(check against delivery)
I have just come from Afghanistan where I visited Australian troops serving in Uruzgan Province in the south of Afghanistan.
They are working under an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) flag with their colleagues from the United States, Singapore and Slovakia in Combined Team Uruzgan.
Their mission is to train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to take on lead responsibility for security by 2014.
They are well on track and making good progress to achieve that objective.
Together Combined Team Uruzgan and Afghan forces have consolidated the gains we have made over the last twelve to eighteen months, extending the security footprint further across Uruzgan Province.
The Australian Mentoring Task Force continues to make progress in training and mentoring the six kandaks (battalions) of the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army (ANA) so that it can take the lead for security in Uruzgan Province by 2014.
As a measure of this progress, Australian forces have transitioned eleven patrol or forward operating bases to ANA lead.
The ANA has also increasingly assumed the lead for the planning, preparation and execution of tactical operations, allowing Australian forces to concentrate on mentoring and partnering Afghan command and combat support functions.
One of the Afghan kandaks is now close to being able to conduct fully independent operations with advisers, with the others making steady progress.
Australian Special Forces and their Afghan partners, the Provincial Response Company and the National Interdiction Unit, also continue to disrupt the insurgency in and around Uruzgan Province by taking insurgent leaders and bomb-makers off the battlefield and reducing the insurgency revenue stream from narcotics.
At our June NATO/ISAF Defence Ministers' Meeting I warned that we had to expect the Taliban to fight back through high profile propaganda style attacks.
Regrettably these high profile attacks have come to pass. While the Taliban have not been successful at the tactical or operational level, high profile attacks have occurred with a high civilian casualty toll and the terrible loss of former President Rabbani.
Australia condemns these civilian casualties. A failed insurgent attack on Uruzgan Province Governor Shirzad on 28 July resulted in the deaths of 16 civilians, including 12 children killed in a callous way.
We have seen many more such instances across Afghanistan. As the recent United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Quarterly Report noted over 75 percent of civilian casualties are caused by the Taliban.
We need to make clear that the recent change of tactics by the insurgency to mount high profile propaganda motivated attacks and assassinations is a sign of insurgent weakness not strength.
These are aimed at undermining confidence in Afghanistan and sapping political will in the international community:
undermining confidence in the minds of the Afghan people that the ANSF will not be able to provide them with security;
and sapping the political will of the international community by distracting from the real progress we are making.
Afghan and ISAF forces stalled, then reversed, the Taliban's momentum.
This fighting season, they have been unable to retake any ground in Uruzgan, or indeed across Afghanistan.
The transition to Afghan-led security has commenced with the handover of seven provinces and districts to Afghan-led security. This process has not been reversed by the Taliban.
Australia looks forward to the second tranche of provinces and districts to be transferred to the ANSF.
As the international community looks ahead, ISAF must maintain its Lisbon Summit commitment to transition to Afghan led security by 2014. Likewise both NATO and the United States must maintain their commitment to a long term enduring strategic partnership with Afghanistan.
This continuing long-term commitment and continued investment in Afghanistan's future is a key to ensuring that Afghanistan and its neighbours – including Pakistan – also invest in a peaceful future for Afghanistan.
The outline of the NATO Strategic Plan for Afghanistan sets out the proposed approach to the NATO/ISAF presence in Afghanistan for the 2012-2014 period and, very importantly, for the post-2014 period.
It is important to begin work on the post-2014 period now. Not to set this out soon will undermine what we have achieved, jeopardize Afghan confidence in the international community’s long term commitment to their country and send the wrong message to regional neighbours, including Pakistan.
We look forward to continued work on the Strategic Plan ahead of the Chicago Summit in May next year.
Australia has made clear it expects to maintain a presence in Afghanistan after our current training and mentoring mission has concluded, potentially through institutional training, a Special Forces presence, military advisers and capacity building.
Important into the future will be continued support for the ANSF.
The international community must ensure the ANSF is provided with the resources it needs to maintain security into the future.
Australia is ninth largest troop contributor, the largest non-NATO troop contributor, the third largest Special Forces contributor and the second largest contributor to the Afghan National Army Trust Fund.
During my visit this week to the Multi National Base at Tarin Kot in Uruzgan Province I again visited Australia's Initial Screening Area in which the initial processing of Afghans detained by Australian forces is undertaken.
Australia takes very seriously the treatment of detainees and Australia is committed to transparent detainee management arrangements in Afghanistan.
The international community needs to work with Afghan authorities to ensure that within the Afghan security, judicial and penal systems the international and domestic legal rights of detainees are respected.
Australia will very carefully consider the pending UNAMA report on detainee management in this context.
The international community must maintain confidence in the progress we are making, reaffirm our commitment to transition and to a long term enduring strategic partnership with Afghanistan.