I would like to thank the Prime Minister for this opportunity to have a parliamentary debate on Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. From the outset, I would like to acknowledge the bravery and dedication of our troops who have served and continue to serve in Afghanistan. I would like to especially acknowledge the 21 Australian soldiers who have died whilst on duty in Afghanistan and offer my condolences to their families and friends—in particular, Private Nathan Bewes, who was from Murwillumbah in my electorate. Nathan Bewes was serving with the First Mentoring Task Force when he tragically lost his life because of an improvised explosive device on Friday, 9 July. Whilst Nathan was from the Brisbane based 6 Battalion, RAR, he grew up in Murwillumbah and his family and many friends still live there. I extend my condolences to his parents Gary and Kay; his sister, Stephanie; and his partner, Alice. Each of these 21 soldiers have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of our nation and our national interest, and that must be recognised and remembered as we examine our past and present roles and as we consider our future role in Afghanistan. I firmly believe that it is in our national interest to have become involved in, and to remain in, Afghanistan. This recognises that Australia’s involvement extends well beyond our military involvement to include direct support to assist in rebuilding a nation.
Without a doubt, the most serious decision a government can make is to commit its citizens to an armed conflict. This is not a decision that is made easily and not one taken lightly. However, when our national security and our national interest are at stake, as I believe them to be in Afghanistan, such decisions are necessary.
Australia is not immune to the actions of terrorists, with more than 100 Australians killed in terrorist attacks in recent years. These attacks were carried out by individuals with direct links to the terror training grounds of Afghanistan and the safe haven it provided before the fall of the Taliban. These were attacks upon innocent people, conducted with the express purpose of taking lives and disrupting communities. Accordingly, it is a proper response that, when Australia’s international security is threatened and when the lives of Australian citizens are being targeted for no other reason than for being Australians, the government responds. Our troops are in Afghanistan to stop the country becoming the safe haven for terrorists and terrorist groups that it once was.
As a global citizen we have an important responsibility in going to Afghanistan, and we have an important responsibility in remaining there.
As the Prime Minister has said, Australia has two vital national interests in Afghanistan: one is to make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists, a place where attacks on us and our allies begin; the other is to stand firmly by our alliance commitment to the United States, formally invoked following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. Under the Taliban government, al-Qaeda had a safe haven in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s sanctuary allowed the group to concentrate its efforts on expanding its organisation, training thousands in both guerilla warfare and terrorist tactics and planning terrorist operations. The loss of this sanctuary has seriously reduced the ability of al-Qaeda to carry out terrorist activities. When we recall the September 11 attacks in the United States, we all remember the horror, the devastation and the massive loss of life and we are reminded of the reasons that we went to Afghanistan. In the 9-11 attacks, al-Qaeda murdered more than 3,000 people, including 10 Australians. After the 9-11 attacks, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1378, condemning the Taliban for allowing Afghanistan to be used as a base for terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Australia joined the international mission mandated by the UN Security Council with the goal of denying terrorist networks a safe haven in Afghanistan.
Although inflicting mass casualties remains a primary goal of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the group has been forced to alter its operational strategy because of the loss of its safe base. Our efforts in Afghanistan have denied al-Qaeda its ability to freely plan, train and execute operations of the scale of 9-11. Despite our actions curtailing its activities, al-Qaeda and the terror groups associated with it remain the prominent source of today’s global terror threat. If our military presence in Afghanistan is withdrawn and the Taliban is allowed to rise up and take over the democratically elected government in Kabul, there is a real possibility that al-Qaeda could resume using Afghanistan as a safe haven once again for training, planning and launching global terror attacks.
Australia is not alone in its involvement in Afghanistan. Our engagement is a multilateral one, mandated by the United Nations as part of international effort to stabilise Afghanistan. Australia is one of 47 nations that have formed the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, and ISAF has a clear strategy: to protect the civilian population, to train the Afghan National Security Forces and the Afghan National Police and to assist with improvement in services, governance and economic development.
Al-Qaeda has been dealt a severe blow in Afghanistan. Removing the Taliban and pursuing al-Qaeda has made a major difference in preventing terrorist attacks. However, ISAF and the Afghan government continue to face persistent insurgency, particularly in the country’s south. From 2001 to mid 2006, US and coalition forces and Afghan troops fought low levels of insurgent violence. The international force was primarily focused on a stabilisation mission, and no Australian units were deployed in Afghanistan between December 2002 and September 2005. In September 2005, Australia’s military involvement resumed in support of international efforts to target key insurgents. In 2010, ISAF launched counterinsurgency operations to reclaim Taliban held ground in the south. Our government supports the new international strategy.
Australia has increased its troop contribution over the past 18 months, and we now have around 1,550 military personnel deployed in Afghanistan. The Australian effort is focused upon Oruzgan province. In Oruzgan, Australia’s Mentoring Task Force is training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army. The capability of the 4th Brigade to conduct security operations has increased. Of course, military action alone is not enough to ensure long-term stability. Efforts to restore law and order and bring back stability are combined with addressing humanitarian needs and assisting with the long-term process of reconstruction and development assistance. Aid and capacity-building efforts are focused on helping improve the Afghan government’s capacity to deliver basic services such as education and health.
While the challenges are great, Australia’s involvement is in fact making a real difference. We can look at some of the differences that have been made over the past nine years. Firstly, millions of boys and girls are now enrolled in schools. In 2001, around one million children, none of them girls, were enrolled in school, while today there are more than six million enrolments, including around two million young girls. As the Prime Minister has said, nothing better symbolises the fall of the Taliban than these two million Afghan girls learning to read. Also, basic health services have improved. Under the Taliban, these services were only available to less than 10 per cent of the population. Now they are available to around 85 per cent of the people. And there is the management of around 39,000 community-based infrastructure projects, like wells and clinics, and the improvement of almost 10,000 kilometres of rural roads, supporting the employment of hundreds of thousands of local workers. Other advances include two elections for the lower house of parliament since 2001 and the fact that thousands of government judges have entered into legal training.
Of course, under the Taliban free speech was suppressed. Now newly established radio stations, TV channels and print media are bringing unprecedented amounts of news and information to Afghans throughout the country, and now Afghans can properly discuss issues such as human rights abuses and women’s rights. They can have a say and debate their future in a way that was previously not permitted, and they can participate directly through democratic processes. The right of women to represent their communities in parliament has been restored.
A necessary condition for the continued advance of communities and societies is a secure, safe and stable environment. Australians are lending their skills to restoring law and order, with the Australian Federal Police having trained more than 800 Afghan National Police officers. This is very important in terms of developing stability and preparing the citizens of Afghanistan to take responsibility for their own security and policing.
The Australian Federal Police, together with representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, AusAID and Defence form part of the provincial reconstruction team under Combined Team Oruzgan, which coordinates all ISAF civilian activities in the province.
Of course, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest nations in the world—a nation torn apart by three decades of conflict. As a result of the international community’s engagement, progress to address this is being made.
Freedoms, opportunities and services that many consider to be norms are being either restored or enjoyed for the first time. However, these steps are still only early achievements. As the Afghan people work to rebuild their social and economic infrastructure, continued support from countries such as ours is crucial. The appalling human rights record of the Taliban and their extreme form of sharia law devastated the rights of individuals, particularly women, and this record should not be forgotten.
I know there are differing views within this parliament, within the Australian community and indeed within my electorate about Australia’s role in Afghanistan. The fact that we are in a position to give voice to our differing views without the fear of personal attack is a right that did not exist in Afghanistan and one that is being restored.
There is no denying that Afghanistan faces immense development challenges, but these challenges, with the support of nations like our own, are not insurmountable.
I strongly believe that we cannot neglect our responsibilities to our national security, to the international community and to the Afghan people. We should stand firm against extremist views. I do not believe that walking away is a good enough response. But we should also remember that, in the case of Afghanistan, without engaging in armed conflict it would not have been possible to start the process of restoring basic human rights, restoring opportunities for individuals to express those rights and restoring equality not only for women and girls but for every Afghani citizen.
Australia should not abandon Afghanistan, but we must be very realistic about the future. Transition will take some years and, as the Prime Minister has said, we will be engaged through this decade at least. The facts are that we are in Afghanistan to work together with locals and our international partners towards building a safe and sustainable democracy. We cannot allow this country to ever again become the safe haven for extremists and their terrorist training camps that it once was. I believe that Australia has a responsibility to remain in Afghanistan. In conclusion, I would like to acknowledge our soldiers and defence personnel, Federal Police members and DFAT and AusAID staff for their ongoing efforts on behalf of our nation in Afghanistan.
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