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.
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 4th 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.