Australia — Statement to the House of Representatives on Afghanistan by the Australian Minister for Defence Materiel

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.

They include:

  • 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

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

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