Paper presented by the Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, MP on Afghanistan Tabled in conjunction with a Ministerial Statement on 23 March 2011
As I said during last year’s Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, “there can be no more serious endeavour for any country or Government than to send its military forces into conflict”.
That is why it is appropriate that Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan is the subject of ongoing Parliamentary and public scrutiny.
As part of this, the Government and I are committed to providing regular reports and updates on Afghanistan, including to the Parliament.
My report on this occasion includes the recent NATO and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Defence Ministers’ meeting in Brussels, which I attended earlier this month.
Why we are there
It is worth reminding ourselves why we are in Afghanistan and what our goal is.
The Government’s strong view is that it is in our national interest to be in Afghanistan, not just with our Alliance partner the United States, but also with 46 other members of the international community acting under a United Nations mandate.
Australia has a responsibility to help stare down international terrorism and ensure stability in Afghanistan.
Our fundamental goal is to prevent Afghanistan from again being used by terrorists to plan and train for attacks on innocent civilians, including Australians in our own region and beyond.
To achieve that goal we must help prepare the Afghan Government to take lead responsibility for providing security for the Afghan people.
We must stabilise the security situation and mentor and train the Afghan security forces.
There are signs that the international community’s recent troop surge, combined now with a strong military and political strategy, has reversed the Taliban’s momentum.
This progress is incremental and hard-won, but it is apparent.
As International Security Assistance Force Commander General Petraeus told the US Congress on 15 March, districts west of Kandahar city – the birthplace of the Taliban – have recently been cleared by ISAF and Afghan troops.
In recent months, there has been a fourfold increase in the number of weapons and explosive caches turned in and found.
Around 700 former Taliban have now officially reintegrated with Afghan authorities, with some 2,000 more in various stages of the reintegration process.
But I do urge caution.
United States Defense Intelligence Agency head, General Ron Burgess, has cautioned that “the security situation remains fragile and heavily dependent on ISAF support” and that the Taliban “remain[s] resilient and will be able to threaten US and international goals in Afghanistan through 2011”.
We must expect push back from the Taliban, particularly in areas recently claimed by ISAF and Afghan troops, when this year’s fighting season commences in April or May.
We do need to steel ourselves for a tough fighting season.
United States Secretary of Defense Gates was correct when he said in Afghanistan on 8 March that the coming spring and summer fighting seasons would present an ‘acid test’ of whether our gains could hold.
As well, the international community must continue to press President Karzai and his Government to deliver on his undertakings at the London Conference in January 2010 to improve governance, pursue electoral reform, take effective anti-corruption and anti-narcotics measures and create social and economic opportunities for all the Afghan people, including Afghan women and girls.
As United States National Intelligence Director Jim Clapper advised the United States Congress recently, which he repeated to me when I met him in Australia recently, there remains concern about the ability of the Afghan Government to deliver on governance.
Without progress on governance, security gains will remain fragile.
Leaders of the 48 ISAF countries met at the Lisbon Summit last November and resolved that a conditions-based transition to Afghan led security begin in 2011, with the aspiration of completing transition by the end of 2014.
NATO and ISAF members also made an important long term commitment to support Afghanistan beyond the transition of security responsibility.
Good progress has been made since the Lisbon Summit, with the first Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board report on transition and the development of ISAF Transition Implementation Principles.
Australia endorses the first Inteqal report and its recommendation to begin transition, as the Brussels NATO-ISAF Defence Ministers also did, and as announced by President Karzai on 22 March, which I will refer to shortly.
The Inteqal report’s commitment to coordinate transition planning with both Afghan and ISAF stakeholders will ensure all partners are consulted throughout the transition process, including on future tranches for transition.
It is essential to get this right, to ensure the sustainability of the transition process.
As the Prime Minister said at the Lisbon Summit, there is no point transitioning out only to have to transition back in later.
The ISAF Transition Implementation Principles emphasise a shared, long-term commitment, a properly resourced mission, and investment and reinvestment in training.
I attended the recent NATO-ISAF Defence Ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
Building upon the Lisbon Summit, this meeting delivered the message that ISAF partners are committed to achieving a conditions based, irreversible and sustainable transition of security responsibility to Afghan National Security Forces.
Working hand in hand with the Afghan Government, ISAF intends to complete the handing over of security responsibility to Afghan authorities by the end of 2014.
This is an achievable task, and it has already started.