Parliamentary Statement on Afghanistan

Speech, check against delivery


21 October 2010

Last Friday I met with 15 foreign ministers from around the world to discuss and to make decisions on our future support for Pakistan.

A few days later, Special Envoys from around the world, including Australia, gathered in Rome to deliberate on future policy towards both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

From these and other nations we now have a combined coalition force in the field of some 120,000 troops from 47 nations.

  • Some 80,000 Americans
  • Nearly 10,000 Brits
  • 4,500 from Germany
  • 4,000 from France
  • 3,500 from Italy
  • 2,500 from both Canada and Poland
  • 1,500 or so from, Turkey, Spain and Australia
  • And of the troops from these nations, more than 2,000 now lie dead, 21 of them Australian. Many more brave Afghan soldiers and police have also died serving alongside their coalition allies.

I say this at the outset because the debate we are having today in this parliament is a debate being held in democracies around the world, asking:

  • Why are our troops, police and civilians in Afghanistan?
  • Is the current international strategy in Afghanistan effective?
  • Are our national contributions to that strategy capable of measurable success?

It is right that democracies have this debate.

But my starting point is that in doing so we are by no means alone - for we are all in this together.

And how we resolve our debate affects other contributing nations — many of whom are watching our deliberations very closely.

Already in the course of the debate this week, a number of questions have been raised by members about our effort in Afghanistan and the rationale for it.

I intend to make a real effort to provide candid and measured answers to these questions.

Nine years into this hard war, and six years of continuous Australian military engagement, what is our national mission in Afghanistan today?

Put simply, it is to help protect innocent people, including innocent Australians, from being murdered by terrorists.

Put simply, it is to support our friends and our allies in achieving this mission.

Put simply, it is to work with them to defend, maintain and strengthen an international order that does not tolerate terrorism.

All other purposes, associated with our mission in Afghanistan (including, for example, helping the Afghan people to develop a viable Afghan state) flow from these three primary purposes.

These primary purposes are also alive in the international legal instruments which underpin our presence there.

Following terrorist attacks in Washington and New York on September 11, UN Security Council Resolution 1386 of December 2001 authorises the establishment of an international security force in Afghanistan.

In the Australian Parliament, a unanimous resolution of this House formally invoked articles 4 and 5 of the ANZUS Treaty and the commitment of Australian forces in support of United States-led action against those responsible for the terrorist attacks.

Australia's actions in Afghanistan since then have been anchored in these two resolutions — bringing together the full moral legitimacy of the UN system with the enduring commitment Australia has under the US alliance.

Some have argued that there has been mission creep in Afghanistan since those earliest days, or at least that the mission has become confused in relation to its original purpose.

If that were so, then it is difficult to explain why such a fractious international community would have so consistently renewed the mandate for our continued military operations in that country.

At a more practical rather than legal level, others have argued that with the defeat of the Taliban regime in Kabul in early 2002 (and subsequently in the major centres in the south and in the west) that the mission was complete.

Again we would disagree, because the Taliban insurgency, while repressed for a period, returned with a vengeance following the flawed decision of 2003-2004 to provide an insufficient troop presence in Afghanistan, while the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia undertook the invasion of Iraq.

In other words, a violent Taliban insurgency rebounded, the same Taliban that had given succour and support to the terrorists who had launched their murderous attacks on innocent civilians in 2001.

A further argument which is now advanced by some is that our continued and collective military presence in Afghanistan in fact incites the insurgency, rather than effectively combating it.

But this argument fails to deal with the counter-factual that if coalition military operations in Afghanistan were to now cease, the Afghan Government's authority and reach would be undermined — and were that to occur, the ability of a successful Taliban insurgency to again offer support for global terrorist organisations would increase. The costs to the Afghan people themselves — who have already endured 30 years of conflict — would also be significant.

Still another argument is that all that has been achieved has been a "bubbling out" of al-Qaeda and related terrorist organisations to new operational bases in other countries.

 But once again, that argument does not deal with the counterfactual of what would happen in the event of a premature international departure.

This would most likely precipitate the erosion of the Afghan Government's authority and reach, and add, once again, Afghanistan to the list of other states around the world where terrorist organisations have a high level of freedom of operation.

There is, however, a more important point to make about the argument and its assumption that no effort is being made by allied governments to monitor, contain and wherever possible, interdict terrorist operations in other centres around the world.

The truth is that massive intelligence and security assets are being invested on a daily basis in multiple centres round the world across the Horn of Africa, the wider Middle East, South and South-East Asia as well as within the domestic populations of target countries — including Australia.

This in turn leads to a further question raised in this debate which, put simply, is as follows "is the world a safer or more dangerous place from terrorist threat than was the case nine years ago?".

Again it is important to engage in an analysis of the counter-factual.

Had we not toppled the Taliban regime and had we failed to then prevent it from returning to power, what would have then occurred across the border as terrorists sought to perpetrate more 9/11s, more Madrid and London train bombings and more Bali bombings?

The truth is that our continued operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban, to deny the return of al-Qaeda and its allies to Afghanistan, combined with coordinated counter-terrorism operations around the world, have helped in preventing the repetition of a series of large-scale September 11 type attacks.

Of course there have been many near misses — in fact many more than the general public is ever likely to know.

The problem is, the success of an effective counter terrorism strategy is much harder to recognise than its failure.

In summary, we argue that the counter-terrorism argument underpinning the continuing mission in Afghanistan remains valid.

Afghanistan does not represent the totality of the international coalition's global counter terrorism strategy.

It does however represent an important part.

And if Afghanistan was to fall, the global counter-terrorism challenge would be rendered much more difficult than is currently the case.

A further reason for our continued military engagement in Afghanistan is our alliance with the United States.

Some have argued that this represents an invalid basis for our engagement.

The Government disagrees.

The Government has never regarded the alliance as a blank cheque in our dealings with the US.

That is why, when in Opposition, we opposed the Iraq war and committed to the withdrawal of combat forces should we succeed in being elected to office.

And that is precisely what we did.

The Government's policy towards Afghanistan was different, and for two reasons:

  • first, the UN Security Council authorised the creation of an international security force (which it did not do in the case of Iraq);
  • and second, the ANZUS alliance was formally invoked (which was not the case in Iraq).

These arguments aside, however, the Government has stated both in the 2009 Defence White Paper and the Government's National Security Statement to the Australian Parliament that the US Alliance is fundamental to Australia's overall national security.

The dense fabric of defence, diplomatic and intelligence cooperation which occurs within the framework of the alliance is of great strategic importance to Australia.

It cannot be replicated elsewhere.

Therefore, the Government does not apologise for a single moment for invoking the alliance as a relevant consideration in our continued engagement in Afghanistan.

Further, Australia has broader international obligations to support an international order which confronts terrorism head-on, rather than ignoring it.

As noted above, UNSC resolution 1386 authorises ISAF's mission under Chapter VII of the Charter, the chapter which governs "the use of force in defence of international peace and security."

In fact, article 2 of resolution 1386 actually calls upon member states to, and I quote, "contribute personnel, equipment and other resources to ISAF", un-quote,  as well as explicitly authorising member states to take, and I quote, "all necessary measures", unquote, to fulfil its mandate.

Once again it should be noted that this resolution has been renewed on ten occasions since then.

The point here is that, if we are serious about our obligations to maintain a stable international political order, it follows that responsible states are in fact obliged to act under the UN Charter, rather than this simply being a matter of discretionary choice.

It is for this reason that 47 states are now members of ISAF, including 19 non-NATO members.

It is also the reason why more than 70 countries and international organisations attended the London Conference on Afghanistan in January this year, and around 70 attended the Kabul Conference in July — including Islamic countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

In short, we are not in this alone.

We are part of a collective international effort aimed at defending the at times fragile international order.

Of course, it is a matter for each state to determine what resources they dedicate to the collective security task assigned to the international community by the Security Council.

Some are doing much more than others.

Just as others have varied their commitments over time.

But the core principle at stake is one of defending an international system based on collective security — the same system which, for example, provides the international legal authority for the outlawing of terrorist organisations worldwide and the authorisation of national actions against such organisations.

As a middle power, which has long-exercised global responsibilities, it is appropriate that Australia also play its part rather than freeloading on the international system.

Freeloading is not in our nature.

The next question to consider is a practical one — namely the content of the current international strategy in Afghanistan and Australia's role within that strategy.

There are four key elements to the current international strategy in Afghanistan:

  • first, counter-insurgency operations to degrade the capability and will of insurgents;
  • second, a transition to the Afghan Government  taking lead responsibility for its own security;
  • third, negotiation and, where possible, reconciliation with insurgents within the country to bring about not just a military solution for the country's future, but more importantly, a political settlement as well; and
  • fourth, effective engagement with Pakistan in order to give genuine effect to the political and military goals outlined above.

As noted by the Prime Minister on Tuesday, transition is core to the coalition's strategy — both nationally and in Uruzgan province.

This entails training the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police to, in time, take on lead responsibility for the maintenance of national and local security.

It also requires assistance to the Afghan Government to enable it to deliver basic health, education and infrastructure for the benefit of ordinary Afghans and, as a consequence, to foster support for the Afghan Government.

A number of contributors to the debate have argued that whatever is done to enhance the capacity of the Afghan Government, its weaknesses are such that it cannot deliver real benefits.

They argue that the Afghan government is so flawed on a number of fronts (from corruption through to the treatment of women) that it is no longer a Government worthy of international support.

Certainly the Government in Afghanistan has a number of failings.

And in the course of this parliamentary debate some have raised examples.

Nonetheless, it is important once again to apply the counter-factual test.

Were the withdrawal of international support now to result in the loss of authority of the Afghan Government, a return to anything approaching the previous Taliban regime would, from the perspective of the Afghan people, be infinitely worse against practically all measures compared with the imperfect situation they now have.

At the same time we are not resting there, as we seek to support continued reform by the Afghan Government through our aid program.

Negotiation and reconciliation represent another arm to the international strategy in Afghanistan.

Australia recognises that reconciliation and reintegration is a matter for the Afghan people.

It must be led and owned by the Afghan Government and needs to be consistent with conditions set by the Afghan Government — namely: acceptance of the Afghan constitution; renouncing of violence and the severance of links to international terrorist groups.

It will be critical to ensure that these undertakings are met and observed in practice.

Negotiation and reconciliation are complex processes that can only succeed if the necessary military and political environment is in place.

In practice that means applying military force against the Taliban leadership as part of a hard headed strategy, which reinforces the political negotiation and reconciliation processes with clear military resolve — in other words, to talk from a position of strength rather than weakness.

The international community, including Afghanistan's neighbours, has a role in supporting such efforts.

There have been some preliminary signs that some senior Taliban leaders may be beginning to consider taking the path towards negotiation.

President Karzai said earlier this month that the Afghan Government had been holding unofficial talks with the Taliban for some time.

In recent days, General Petraeus has confirmed that the US and NATO have facilitated some contact between the two.

This is encouraging, but we must recognise that the negotiation and reconciliation process is likely to be long, complex and inevitably the subject of setbacks.

A further arm of the international strategy on Afghanistan concerns Pakistan. The truth is that Pakistan has a highly permeable border with Afghanistan.

This has meant that hostile Taliban forces have been able to move freely between Pakistan and Afghanistan to conduct attacks against ISAF, Afghanistan and Pakistan forces.

The Government of Pakistan has cooperated with ISAF to take action against elements of both the Taliban in Pakistan and al-Qaeda.

However, there is still scope for Pakistan to do more, particularly against the Afghanistan Taliban and al-Qaeda.  Closer cooperation between ISAF and Pakistan is essential if this vital element of the international strategy is to succeed.

As both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister have outlined in their statements to the parliament, Australia is deploying a coherent strategy in Afghanistan in concert with the international strategy outlined above.

 I don't propose to repeat the detailed contents of our own strategy here.

Our special forces are applying pressure to Taliban insurgents with telling effect.

Our military and police training programs in Uruzgan are substantial.

Our development assistance engagement of some $120 million in 2010-11 through AusAID, both nationally and provincially, is also making a measureable difference to education, health, infrastructure and governance, which has been detailed by others.

Our diplomatic engagement in Kabul where we seek to inject an Australian view in the central deliberations in both ISAF and the Afghan government through our highly capable Ambassador Paul Foley and his team of diplomats and aid officials. Australia is well served by these first class officers.

For those who have argued in this debate that our military forces be withdrawn now, and our development assistance program be enhanced instead, it must be borne in mind that all our aid workers require significant force protection in order to do their job, force protection currently provided by the ADF and our US allies.

On reintegration, we have committed $25 million to the Afghan Government's nationwide Peace and Reintegration program that focuses on creating the conditions among communities for the reintegration of insurgents who are willing to lay down their arms and return to their communities.

And as for Pakistan, Australia is a founding member of Friends of Democratic Pakistan.

We run a significant development assistance program, worth $120 million over two years (in addition to the $75 million the Government is providing in flood relief). Australia is also the second largest trainer abroad of Pakistani military officers including in counter insurgency techniques.

Taken together, the Government believes this is a credible, integrated, political, military, economic and diplomatic strategy for Australia which reinforces the overall ISAF strategy.

Of course, any such strategy and the financial resources committed to it must be the subject of continuing review (as will occur at an international level at the upcoming Lisbon Summit).

Mr Speaker, my contribution to this debate has not sought to replicate those of the Prime Minister or the Defence Minister.

Instead it seeks to complement those statements — particularly in relation to the international dimensions of the Afghanistan conflict.

It also seeks to add to the debate by responding to various concerns raised by other contributors to the debate — and in a manner which seeks to be constructive.

The Australian Government is fully seized to the difficulty of our mission in Afghanistan.

This is a hard war, not an easy one.

A fact underlined by those who have lost their lives in their country's service, those who have been wounded and those families who have suffered terribly as a consequence. Australia continues to be well served by our men and women in uniform.

More casualties will occur, including the real possibility of civilian casualties.

Our responsibility as a Government is to maintain bipartisan support for our troops in the field and to maximise the wider support of the Australian and international community.

Once again this will not be easy.

But our mission is clear.

As is our strategy.

And the resources we have committed to it are significant.

At a personal level, I am also very mindful of General Cantwell's recent remarks that now is not the time to lose faith.

For the reasons I have outlined in this statement to the parliament today, I agree with the General.

Australia will stay the course in Afghanistan.


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