This NATO/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Defence Ministers’ Meeting comes at a difficult time for Australia with the tragic deaths of four Australian soldiers over the past two weeks.
This will not weaken Australia’s resolve to see our mission through in Uruzgan Province, nor cast doubt on Australia’s view that progress is being made.
It has taken us too many years to get to this point, but the surge, and our special forces operations, are working.
There is no doubt that additional ISAF and Afghan resources have enabled clear and hold operations to occur with more confidence and to greater effect.
Australia is the tenth largest troop contributor in Afghanistan with around 1550 personnel.
Importantly in our current context, Australia is the third largest contributor of Special Forces to Afghanistan, with personnel deployed to the Special Operations Task Group based in Tarin Kot, and operating in Uruzgan and adjoining provinces, including Helmand and Kandahar.
Partnered Special Forces operations have killed or captured insurgent leaders, taking them off the battlefield, disrupting insurgent activity across Afghanistan.
Australia remains confident that between now and the end of 2014, we will effect a transition to Afghan-led responsibility for security in Uruzgan.
Partnering, training and mentoring – replicated as it is across the country - is building Afghan security forces.
The ISAF surge has been more than matched over the same period by a surge of 80,000 in the Afghan National Security Forces, which now number some 300 000.
There are more Afghan soldiers and police officers and they are more capable.
As Afghan forces take on more front line roles, this allows us to perform other tasks, including institutional or niche higher level training.
But while the nature of Australia’s commitment will evolve, it will not diminish.
We cannot risk the recent gains so hard fought for.
Our objective in Afghanistan will not be achieved by a military solution alone, but these military gains are essential in building the pressure on the Taliban to open up possibilities for reintegration, reconciliation and political settlement.
Only by keeping the military pressure on will Taliban insurgents concede they can’t win militarily, that time is not on their side and they can’t wait out the international community.
At the same time, better security must enable better governance.
In Uruzgan, better security is enabling our Provincial Reconstruction Team to increase its efforts to build the Afghan Government’s capacity to deliver basic services and provide economic opportunities to its people.
Our immediate challenge in Uruzgan is supporting new Governor Shirzad’s efforts to improve governance and service delivery through the appointment of competent district governors and directors.
In this respect, I welcome the establishment of the NATO Rule of Law Field Support Mission.
NATO and ISAF members made the important long-term commitment at the Lisbon Summit last year to support Afghanistan beyond the transition of security responsibility.
I agree with Secretary General Rasmussen that it is now timely to start a conversation about our post-transition objectives, mandate and structure.
For Australia’s part, as Prime Minister Gillard has made clear, following the transition to Afghan-led responsibility for security in 2014 Australia expects to remain in Afghanistan in some form, such as Special Forces operations, security over-watch, capacity building, institution building or training roles.
We look forward to working through the details of that presence in due course with the Afghan Government and our ISAF partners.
Australia remains committed to stabilising the security situation in Afghanistan and to mentoring and training the Afghan security forces to enable them to take responsibility for security.
There will be bad days, setbacks and hard times as we have seen recently.
The Taliban will strike back and try to recover ground, and they will also, as we know, try to use high-profile incidents as propaganda events to undermine confidence.
There is still a way to go and there will be more fatalities.
But Australia believes we have the military and political strategy in place and the resources and the people on the ground to deliver it. If the international community continues on this, our agreed path, we will prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism.