Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
There can be no more serious endeavour for any country or Government than to send its military forces into conflict.
Australia has done so in Afghanistan because of the clear threat to our national security from terrorists who have trained for and planned terrorist attacks from within Afghanistan’s borders.
It is appropriate that Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan is the subject of close Parliamentary and public scrutiny. As a consequence, the Government fully supports the holding of this Parliamentary debate, and future reports by the Government to the Parliament.
Why are we in Afghanistan?
Mr Speaker, the Government’s strong view is that it is in our national interest to be in Afghanistan.
On the 11th of September 2001, al-Qaeda killed over 3000 people from more than 90 countries, including our own, in its terrible attacks in the United States.
The Taliban, which harboured al-Qaeda within Afghanistan, refused to condemn al-Qaeda or cooperate with the international community to bring it to account.
The international community, including Australia, could not stand by and allow such a threat to persist. So we and others, under a United Nations mandate, still in existence and renewed unanimously by the Security Council this month, removed the Taliban from power.
The 11 September attacks were also an attack upon our long-standing Alliance partner, the United States. Australia invoked the ANZUS Treaty after the September attacks. That decision was supported by both sides of this Chamber.
Australia’s contribution in Afghanistan is also an expression of the common interest we share not just with theUnited States, but the other 45 countries of NATO and the International Security Assistance Force in countering international terrorism.
Since the 11th of September, over one hundred Australians have been murdered – along with many more from other nations – in terrorist attacks around the world, including in the United Kingdom, Indonesia and India.
Terrorism in Afghanistan and in its neighbourhood remains a real threat.
Afghanistan needs the help of the international community, including Australia, to build its capacity so that terrorists are unable to re-establish the type of presence that enabled such terrorist attacks.
Can we succeed?
Australia and the international community now have clearly defined goals in Afghanistan.
Our fundamental goal is to prevent Afghanistan from again being used by terrorists to plan and train for terrorist attacks on innocent civilians.
To achieve this, we must prepare the Afghan Government to take lead responsibility for providing security for the Afghan people. We must stabilise the security situation sufficiently, then train the security forces, to ensure the Afghans themselves are able to take on both the leadership and responsibility for managing security in Afghanistan.
In the recent past, Australia has actively participated in a series of key international meetings to get the strategy and our support for Afghanistan on the right track.
The Hague Conference in March 2009, followed by the London Conference in January this year and the Kabul Conference in July this year laid out for the international community three important principles: the importance of regional support – including from India, Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian States – for a solution in Afghanistan; support for an enduring political solution, including reconciliation, reintegration and rapprochement within Afghanistan; and transition to Afghan responsibility.
The international community is making progress.
Recently General Petraeus, Commander of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and Ambassador Mark Sedwill, NATO Senior Civilian Representative, briefed me in Afghanistan on the military and civilian progress being made on the ground. This briefing aligns with the advice the Chief of the Australian Defence Force has provided the Government.
As well, Afghan Ministers tell me they are determined to achieve the goals set out at the Kabul Conference on transition by the end of 2014 and they are confident that Afghanistan is on track in terms of growing the numbers and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, both Army and Police.
The international community has cause for cautious optimism, but we face a resilient insurgency and the situation in Afghanistan remains difficult, serious and dangerous with the potential to revert.
International support for the ISAF campaign is ongoing and troop contributions have recently increased.
President Obama’s decision, announced in December last year to increase US troop numbers by an additional 30,000 has been followed by an increased commitment of an additional 7000 by other ISAF contributing nations. Australia has also, in the past 18 months, increased its force level by 40 per cent, to an average of 1550.
The military analysis is that increased operations are reversing the momentum of the insurgency and extending the reach and capacity of the Afghan Government into areas long-held by the Taliban and their allies.
Such ISAF disruption and dismantling of the insurgency creates the time, space and opportunity for the Afghan security forces to develop.
The international community is now clearly focused on transitioning security responsibility for Afghanistan to the Afghans themselves.
At the Kabul Conference in July this year, Australia and the international community supported Afghanistan’s objective that the Afghan National Security Forces would lead and conduct security operations in all provinces by the end of 2014.
This objective will also be the key focus of the NATO/ISAF Summit to be held in Lisbon in November, where ISAF countries will agree the process for transition, coupled with consideration of the long-term international commitment to support Afghanistan.
The aim of a security handover by the end of 2014 is anchored by the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces to provide security in the main population centres, the necessary precondition for both the exercise of Afghan sovereignty and the core aim to prevent Afghanistan from again being used by terrorist organisations to plan and train for attacks.
Transition to Afghan responsibility will be a graduated and uneven process. It will be done on a province by province and district by district basis when conditions are right. A job done effectively by the Afghans on their own is the objective and the desired outcome.
Importantly, transition is not the signal to withdraw. International partners, including Australia, will continue to provide support to Afghanistan. As has previously been made clear security transition has not and can not be seen as the automatic end of either Australia’s or the international community’s commitment toAfghanistan.
Time and outcomes will determine the length and nature of that commitment, whether for example it is overwatch, embedded arrangements or other support. What is clear though is that international community support for development assistance and civilian capacity building will be required for years to come.
The strategy in Afghanistan can not just be a military strategy. It also requires a political strategy.
The solution in Afghanistan can not just be a military one, it also requires an enduring political solution, with reconciliation between the people of Afghanistan. The international community, including Afghanistan's neighbours, has a key role to play in supporting such efforts.
Australia continues to support Afghan-led reconciliation with those individuals who are prepared to lay down their weapons, renounce violence and support the Afghan Constitution.
At the London Conference in January this year, Australia publicly committed $25 million to the Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund to assist the Afghan Government's work towards reintegration and reconciliation.
Training and mentoring the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army to take responsibility for security in the main population centres in Uruzgan is the cornerstone of the transition objective in Uruzgan Province.
The Chief of the Defence Force advises that this will take a further two to four years.
In the meantime, we are seeing improvement in the abilities of the soldiers who make up the 4th Brigade. The 4th Brigade recently planned and delivered effective security for the Parliamentary elections in Uruzgan and did not require additional support from Australia or other ISAF forces.
This is a key sign of progress and a measure of growing confidence within the 4th Brigade.
Uruzgan Operational Update
Following the Dutch withdrawal in August this year, Australia joined with the United States to form the new multinational ‘Combined Team – Uruzgan’, responsible for military and civilian operations in Uruzgan Province.
The transition from Dutch command has been smooth and successful.
In Uruzgan, Australia is working closely with partners from the United States, New Zealand, Singapore, andSlovakia.
While the US Stryker Battalion and Australia’s Mentoring Task Force, in close cooperation with Afghan security partners, provide the pillars of security, a key element of Combined Team – Uruzgan is the civilian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team – The PRT – the main conduit for Australia’s civilian mission in Uruzgan.
An Australian Defence Force (ADF) Protection Element is dedicated to protecting these civilians so they can conduct their work safely.
The Mentoring Task Force, as part of Combined Team-Uruzgan, now provides Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams to train all five Kandaks (or battalions) and the headquarters of the 4th Brigade.
This increased training commitment is seeing Mentoring Task Force elements move into new areas such as Deh Rawood in the west of the province and is fundamental to our mission.
The 4th Brigade under the ADF’s mentoring and guidance is proving to be an increasingly capable force.
The Australian Defence Force has a strong tradition of mentoring other defence forces, from East Timor toIraq, and does it very well.
The 4th Brigade however will require substantial support for the next few years. We are building up the capacity of these forces so that they can operate alone.
As each of the Kandaks is at a different stage in the mentoring process, progress will be uneven.
As well, our Special Operations Task Group continues to attack insurgent networks in Uruzgan, improving security and force protection for Combined Team-Uruzgan.
The Special Operations Task Group is also contributing to ISAF’s effort in the province of Kandahar.
Other elements of Australia’s contribution, such as the combat engineers, the Rotary Wing Group and embedded personnel throughout ISAF, continue their highly visible and highly valued efforts in Afghanistan.
Support for the Troops
Mr Speaker, our troops and Australian personnel in Afghanistan are performing extremely well in dangerous circumstances on a daily basis.
As my friend, David Miliband, said of others in a different context “they are both brave and impressive.”
Australians are proud of the fact that our troops have a well-deserved reputation for their effectiveness and their conduct. Afghan Government Ministers and ISAF Commander General David Petraeus praise the work and reputation of Australian deployed personnel, including in their engagement with the local Afghan communities.
The support and protection of Australian personnel in Afghanistan is, rightly, our highest priority.
Some recent criticism of the level of protection for our troops has been both inaccurate and ill-informed, and I am pleased that there now appears to be a much greater understanding of these issues.
ADF forces in Uruzgan are structured to include a range of critical capabilities. Not all capabilities, however, are provided by the ADF. Many capabilities are provided through ISAF.
Capabilities such as artillery, mortars and attack helicopters are available through our partners when necessary. Tanks, for example, are not required for our current mission in Uruzgan Province.
Australian troops now have access to more artillery and mortar support than they did a year ago, and they have access to ISAF attack helicopters and close air support from fighter aircraft when necessary.
The Force Protection Review, commissioned by the Government in July 2009, has led to a further package of measures and seen over $1 billion in new measures to further protect our troops.
These protection measures are kept under constant review, and I have made clear the Government continues to in particular examine further anti-improvised explosive device measures.
Mr Speaker, while this Parliamentary debate is a good thing, it will be a sad reminder to families of their tragic personal loss.
Australia has lost 21 soldiers in Afghanistan whom we will always honour. We face the prospect of further fatalities.
Uruzgan Province remains a dangerous place, and will be for some time to come.
The recent Australian deaths and casualties bring this into stark relief. Between July 2009 and June of this year there were no Australians killed in Afghanistan. In the last few months ten Australian soldiers have died.
Our thoughts are with all the families and friends of the 21 as they come to terms with their tragic loss.
As well, since the beginning of the year more than 50 personnel have been wounded. Supporting their recovery and rehabilitation is an essential and high priority for Government.
Suggestions about what Australia should do in Afghanistan now range from either doing much more to boost our commitment or pulling out immediately.
An argument deployed by those who oppose Australia’s commitment is that Afghanistan is not unique as a breeding ground for terrorism. They rightly point out that the terrorism landscape is both not limited toAfghanistan and is evolving.
While real and tangible progress has been made in closing down terrorist training centres in Afghanistan,Afghanistan remains vulnerable.
Terrorists operate from a range of places across the globe. They are able to recruit, train and plan out of poorly or ungoverned spaces in Africa and the Middle East. They are not confined to these places and indeed, as the Counter Terrorism White Paper made clear last year, Australia needs to be alert to the threat of home-grown terrorism.
The international community’s efforts in Afghanistan are of course not the only activities in the global challenge of countering violent extremism and terrorism. The international community recognises that this is a major long-term problem on a global scale and needs to be addressed in that context. It is a problem that is being tackled differently in different locations, as circumstances dictate.
Another argument is that international efforts in Afghanistan have pushed al-Qaeda and their affiliates across the border into Pakistan and elsewhere. As a result, it is said the core job in Afghanistan is done, the terrorists are operating from elsewhere and so our activities should be focused elsewhere.
It is, however, essential that Australia and the international community both maintain efforts in Afghanistanand engage with Pakistan. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is highly permeable to terrorist movement and remains a threat to sustainable progress in stabilising Afghanistan.
The Pakistan Government does not deny this, nor the threat posed by violent extremism within its borders. Pakistan faces an existential threat from violent extremism within its own borders.
Australia is working closely with Pakistan to improve its capability to address the threat posed by violent extremists.
Australia values our strategic dialogue with Pakistan, and our engagement with our international partners through the Friends of Democratic Pakistan Group, of which Australia is a founding member.
In the future, when we look back on this period, it will be even more clear that there are mistakes that the international community has made.
The initial effort in Afghanistan, including our own, was in 2001 and 2002 in the aftermath of September 11.
There was then the Iraq distraction.
There were insufficient international community resources in Afghanistan over that period to carry out the international stabilisation mission and a withdrawal of Australian forces.
After 2006, when the international community came back, it took too long to get to the well-defined strategy that we have now developed over the past few years.
This strategy is as a result of the Riedel review, the McChrystal review, and ultimately President Obama’s response to General McChrystal’s review of both the military and political strategy.
The end result is a strategy which says we can not be there forever, and we do not want to be there forever, but we need to be able to put the Afghan security forces in a position where they can manage their own affairs.
And despite the difficulties, a strategy which clearly points to the risks to Australia and the international community of leaving before the transition is effected.
It is also a strategy which acknowledges that Australia and the international community expect to see substantial improvement in Afghanistan by its Government on corruption, on governance, on electoral reform, on counter-narcotics and on human rights, in particular the treatment of women and girls, especially when it comes to education.
Progress is being made. It is incremental and hard-won, but it is apparent, and will become increasingly so.
As General Petraeus, Commander of ISAF and Major General Cantwell, Commander of Australian Forces in the Middle East, have both recently stated, the required strategy and resources are now in place and a sound foundation has been laid to mark the way for further progress.
The mission we have set for Australian forces and Australian personnel more broadly in Afghanistan is the right one.
The consistent advice to me is that Australian forces have the resources and capabilities they need to undertake their core mission. As circumstances change – and in conflict circumstances continually change – we will continue to examine and re-examine and adjust our effort as required.
We have a responsibility to Afghanistan and to our allies and partners to remain committed. We have a responsibility to the fallen to continue the task.
But most importantly, we have a responsibility to the Australian people, to ensure that we protect Australia’s national interests. And that is what we are doing in Afghanistan.
Australia and Australians should expect no less of us.
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