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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 3341

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (20:51): I move:

That this House calls on the Government to set a date for the safe return of Australian troops from Afghanistan.

There is no greater responsibility for any country's politicians than to make decisions regarding war and peace. War is the most destructive and violent power of government. It creates widows and orphans. It maims and destroys body and soul. It crushes societies and economies. This means that we should only engage in war when it is absolutely necessary and when it can be justified in the cause of peace. For a long time, the decision to wage war was seen as the prerogative of the executive. This monopoly on the decision to wage war was a hangover from the feudal era. War was a decision of kings. The democratic revolutions retained this concept of sovereignty and invested the war-making power in the executive. But the decision to keep this kingly concept of war was always contested.

The Australian Greens believe that the decision to go to war should be in the hands of the parliament and we will continue to press for this democratic reform. The United States ensures that congress needs to back a president's decision to go to war. Many other countries do something similar, including Germany, Spain, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey. And we should join them.

But, regardless of who sends our men and women to war, the onus is on us to look for every opportunity to return to peace. It is the responsibility of the Prime Minister and the government to make clear when a war will end. Now is that time for our Prime Minister. Now is the time for her to make a clear and unequivocal statement of when our troops will leave Afghanistan. Anything else leaves the Australian people and our troops in limbo. The onus is on the proponents of war to show why we should continue to risk the lives of Australian men and women for no purpose.

The original purpose of the war was to respond to the 911 attacks and to remove al-Qaeda. That has long been accomplished. And Osama bin Laden is now dead. The Karzai government in Afghanistan is in negotiations with the Taliban with the aim of creating a national government involving all sides of this conflict. In this context, what is the great purpose for which we fight? Even if the proponents of war are correct and the withdrawal of foreign forces leads to a return of the Taliban, what is the justification for keeping our troops there for two more years for the same result? How do we justify the death of our troops by holding on until the Americans decide to leave?

The new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Carr, says we should remain in Afghanistan to protect women. Yet just this month the Afghan President Hamid Karzai endorsed an edict from the country's top religious council that confirms that women are inferior to men, sanctions the beating of women by their husbands in certain Sharia compliant circumstances and argues for greater segregation. Last month, the government that we are in there defending also demanded that women newsreaders wear headscarves. In 2010, the Karzai government in Afghanistan also passed a law which applies to the country's minority Shiite population and, in particular, to its women. This law allows police to enforce language that sets out a wife's sexual duties and restricts a woman's right to leave her own home. According to US reports, child custody rights still go to fathers and grandfathers, women have to ask before they get married for permission to work and a husband is still able to deny his wife food and shelter if she does not meet his sexual needs. This is the government that we are told that our soldiers should continue to kill and die for.

It is now clear that the war in Afghanistan cannot be won, however you measure victory. It is now clear that the reasons successive governments have given to be in Afghanistan no longer stand up to scrutiny. It is also clear that the main reason we are there is not to defend democracy or human rights but simply because the United States asked us to go and wants us to remain. And it is now clear that, although our alliance with the United States is important, a simple request is not a good enough reason for our troops to fight and die in an unwinnable and unjustifiable war.

This is a decision we must make for ourselves as a country. It is a decision that other countries have made for themselves. It is time to bring the troops home. It is time to bring the troops home safely and for Australia to shoulder the burden of Afghanistan's problems in a new way. And it is time to bring the troops home so that they can be honoured for their service. We should no longer ask them to carry out this unjustified task.

For the sake of clarity, it is important to note that the Greens do not oppose the deployment in Afghanistan based on any absolute opposition to the use of military force or from any lack of commitment to our troops. We led the call for military intervention in Timor Leste and are proud of the role our men and women played in the struggle for freedom and independence in that country. But already 32 young Australians soldiers have lost their lives and at least 218 have been wounded in action in Afghanistan. That is all the more reason why we should be having this debate.

No-one knows exactly how many people have died and been injured in the war in Afghanistan because, in those infamous words of the US military, 'We don't do body counts.' But we do know that it is in the tens of thousands. The appalling massacre this month was not an aberration. Nearly every other week there is another story of a massacre or accidental killing of civilians—more collateral damage in a war in which, like Vietnam, our troops find it harder to tell the difference between insurgents and non-insurgents.

This war has now been going on for over ten years, almost longer than World War I and World War II combined. We must remember that in the eyes of many of the people now fighting the coalition forces in Afghanistan this is a continuation of their fight to remove foreign forces from the country—a fight begun with the Soviet invasion in 1979. The Prime Minister said that this war may be the work of a generation. If coalition troops are there for another decade, a whole generation of boys and girls will have grown up knowing us only as an occupying force and as the enemy, and we must expect all the consequences that flow from that. On this, I think we should listen to Malalai Joya. In 2005, she was the youngest woman elected to the Afghani parliament. She condemned the warlords of whom the assembly was overwhelmingly comprised. Now, she says:

We are in between two evil: the warlords and Taliban on one side, and the occupation on the other. The first step is to fight against occupation—those who can liberate themselves will be free, even if it costs our lives.

Respected defence analysts have said that the process of training the army and police in Afghanistan has been far less successful than the government has made out and may never be achievable. The desertion of personnel, infiltration by Taliban supporters and the quality of the troops and police all mean that very few are able to operate without coalition forces in support. According to some recent reports, the attrition rate far exceeds the number of new recruits. None of these problems have been acknowledged by the government, which continues to make the confident declaration that it is the 'Afghan government's determination that the Afghan National Security Forces should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014'. It is important to note the careful language that is being used here suggesting that even by 2014 there may be no self-sufficient Afghan military or police, suggesting that we may be there for much longer. The former leader of the coalition forces in Afghanistan and current director of the CIA, General David Petraeus, summed up his thinking on the length of deployment in this way:

You have to recognize also that I don't think you win this war. I think you keep fighting … You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we're in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids' lives.

While we talk here of decades and generations, President Obama is reported to have responded to Pentagon requests for more troops by saying:

I'm not doing ten years. I'm not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars.

If the US is increasingly asking how much it will cost in lives and money to be successful, and indicating that it will not make that kind of commitment, why are we not doing the same? And what would count as success, anyway? Is it the maintenance of the Karzai government, described by David Petraeus as a criminal syndicate? As the Vice-President of the United States, Joe Biden, asked: 'If the government's a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will the troops make a difference?'

According to Australian defence analyst Hugh White, the real reason the Australian government has troops in Afghanistan is that the United States has asked us. That is why the Greens believe that we need a relationship with the United States that is strong but is based on autonomy and independence. The experience of the British in standing up to American pressure to take part in the Vietnam War was that it did not undermine the British-American relationship. Australia could still retain the support of the United States even if we pursued a more independent foreign policy. While others in the world are discussing exit strategies, Australia is continuing to write blank cheques. The Greens know what 64 per cent of the Australian public know: it is time to set a date to bring our troops home.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Order! Is the motion seconded?

Mr WILKIE: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.