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Tuesday, 19 February 2008
Page: 692

Mr FITZGIBBON (Minister for Defence) (3:42 PM) —by leave—The war in Afghanistan is at a crossroads and the time for making difficult decisions is upon us. For the global community the stakes are high. For the Afghan people, they are even higher.

When we gather in Bucharest in April, the partners to the Afghanistan project need to embrace a new strategy to win. To win not just the military battle, but the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Broadly, there are five keys to winning the military campaign.

The first is reaching agreed and common campaign objectives. The second is securing a coherent campaign plan. The third is clarifying chains of command and lines of responsibility. The fourth is securing new NATO troop commitments. The fifth is growing the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police Force to the critical mass and skill level they need to hold our military gains and to enforce the rule of law in their war-torn country.

Winning the hearts and minds of the local population will require the partners to do more on the non-military side. First, we must do more to build an economy free of narcotics. Second, we must do more to provide guidance and assistance on governance issues. And, third, we must focus more acutely on the establishment of a justice system not so vulnerable to corruption and manipulation.

In short, it is about giving the Afghan people hope, hope that a democratic Afghanistan can deliver for them a decent society and a decent standard of living.

It is appropriate to acknowledge that, on both the military and non-military fronts, significant gains have been made. We have enjoyed some success in targeting the insurgent leadership and we have disrupted their coordination and lines of command.

Six million Afghan children are now receiving an education and 80 per cent of the population now has access to basic health care. But so much more needs to be done.

Today I am able to inform the House, the Australian community and the wider global community that the new Australian government has taken a number of decisions which will demonstrate we are willing to back our criticisms of the Afghanistan mission with real and meaningful action.

The government has decided to adjust Australia’s defence contribution in Afghanistan. While maintaining our engineering and security effort, we intend to increase our focus on training.

This means the Australian government has decided to maintain our current level of military commitment to Afghanistan, but to increase the focus on training and mentoring of the Afghanistan national army.

We are making these changes with an eye on the longer term future of the country, noting that the government of Afghanistan needs to be able to develop the security forces which will provide the security for their own citizens into the future.

The adjustments to Australia’s military commitment will be focused on enhancing the capabilities of the Afghan national army while retaining our reconstruction and combat effort in Oruzgan.

Based on both our reviews and consultation with our partners, the new government believes the time is right for Australia to evolve the role of its forces so that the additional task of training the Afghan army can be embraced and adopted.

This will be achieved by providing an Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team which will be responsible for the training of an Afghan national army battalion which will shortly commence operations in Oruzgan province.

The introduction of this training team will be an important step in assisting the development of the Afghan security forces. As part of the broader effort of our Dutch partners, the Australian training team will commence operations later this year. The core of the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team will be highly skilled officers and senior non-commissioned officers with experience in infantry operations. The team will also include integral force protection troops and assets.

The training team will be embedded with an Oruzgan based Afghan national army battalion—commonly known there as a Kandak—which normally consists of around 600 soldiers. The Australian Defence Force personnel will mentor and advise key commanders within the Kandak during both training and operations. The mentoring and training team will assist the Kandak Headquarters in military operational necessities such as logistics and personnel management, force protection planning and coordinating combined operations.

The commitment of the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team will help rebuild the security institutions of the Afghan government, particularly in the Oruzgan province.

The training team will develop the skills of the Afghan security forces to enable them to do the job that is currently being undertaken by coalition forces. The need for this shift in focus is well recognised by the international community.

ISAF’s operational mentoring and liaison teams have been operating successfully with the Afghan army throughout the various provinces in Afghanistan. Given this success, the international community is increasingly moving towards providing greater training to the Afghan national security forces through these teams.

While this adjustment to our military commitment will not result in an increase in the number of troops that we have deployed in Afghanistan, Australia will maintain all of its current force elements including the Reconstruction Task Force, the Special Operations Task Group, the Rotary Wing Group and the Control and Reporting Centre.

The Reconstruction Task Force will continue to make its important contribution to the reconstruction and security of Oruzgan province. It will retain a construction and security capability as well as continuing to manage the trade training school and provide project management experience to assist the people of Oruzgan in rebuilding their province.

The Special Operations Task Group will also continue its work in providing security for the province by taking the fight directly to the insurgents. This work creates a more secure environment for the international community and the Afghan government to deliver development assistance in the Dutch and Australian supported province of Oruzgan. Further, the Rotary Wing Group and the Control and Reporting Centre, based in Kandahar, will continue to provide vital air transport and battle airspace management for the international community’s efforts in southern Afghanistan.

In addition to the initiatives that I have announced today, the government will soon announce an enhancement of its efforts on the non-military side of the equation.

The government remains firmly committed to international efforts to stabilise and rebuild Afghanistan. As I noted earlier, a strong, highly trained and competent Afghan national army will be critical for the future security of the country.

Australia’s continued military commitment to Afghanistan and its ongoing participation in the International Security Assistance Force mission reflects the critical role a stable Afghanistan plays in regional and international security. Australia has a direct interest in working with our international partners and the Afghan government to ensure that the country does not again become a base for terrorist activity. Australia remains committed to working with the government of Afghanistan to improve governance and security and to develop its capacity to deliver improved services to its citizens.

I look forward to working with our ISAF partners in Bucharest and beyond to deliver a safe, secure and stable Afghanistan.