This is an important debate.
There is no more important decision for government than the decision to send its own citizens to war.
And it is important that that decision and the ongoing mission has the support of this Parliament, and that the Parliament and the people it represents understand:
- why our troops have been deployed;
- what they are doing; and
- what support the Australian Government is providing them to get the job done.
In my contribution to this debate I will focus on these three things.
First, why we are there?
We are in Afghanistan because it is in Australia’s national interest to be there.
I believe it is in our national interest because the threat posed by an unstable Afghanistan reaches far beyond its own borders.
It affects its neighbours. It affects us.
We all remember where we were on September 11. The actions of Al Qaeda that day killed more than 3,000 people from more than 90 countries – including 10 Australians.
But this wasn’t the only act of terrorism planned or supported from Afghanistan. The 88 Australians killed in Bali died at the hands of Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists trained and supported by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
It is just one example of the global reach of the violent extremism that was allowed to flourish in Afghanistan.
That is why 46 other countries are contributing to the same effort – under the mandate of the United Nations – including our closest ally the United States.
We are all there for the same reason — the threat posed to all countries by an Afghanistan where malign forces could take root again.
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.
Australia and Australians would be less safe if Afghanistan became a place where terrorists could plan, train and operate from again.
It’s true. Creating a stable Afghanistan doesn’t eliminate the threat of terrorism. Terrorist groups are active in a lot of other places – Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Maghrab.
But that doesn’t mean what happens in Afghanistan is without consequence.
If we fail, if Afghanistan becomes a place that provides sanctuary to terrorists again, the impact to the cause espoused by organisations like Al Qaeda would be enormous.
It would be felt not just in the Middle East, but in our own region. That is why it is in our national interest that we play a role in establishing a stable and secure Afghanistan.
So how do we do that?
This isn’t a conventional war, and it won’t be won by conventional means.
Relentlessly seeking out and killing insurgents is not enough.
The Commander of Australian Forces in the Middle East, Major General John Cantwell, tells the story of an Australian patrol conducting a meeting, a shura, with local elders in the Baluchi Valley where they met a young boy with a badly broken arm. His arm had been caught in a wheat threshing machine – and the bone was poking through his skin.
The Australian soldiers asked local elders for permission to take the boy to be treated. The boy’s father refused.
General Cantwell recounts:
“After two hours of pleading he (the father) said that if the Taliban see that I have taken anything from you they will kill me and my family. That boy will either lose his arm or die”.
I can understand the father’s concern.
What happens when the soldiers leave the village? What happens when we leave Afghanistan and he is still there and so are the Taliban?
Counter insurgency relies on winning hearts and minds of men like this. That can only be done if there exists a sense of confidence that when we are no longer there, there will remain the foundations of a stable, secure society.
That’s why the work we are doing in Afghanistan – training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army – is so important.
Because you can’t have a stable, secure society unless the government has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force.
There is a lot to do to improve governance in Afghanistan. But if you don’t have a monopoly over the legitimate use of force — you can’t do any of these things. Our job in Afghanistan is to help build that monopoly of force.
The work we have done in Iraq and East Timor, demonstrates that we are very good at it. That’s why NATO has asked us to provide more artillery trainers. We have agreed to meet this need by providing up to 20 artillery trainers to support the establishment of the Artillery School in Kabul.
It is an important contribution to the broader Coalition effort. ISAF forces are doing the same thing throughout Afghanistan.
It takes time to build and train an army.
It’s expected to take two to four years to mentor and train the 4th Brigade – before they take lead responsibility for security in Uruzgan. Beyond that we will play a supporting role for some time.
But as the Prime Minister has said, before that transition occurs the ability of the Afghan forces to assume responsibility for security must be irreversible. If that standard isn’t met we risk repeating the mistakes of the past.
We are making progress. But if we hand over responsibility to the Afghan Army before they are ready to take over, we won’t leave a stable, secure Afghanistan.
I have spoken about why I believe it is right that we are in Afghanistan, and why our mission is the right one.
The next issue is how we support our troops to get this work done.
There has been a lot said and written in the past few weeks about troop numbers, tanks and other equipment.
I welcome the comments by the Leader of the Opposition in this debate that the Opposition supports the deployment and has accepted the advice of the commander on the ground and the Chief of the Defence Force, that the mission has the resources it needs to get the job done.
Bipartisanship is the bedrock on which this mission rests. In this spirit I’d like to make a few comments about the support we are providing our troops.
Last year the former Minister for Defence initiated a review of Force Protection and from this the Government has allocated $1.1 billion in new measures to improve the protection of our troops in theatre.
- upgrading the protection of our ASLAV and Bushmaster vehicles against Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and artillery fire;
- Spark Mine Rollers that attach to the front of Bushmaster’s to help combat IEDs;
- The roll out of an early warning system against rocket and mortar attacks called C‑RAM – expected to be deployed later this year; and
- The use of the SCAN Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle to provide our troops with increased surveillance coverage.
We are always reviewing what is needed to protect our troops – particularly from the threat posed by IEDs.
It is important to stress that our troops are well equipped.
In June the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, told a Senate Estimates hearing that:
”The vast majority of troops acknowledged that they were among the best-equipped troops in the theatre.”
This was confirmed by Army’s most senior soldier, Regimental Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Stephen Ward who said that:
“The issued equipment that is given to our soldiers is of world leading quality. This is not just my observation; it is reinforced through statements by soldiers who have combat experience. It performs very well on operations.”
An example of the quality and effectiveness of our equipment is the Bushmaster.
They have been hit hard by IEDs and have done an incredible job protecting the lives of the Australian soldiers inside. Most recently in northern Kandahar two and a half weeks ago. I went to the Bushmaster production line in Bendigo last week to thank the men and women who build them.
It’s a great Australian story. Iron ore from the Pilbara and coking coal from the Hunter, forged in Port Kembla and cut to size in Melbourne, and welded together in Bendigo to make a vehicle saving Australian lives in Afghanistan.
No equipment is perfect, and there are plenty of issues to work through.
But in the short time that I have been Minister for Defence Materiel I have seen a lot of evidence of Defence’s ability to respond to the issues raised by our soldiers in theatre. The best example of this is the combat body armour our troops are wearing.
The standard issue MCBAS body amour is very effective. But it’s heavy. It worked well in Iraq where troops required maximum ballistic protection — and weren’t required to regularly patrol on foot.
In Afghanistan, the feedback from troops was it made it very hard to do their job.
Defence has responded by purchasing about 1000 sets of a lighter body armour called Eagle Marine. That means our troops can now use light or heavy body armour – depending on the mission.
That flexibility will be enhanced next year.
The Army is currently trialling new tiered body armour that will allow troops to insert different armour plates in their rigs, depending on the conditions. Army is working towards having this ready for Mission Rehearsal Exercises next year and expects that when Taskforce 8 deploy in the middle of next year they will go with this new equipment.
It’s just one example of the work being done by the team equipping our soldiers.
As Minister for Defence Materiel I recognise how important this work is and that there is more work to do to.
This is not an easy fight. The last nine years are proof of that.
We have already mourned the loss of 21 young Australians. Many more have been wounded.
I met one of them the other day when I visited Robertson Barracks in Darwin.
While the rest of us were still celebrating Christmas two years ago he was in a fire fight in the Chora valley.
His platoon was ambushed. They were hemmed in on both sides. As he ran to find cover behind a tree he was shot through both legs.
He survived because his mates dragged him 600 metres through irrigation ditches, around small mud brick walls and a compound, taking as much cover as they could along the way.
He was carried the last 200 hundred metres to a Bushmaster by one of his mates, who carried him over his shoulder.
The Bushmaster got him to the medivac helicopter that got him back to Tarin Kowt. He was operated on there and then again in Germany.
Meeting him had an enormous impact on me. I felt so fortunate to meet him – to shake his hand – and more conscious than ever before of the importance of the decisions we make. They are not easy decisions.
But in our darkest moments in Afghanistan it is important to remember why we have made them, why we are there, why there are 46 other nations there, and contemplate what would happen if we weren’t.
An unstable Afghanistan where malign forces could rise again, is not just a threat to a father too afraid to let Australian soldiers help save his son. It’s a threat to all of us. The impact of our success or failure will be far reaching for many more years than those we have already spent in Afghanistan.
And that’s why it requires our support now and our endurance.
When asked how he measures progress, General Cantwell says:
“It is a matter of doing small things whenever we can move the campaign forward. It has to be a whole series of constant small chips. “Progress… is measured in small victories. We influence this community leader, we open a school, we clear an IED, we kill a Taliban who is trying to kill us or we capture someone and put them in gaol.
“There’s a thousand things that need to be done. Some of those are military. Others are about being kind and generous and encouraging, to be sympathetic to the cultural issues, to understand that these people are scared.
He said it demands the endurance of commanders and soldiers.
“And it demands endurance of our government if they want to see this thing come to an ending that is satisfactory.”
It does. It does demand the endurance of Government. And it also demands the endurance and support of this Parliament
Media contact: Korena Flanagan — (02) 6277 7620
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