upon foreign fighters as the Karzai government. However imperfectly, it’s the West that’s fighting for freedom; that of the Afghan people, no less than our own. It’s the Islamist extremists, not us, who are fighting to export a particular set of values and to impose a particular set of judgments on everyone, wherever they can find a hold.

Twenty one homes around our country ache with loss because the Australian government has deployed our armed forces against a serious enemy. As things stand each bereaved family knows that the Australian people respect their loss and value their sacrifice. We have honoured their deaths by continuing their campaign. How worthwhile would those deaths now seem if the Australian government were to abandon the cause for which they died? How would those families feel if the Australian government were to conclude that the task is now too hard or should never have been undertaken in the first place?

No rational government should enter or sustain any conflict without first counting the potential cost. To enter a fight, though, and then to abandon it before the objective is secured would mean that we had never really been serious or that we had been defeated on the field of battle. This is not a judgment that anyone should wish to be pronounced against our country.

Afghanistan may never be a Western-style, pluralist democracy. In any event, it’s for Afghans, not for outsiders, to reengineer their society from the feudal to the modern. Our broader mission is merely

to foster effective governance, at least by Afghan standards, and to ensure that Afghanistan never again hosts training camps for international terrorism. Australia’s particular mission, in Uruzgan and the surrounding provinces, is to strike at active Taliban units and to mentor the Afghan army’s fourth Brigade into an effective military unit loyal to the central government.

In much of Afghanistan, but certainly in Uruzgan, there have been signs of progress in the struggle with the Taliban. A year ago, coalition forces tended to emerge from their bases, engage the enemy and then withdraw, leaving the countryside largely under Taliban influence. Under General Petraeus, coalition forces have adopted the “clear, hold, build and transfer” approach to counter-insurgency that characterised the successful “surge” in Iraq.

In Uruzgan, the number of military outposts has roughly doubled in the past 12 months. Supported by Australian forces, the fourth Brigade has been clearing Taliban fighters from the rural areas and from the villages between forward operating bases, leaving police detachments in each village with sufficient army support to maintain military superiority. The thinking is to give local people the on-the-spot security they need if they are to resist an insurgency accustomed to wiping out whole families for cooperating with the government. Australians on the ground say that local people tend to prefer coalition forces, that don’t want to dictate how they run their lives, to the Taliban for whom their way of life is usually insufficiently Islamic. For understandable reasons, though, villagers need to be convinced that government forces will out-stay the insurgency which is why these operations really need to be Afghan-led.

Progress has to be family-by-family, village-by-village, district-by-district. It’s dependent upon the effectiveness of Afghan security forces and the ability of provincial government to provide tangible prospects of a better future. None of this can be relied upon. Even the Uruzgan provincial capital is too dangerous for Westerners to travel around without heavy escort. Still, fragile advances seem to have been made. In Uruzgan, the recent national election was largely undisrupted. In a remote part of the province, several villages have recently driven out the local Taliban and invited support from coalition special forces.

This northern summer, it seems, higher casualties have been more the result of an aggressive coalition campaign than a more effective insurgency. In Uruzgan, it seems, the Taliban’s greater use of roadside bombs is the result of its reduced ability to move openly around the country. This is nothing like victory, of course, but it is success. It’s been dearly bought which is why it should not lightly be squandered. It should be built upon; not jeopardised by new doubts about the mission and its sustainability.

Australia can never be as committed to the welfare of the Afghan people as they are themselves. If our mission is to succeed, at some stage, it has to be locally sustainable. The assessment of the Australians on the ground is that turning the fourth Brigade into a military force capable of securing and defending Uruzgan will take two to four years. The new government in Britain has recently stated its intention to end combat operations within five years. The Obama administration has said that it expects the Afghan government to start to take the leadership in security matters from the middle of next year.

The coalition’s commitment to Afghanistan can’t be entirely open-ended because that would excuse the Afghan people from taking responsibility for their own country. It would amount to a Western takeover rather than a commitment to enable the Afghan people to help themselves. On the other hand, withdrawal dates can’t be set in stone either because that just reassures the Taliban that they can win by waiting. That’s the “exit strategy”: to win. For Australia, this means completing the task of training the 4th Brigade and playing our part in ensuring that the central government is capable of containing and defeating the insurgency.

There may be other tasks that Australia can or should usefully perform once the current ones are completed. After all, washing our hands of Afghanistan and its problems once two to four years are up would hardly be a sign of friendship. A commitment to Afghanistan that lasts longer than this would hardly be excessive if it continued to deny sanctuary to an imperialistic version of Islamist extremism.

The containment and the defeat of the Taliban would be worth a drawn-out struggle if it helps to keep the world safe from September 11 scale terrorism; and helps to prevent neighbouring Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state under enormous internal pressure, from itself succumbing to Islamist extremism. An enduring security commitment to Afghanistan seems hard to entertain but perhaps it’s no more improbable than Britain’s more-or-less solo 12 year effort to overcome the Malayan emergency or Australia’s budgetary commitment to PNG which is still continuing 35 years after independence.

With Afghanistan, it’s easy to construct gloomy scenarios around the theme of a Vietnam-style quagmire with the conclusion that it’s better to withdraw now before a bad situation gets worse. The underlying assumption is that Western forces are largely provoking the problem rather than helping to contain it. Australians on the ground, for instance, report that local extremists can easily stir up trouble by starting rumours that coalition forces “are burning the Koran”. Difficult though it undoubtedly is, such a volatile situation is unlikely to be calmed by the withdrawal of those forces most committed to building civil society and least likely to be themselves involved in atrocities.

No less than the advocates of continued commitment, the advocates of withdrawal must be ready to accept the consequences of their policies. It would be impossible to advocate in good faith an Australian withdrawal without also supporting the departure of Western forces more generally. A premature withdrawal would almost certainly mean the collapse of the Karzai government and its replacement by the Taliban or the further rise of local warlords. Either way, Afghanistan would again risk becoming a base for international terrorism with the daily life of its people further impoverished. In turn, greater disorder in Afghanistan or a restored Taliban government would almost certainly cause further unrest in Pakistan with the prospect of a renewed military autocracy or an Islamist takeover.

For the West, a regional meltdown could be a far worse outcome than an indefinite military commitment in just one country. Fewer Western military casualties in the short-term could mean far more local deaths and the prospect of escalating unrest spreading into the sub-continent, the Middle East and Central Asia.

If the king had never been deposed, if Russia had never invaded, if America had not armed the mujahideen, if Pakistan had not aided the Taliban, if the West had not been preoccupied in Iraq, the prospects in Afghanistan might be less daunting and the choices less difficult. Still, serious countries and their leaders have to deal with the world as it is, not as they might prefer it. There are no quick solutions and no painless options for dealing with Afghanistan; there’s just the near-certainty that the wrong choice will be disastrous and the likelihood that the harder choice now will turn out to be the better choice for the future.

The opposition supports the Australian commitment to Afghanistan and the Western commitment more generally. In farewelling Australian forces to Iraq some years ago, the then leader of the Labor Party said that he supported the troops but not their mission. Now, as then, the Liberal and National parties have no need for such a tortuous distinction. We fully support Australian troops and we fully support the mission on which they’re engaged.

Bi-partisan support for the Afghanistan commitment is not the same as agreeing that nothing could possibly be improved. Our support is for the commitment, not necessarily for every aspect of the government’s handling of it. As supporters of the commitment, the opposition has a duty to speak out if there’s evidence that it could be made more effective. As well, we have a duty to stand up for Australian soldiers if there’s a possibility that the government might have let them down.

My colleague, Senator Johnston, recently asked the government to consider sending some extra forces to Afghanistan after a soldier blamed the death of his colleague on a lack of fire support. After assurances from senior commanders on the spot, the opposition accepts that our troops have sufficient artillery, attack helicopter, fighter-bomber, and light armoured vehicle support.

Since the mid-year withdrawal of most of the Dutch forces in Uruzgan, Australian troops’ responsibilities have increased. Our forces are now stretched but not, it seems, beyond their capacities. The progress they’ve made is real but fragile. The Coalition accepts senior commanders’ assessment that the current force strength is sufficient for current tasks.

Without access to the latest security assessments and to comprehensive military advice it’s impossible for the opposition to be prescriptive about troop numbers or force composition. Our role is to question in good faith what the government is doing rather than to try to run the country from the wrong side of the parliament. Given the pressure our forces are under and the importance of their mission, we would never be critical of a government that chose to err on the side of giving them more support. In fact, given the critical stage of the military campaign and the capabilities of Australia’s armed forces, our instinct would be to do more rather than less. Still, we accept that this is necessarily the government’s call, not ours.

On my recent visit, senior officers said that additional helicopters would make their military operations more effective. The prime minister seems to have agreed after her own visit that more helicopters would help but that others should supply them. Senior officers also said that it was important to be able to detain suspects beyond 96 hours, as the Americans and the British can. So I ask the government to consider giving our forces in Afghanistan the ability to detain terror suspects for at least as long as authorities already can here in Australia. As well, the government should

regard our commitment to 1550 personnel in Uruzgan as an average to be maintained over time rather than as a limit that’s never to be exceeded regardless of the military situation on the ground.

Supporters of Australia’s commitment should understand the dauntingly difficult operational environment in which our troops work. Our soldiers are no more infallible than those of other nations. Even so, no one should rush to condemn the actions of soldiers under fire operating in the fog of war.

The opposition has not criticised the laying of charges against three special forces soldiers over an incident in which civilians were killed because there have to be rules, even in war. Our questions were for the government which needed to explain what it has done to ensure that these soldiers have the best possible defence. After all, a government’s commitment to our soldiers should be no less strong than our soldiers’ commitment to our country.

In his official history, Charles Bean said of the soldiers of the first AIF: “What these men did nothing now can alter. The good and the bad, the greatness and the smallness of their story will stand. Whatever glory it contains, nothing now can lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages, a monument to great hearted men; and for their nation a possession forever”.

Our troops in Afghanistan are worthy successors of the original Anzacs. I regret that I haven’t yet been able to observe them on operations but I’ve seen them at their base at Tarin Kowt and at services for the fallen here in Australia. John Howard began the recent tradition of prime ministerial attendance at military funerals. Please God that our casualties don’t mount to the point where this is impractical because it is a poignant reminder of the dangers into which we’ve sent them. We should weep for the fallen: good tears for those who have served their country in the company of their mates.

It’s right that every member of parliament should now have the chance to reflect on Australia’s mission in Afghanistan. War should never be popular but it can sometimes be right. Our job is not to persuade people to like the work our armed forces are doing but they need to understand it and to be able to support it. Winning hearts and minds in Australia is no less important than winning them in Afghanistan if this mission is to succeed. Our challenge this week is to be just as effective and professional in our tasks as our soldiers are in theirs.