Australia — Response to the Statement by the Prime Minister on Afghanistan

Mr Speak­er

Since the House debat­ed our mil­i­tary com­mit­ment in Afghanistan last year I, like many mem­bers, have vis­it­ed Afghanistan.

It has giv­en me a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the scale of our mis­sion and the chal­lenges that we face.

This is a long and dif­fi­cult war.

2,812 ISAF per­son­nel have been killed in action in Afghanistan since those planes hit the tow­ers in New York now just over ten years ago – 32 of them Aus­tralian, 11 of those in the past twelve months.

Many more Afghan troops and Afghan civil­ians have been killed.

Aus­tralia has spent more than $4 bil­lion on oper­a­tions and force pro­tec­tion in Afghanistan and the Mid­dle East.

The Unit­ed States spends as much as that each fort­night.

Progress has been hard won.

It has tak­en a long time to get to where we are now.

With prepa­ra­tions under­way for a nation­wide tran­si­tion of secu­ri­ty led respon­si­bil­i­ty to the Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Forces by the end of 2014.

Every loss of an Aus­tralian life tests our resolve – espe­cial­ly when the cir­cum­stances in which they lose their lives are so incom­pre­hen­si­ble.

But this is a just cause – and the strat­e­gy is final­ly the right one.

Deputy Speak­er,

We are not in Afghanistan alone.

We are there with 47 oth­er coun­tries – a quar­ter of the nations in the world.

We are there at the request of the Gov­ern­ment of Afghanistan and under the man­date of the Unit­ed Nations.

We are there, like the oth­er 47 coun­tries in ISAF, because it is in our nation­al inter­est to be there.

Because the threat posed by an unsta­ble Afghanistan reach­es beyond its own bor­ders.

A decade ago it took the lives of more than 3,000 peo­ple in New York, Wash­ing­ton DC and Penn­syl­va­nia.

A year after that, it took the lives of 88 Aus­tralians in Bali and injured 202 more.

That is why we are in Afghanistan.

To ensure it nev­er again becomes a breed­ing ground for ter­ror­ists to plan and train for attacks on inno­cent peo­ple.

This is not a con­ven­tion­al war — one sov­er­eign state against anoth­er.

And it won’t be won by con­ven­tion­al means.

We can’t kill our way to vic­to­ry.

Pre­vent­ing a repeat of the events of the past requires the estab­lish­ment of a com­pe­tent and capa­ble Army and Police Force in Afghanistan.

This is the only way to ensure that the Tal­iban and oth­er extrem­ist groups can’t just wait us out.

They can’t just wait us out because we will leave behind an Afghan Nation­al Army and Afghan Nation­al Police Force capa­ble of pro­vid­ing secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty.

This is no easy task – as the events of the last few weeks remind us – but it is the right one.

And we are mak­ing mea­sur­able progress.

When I was in Afghanistan in July I spoke with sol­diers who had been deployed there on more than one occa­sion.

I asked them what progress they have seen.

They told me that in places where they were fight­ing a few years ago things are now rel­a­tive­ly sta­ble — and we have expand­ed our oper­a­tions into new areas.

Sev­er­al years ago they were lead­ing all patrols – now many patrols are being led by the Afghan Nation­al Army – with Aus­tralian assis­tance.

Some sec­tions of the 4 th Brigade are devel­op­ing faster than oth­ers. As the Prime Min­is­ter advised the House in her report to Par­lia­ment today:

“One of the Brigade’s Kan­daks, or bat­tal­ions, is now close to being able to con­duct ful­ly inde­pen­dent oper­a­tions with Aus­tralian advis­ers.

“The oth­ers are mak­ing steady progress with more expect­ed to be capa­ble of con­duct­ing inde­pen­dent oper­a­tions next year.”

Aus­tralian forces have now hand­ed over 11 for­ward oper­at­ing bases to the ANA.

Places tak­en by the Afghan Nation­al Army and ISAF over the last win­ter have been held through the fight­ing sea­son – the insur­gents have not been able to take those places back.

When they fight in open fields – they lose. This is why they have devel­oped a hit-and-run strat­e­gy of using IEDs and high pro­file sui­cide bomb­ings.

I arrived in Afghanistan the day after one of these high pro­file attacks in July this year.

Insur­gents launched an attack aimed at killing the Gov­er­nor of Uruz­gan Moham­mad Omar Shirzad – and a num­ber of oth­er impor­tant Afghan offi­cials in the province.

The attack failed.

None of the insur­gents’ tar­gets were killed – but a lot of inno­cent civil­ians were – includ­ing many chil­dren at a school next door to the Governor’s com­pound.

The inci­dent proved the progress the Afghan Nation­al Army units in Uruz­gan are mak­ing.

Our com­man­ders in Afghanistan told me that the ANA per­formed very well on that day, respond­ing to the attack with a well-man­aged secu­ri­ty response.

There is a lot more work to do, but the strat­e­gy we have is the right one and we are on track to trans­fer respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty in Uruz­gan to Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Forces by — or before — the end of 2014.

Deputy Speak­er

My job is to make sure our sol­diers have the equip­ment they need to do this job.

And it is a respon­si­bil­i­ty that I take very seri­ous­ly.

A lot of work has been done in the last twelve months.

As a con­se­quence — the equip­ment our sol­diers are wear­ing and using in Afghanistan has changed sig­nif­i­cant­ly since the Prime Min­is­ter report­ed to the Par­lia­ment a lit­tle over twelve months ago.

In the past twelve months we have rolled out new com­bat body armour, new com­bat uni­forms and longer range machine guns to our troops in Afghanistan.

We have also upgrad­ed our Bush­mas­ter pro­tect­ed mobil­i­ty vehi­cles in Afghanistan to make them even safer. This upgrade includ­ed the instal­la­tion of:

  • Pro­tect­ed Weapons Sta­tions — to reduce the expo­sure of crew oper­at­ing vehi­cle fit­ted weapons;
  • Inter­nal spall lin­ers – that pro­vide vehi­cle occu­pants with bet­ter pro­tec­tion from direct fire and side blasts; and
  • New seat­ing and floor­ing that gives troops in the vehi­cle bet­ter pro­tec­tion against spinal and low­er limb injuries from the blast effects of Impro­vised Explo­sive Devices.

Deputy Speak­er,

Ear­li­er this year we installed a counter rock­et sys­tem at Tarin Kot — and at a num­ber of our for­ward oper­at­ing bases — to warn troops of rock­et attacks.

To date they have pro­vid­ed advanced warn­ing of 23 attacks – giv­ing pre­cious sec­onds for troops to hit the deck or find cov­er.

All up we are spend­ing more than $1.6 bil­lion on new equip­ment to bet­ter pro­tect our troops in Afghanistan.

It’s a lot of mon­ey.

But I’m sure every­one in this House would agree — it’s mon­ey well spent.

It’s mon­ey that is sav­ing Aus­tralian lives.

Mr Speak­er

No one knows what a sol­dier needs in Afghanistan bet­ter than some­one who has been there.

That’s why this year we set up a group called Dig­ger­works.

It’s a team of sci­en­tists, engi­neers and sol­diers who have recent­ly returned from Afghanistan.

Their job is to fix the prob­lems that are iden­ti­fied by our troops.

The team is led by Colonel Jason Blain who com­mand­ed our sol­diers in Afghanistan last year.

Twelve months ago the biggest con­cern our sol­diers had with equip­ment in Afghanistan was the MCBAS body armour.

It is very heavy and designed for patrolling in vehi­cles in Iraq – not patrolling on foot in Afghanistan. It is also very bulky with a lot of soft body armour which makes it dif­fi­cult for sol­diers to get in posi­tion and use their rifles.

The team at Dig­ger­works has worked with Aus­tralian indus­try and fixed this. They devel­oped new lighter body armour called TBAS – and I can report to the House that our sol­diers are now wear­ing it in Afghanistan.

I have spo­ken to our sol­diers in Afghanistan and their feed­back on the new body armour is incred­i­bly pos­i­tive.

With the Shad­ow Min­is­ter for Defence Per­son­nel, I vis­it­ed our troops train­ing to deploy to Afghanistan up in Queens­land two weeks ago – and their feed­back was the same.

Dig­ger­works have also done a great job in improv­ing the hel­mets that are worn by our troops.

An upgrade to 2,000 hel­mets was com­plet­ed last month. It includes fit­ting new padding and har­ness­es inside the hel­met to increase com­fort and func­tion­al­i­ty.

1,500 more hel­mets will be upgrad­ed next year for troops who are due to deploy in the future.

None of this means every­thing is per­fect.

There is a lot more to do, par­tic­u­lar­ly to counter the threat posed by IEDs — impro­vised explo­sive devices – or home­made bombs.

In Sep­tem­ber the Min­is­ter for Defence and I announced the agree­ment with the Cana­di­an

Gov­ern­ment to loan three new IED clear­ance sys­tems.

These sys­tems include:

  • Two HUSKY pro­tect­ed mobil­i­ty vehi­cles fit­ted with ground pen­e­trat­ing radar that dri­ve at the front of con­voys to detect IEDs buried in the road; and
  • One BUFFALO mine resis­tant ambush pro­tect­ed (MRAP) vehi­cle fit­ted with an inter­ro­ga­tion arm and Gyro­cam cam­era to help our com­bat engi­neers defuse IEDs more safe­ly.

The vehi­cles will be on loan for around 12 months from 2012.

Work is also under­way to assess the pos­si­ble acqui­si­tion of a per­ma­nent sys­tem.

We’re also rolling out new Shad­ow 200 unmanned aer­i­al vehi­cles next year and Dig­ger­works will also roll out more equip­ment to assist and pro­tect our troops.

Mr Speak­er

War is nev­er pop­u­lar — we shouldn’t expect it to be.

It’s under­stand­able that when an Aus­tralian sol­dier is killed or injured we will ques­tion why we are there.

This debate is an impor­tant oppor­tu­ni­ty to remind the Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ty why we are there, what we are doing and the progress that we are mak­ing.

We are there to make a dan­ger­ous place safer – for the peo­ple who live there and for those who don’t.

As I said last year, we can’t pre­tend that what hap­pens in Afghanistan doesn’t affect us here in Aus­tralia. It does. And because it does — it is right that we are there.

The work our troops are doing in Afghanistan makes us all safer.

This is some­thing we should all keep in mind this Christ­mas as the sun shines over us and the snow falls over the men and women who do this work in our name.

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Aus­tralia

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