MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS – Afghanistan – House of Reps Hansard – 26 October 2010
Mr Gibbons (Bendigo) (5:56 PM) —I have no doubt that all members speaking in this first debate on our military deployment in Afghanistan will pay tribute to the Australian men and women who are currently serving their country and I join my fellow parliamentarians in expressing the nation’s gratitude to those who put their lives at risk on a daily basis, and especially those who already have paid, or may pay in the future, with their lives on active service. I extend deepest condolences on behalf of the people of central Victoria to the family and friends of those who have already fallen.
It is appropriate that we express our gratitude because as a nation we have not always done so in the past. The disgraceful treatment of our returning servicemen and women during and following the war in Vietnam remains a stain on our country’s history and must never be repeated.
Whether or not the political decision by the government of the day to go to war was a good one or a bad one, the men and women we put in harm’s way have had no say in where they are sent or whether they go. They merely do their duty to their nation. As politicians we carry the ultimate responsibility for strategic decisions about war and we must resist the temptation to cross the boundary and start playing armchair generals, as some on the other side of this House have been doing in recent weeks. Making uninformed calls for additional equipment that is inappropriate and unsuited to the conditions in which our troops are deployed is both reckless and irresponsible. Being able to compete in a triathlon and firing off a few rounds of ammunition on a visit to Oruzgan does not make you a military commander. It is not this parliament’s role to second-guess tactical military decisions. This debate must concentrate on the strategic and political issues.
The fact that this debate is taking place nine years after the first deployment of Australian troops in Afghanistan means we must focus on dealing with the strategic realities that we face today. We cannot go back and change the past. We cannot go back and change the reasons why we became involved in Afghanistan in the first place. The fact is that we are there. We have troops and civilian personnel on the ground today and any decisions that are made about our future involvement must be based on the situation today and that expected to prevail in the future.
Having said that, it is useful to review what has transpired since 2001. Perhaps the first point to make is that there have been two quite different stages to our involvement in Afghanistan. Australia’s commitment began in October 2001 after the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington killed more than 3,000 people, including 10 Australians. Australian special forces joined American, British and other international troops in an intensive campaign against al-Qaeda and those who gave them sanctuary, including the Taliban. By December 2002 the Taliban had fallen and many al-Qaeda operatives had been killed whilst the remainder had fled across the border to Pakistan and our special forces troops had returned home.
In December 2001, Australia also made a commitment to the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, whose United Nations mandate to provide security around Kabul was subsequently extended to cover the entire country. But, unfortunately, this promising start was followed by the distraction of Iraq. The reckless determination of the Bush and Blair administrations, aided and abetted by the former Howard government, to pursue Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction meant operations in Afghanistan were all but ignored and many of the hard won gains on the ground were thrown away.
In the context of the campaign against al-Qaeda, the invasion of Iraq must be seen as a strategic blunder, as well as being of doubtful legality. It is something that the Australian Labor Party voted against in this parliament at the time.
By September 2005, the rising insurgency forced members of ISAF to refocus on Afghanistan and Australian special forces were deployed again. ISAF continues to operate under a United Nations mandate, which was renewed earlier this month for a further year. Its strategic objectives are to establish security across the country and then transfer responsibility for security and governance to the Afghan authorities, which will permit a phased withdrawal of the international troops. Since August 2003, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, has assumed responsibility for the leadership of ISAF and Australia now has some 1,550 military personnel in Afghanistan both as part of ISAF and in the special operations task group. This is the largest contribution from any non-NATO member of ISAF. We also have a sizeable civilian presence, including AusAID officials, diplomats and members of the Australian Federal Police.
International terrorist attacks did not begin and end on 11 September 2001. Since then, some 100 Australians have been killed in attacks overseas, including 88 Australians in the Bali bombing of 2002 and four in the second Bali bombing in 2005. Our embassy in Jakarta was bombed in 2004. In each of these cases, the terrorist groups involved had links to Afghanistan. Although no longer the safe haven that it once was, if the current insurgency in Afghanistan were to succeed and the international community were to withdraw, then Afghanistan could once again become a base for terrorists. Al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit and indoctrinate, train, plan, finance and conspire to kill would be far greater than it is today. The propaganda victory for terrorists worldwide would be enormous.
It is in Australia’s national interest that safe havens for terrorists, particularly those in South Asia and the Pacific, are kept to a minimum and their operations disrupted as much as possible. The strategic objective for Australia is clear: to deny terrorist networks a safe haven in Afghanistan. That is why Australia is participating in ISAF with many longstanding friends and allies, including the United States, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Singapore and Korea. The last two are among the Asian countries participating. There are also several Muslim countries involved, including Turkey, Jordan and Malaysia.
Australia’s specific contributions to ISAF include training and mentoring the Afghan National Army’s 4th Brigade to assume responsibility for security in Oruzgan province, building the capacity of the Afghan National Police to perform civil policing and helping improve the Afghan government’s capacity to deliver core public services and create more income-earning opportunities for its people. As well as supporting this transitional program in Oruzgan, our special forces are still targeting the insurgent network in and around the province, disrupting insurgent operations and supply routes. This is dangerous work for our soldiers and we must expect there to be further casualties and loss of life among our troops.
The government is committed to providing the best protection and support for our soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan. Over the past 12 months, more than $1.2 billion in funding has been announced for additional force protection measures for Australian personnel, including upgraded body armour and rocket, artillery and mortar protection. I am pleased to note that manufacturers in my electorate are at the forefront of protecting our service men and women. The Bendigo built Thales Bushmaster has time and time again demonstrated its unrivalled capability to protect our troops from gunfire, bombs and improvised explosive devices that would have otherwise resulted in fatalities. Australian Defence Apparel is a world-leading producer of body armour and also supplies more basic items such as combat uniforms.
I am extremely proud that Bendigo’s defence manufacturing sector is totally geared to produce vehicles and equipment designed to save lives and not destroy lives—somewhat of a unique situation in Australia today.
I regret that I have to inform the House that this proud record of protecting our troops overseas is now at some risk. I learnt earlier today that Thales Australia, the manufacturer of the Bushmaster in Bendigo, has announced redundancies at its Bendigo plant, largely due to lack of immediate further orders for its world-leading technology from our own Department of Defence. Innovation is the engine that grows our economy and it would be a national tragedy if this country’s knowledge and expertise in protected mobility design and manufacture were lost due to the bureaucratic maze that our Department of Defence operates in. I am quite sure that the governments of Britain and the United States would not let this happen to its defence manufacturers and neither should we. I will have more to say about this matter later when I have more details.
Returning to Afghanistan, we need to be clear that the task we have taken on in that country is not nation building. We are there to support the Afghan people’s transition to a stable government—one that is able to maintain its own national security and protect its own population. I do, however, believe that the UN, including Australia, has been too ambitious, as it was in Iraq. We must accept that we have made promises about democracy, the rule of law and human rights for women and minorities which cannot realistically be delivered in a handful of years to a country without any democratic tradition. Success for the UN and ISAF will therefore have to mean achieving an intermediate state of affairs in Afghanistan that is somewhere between ideal and intolerable.
It may be that the idea of a centralised Afghan democracy is too radical for a country in which central administration has never worked in the past. There are a range of outcomes that the Afghan government and ISAF might find acceptable that are achievable. None of these outcomes are perfect and all would require sacrifice. But a compromise that would allow ISAF to withdraw its troops may have to involve a more inclusive, flexible and decentralised political settlement, perhaps in conjunction with the Taliban in some areas of the country. This should be acceptable to Australia also. After all, we count among our friends many nations that are not democracies. We can surely accommodate another one.
To achieve even a limited strategic objective will require ISAF to remain engaged in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Australia should remain part of the coalition. There will still be a need for Australians to conduct training and other defence cooperation activities. The civilian led aid and development effort should also continue. We have heard from the Prime Minister that these support, training and development tasks may continue in some form through to the end of this decade at least. In light of this, while my heart may be saying that we should bring our troops home now, my head supports the Prime Minister’s view that we have to stay.
This is the decision I have come to after careful consideration of the available information and not, as the member for Denison suggested in his speech last week, because I have sacrificed my soul for my party’s political self-interest—an accusation I strongly resent. I believe I am representing the views of most in my electorate in light of the two beautiful young women from Bendigo whose lives were so tragically cut short while they were doing nothing but enjoying a holiday in Bali. So I say to the member for Denison: don’t come into this House and lecture people about conscience or principle, because I and many others on this side of the House are acting precisely according to our consciences in supporting our nation’s involvement in Afghanistan.
In summary, Afghanistan is a completely different situation to Iraq. Afghanistan has always been a war of self-defence, launched after al-Qaeda’s strikes on September 11, rather than a pre-emptive strike which turned out to be without foundation.
It was initiated pursuant to international law under the United Nations Security Council’s mandate and it continues to be supported by key leaders in the international community. Australia has a proud history of supporting the aims and objectives of the United Nations. A unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan would raise questions about our commitment to the UN and to the rule of international law.
While we value the Australia-United States alliance—and I recognise its importance to our national security—I would much rather see the US acting multilaterally under a UN mandate than charging around the world as a lone maverick engaged in its own foreign policy adventures. This is exactly what is happening in Afghanistan, and if we turn our backs on that now, at a time when the US President is trying to steer his country away from ill-advised, unilateral military interventions, we will be playing into the hands of those American hawks who argue that it is always better for the US to act on its own, even in defiance of the United Nations.
Finally, we must not forget that we have moral obligations to Afghans. We should not bolt for the exit because the going gets tougher. We should make sure that when we leave we have discharged our responsibilities to the international community, to our allies and, most importantly, to the people of Afghanistan. In conclusion, I believe that it is in Australia’s national interest to remain part of the United Nations international commitment in Afghanistan.