Ministerial Statements on Afghanistan

Mr Acting Deputy President:

It’s not the time to get the wobbles, it’s not the time to lose faith, it’s not the time to forsake the loss and the sacrifice and expense and the heartache that’s gone into [Afghanistan].

The coalition, in joining this debate to take note of the Prime Minister’s statement on Afghanistan, say ‘Amen’ to those wise and succinct sentiments uttered by Major General Cantwell in recent days. Let us be clear: the commitment to armed conflict is one of the most soul wrenching or soul searching decisions any Prime Minister or government could ever make. Those that have gone before us, and those that follow us, have made and will need to make these chilling calls—calls which all of us so passionately wish had not been part of our history or indeed part of our future, let alone the present. Nevertheless, we recognise the need to make such calls—calls which are made without perfect and full knowledge of all the situations and likelihoods, calls which need to be made without knowing the full consequences of inaction or action. They are, in brief, the matters which leadership requires to sift, to distil and to analyse before our bravest and best are requested to engage in theatres where they know they will be called upon to make a commitment which might require the ultimate sacrifice.

We have over 1,500 personnel in Afghanistan. We have lost 21 of our own and seen more than 150 suffer injuries. I say ‘we’ because I have no doubt that all Australians personally feel the loss of and injuries to our personnel. I am sure Prime Ministers Howard, Rudd and Gillard and their defence ministers similarly felt or feel the pain. But there is no doubting that the wives, sons, daughters, parents, siblings and all those close to our fallen or wounded service personnel feel that pain 100-fold compared to the rest of us. Theirs will be the legacy of a father they never knew, of a lover they never married or of a lifelong dedication to the long, hard journey of rehabilitation or the nursing of a permanently injured loved one either physically or mentally, if not both. War is a terrible thing. And that is why no Australian Prime Minister or government has ever wantonly committed our armed forces without a full appreciation of the truly awesome responsibility which they shoulder. But nor have they shirked Australia’s responsibility.

Despite its moral ambiguities and its cost, conflict and war can be justified under certain circumstances. Self-defence has always been the most compelling reason. Assistance to an ally acting in self-defence is also a compelling reason. Protection of a third country or group experiencing a threat from an aggressor is also a reason. Our commitment to Afghanistan meets all three criteria. Australia has always answered the call in the preservation of civilised society, be it against imperialism, fascism, communism or, today, extremist Islamic terrorism. One hundred and eleven of our fellow Australians, along with thousands of others, have become the victims of the callous, random, senseless terrorist attacks orchestrated by extremist Islamic terrorists. Remembering that each number was an innocent human life cut short, on top of those murders are the many more thousands who were injured or maimed. Australians have been killed and wounded in Bali, in the World Trade Centre and elsewhere at the hands of terrorism. There is no doubt that Afghanistan—and I use the term in its geographic sense, not to describe its citizenry—was the hub from which the perpetrators of these evil acts were organised, counselled and encouraged. Indeed, let us be clear, and with apologies to Woodrow Wilson: we have no quarrel with the Afghani people; we have no feeling toward them but one of sympathy and friendship. It was for the reason that Afghanistan was such a hub that United Nations resolution 1386 was adopted to create ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, a force which has the support of over 130 countries and the active assistance of over 40 nations.

The timeless truth of that old proverb is as appropriate today as it was when first thought of, before it was even uttered: for evil to triumph, all that is required is for good men to do nothing. Today, in the face of this evil of terrorism, which could strike again anywhere, anytime in the world, good men—and, for our modern era, I hasten to add good women as well—have been found willing from all over the world to ensure this evil scourge will not triumph. For them, doing nothing is not an option, and the coalition salutes them. We will remember them. Their sacrifice and service is our security.

It is proper that Australia should step up to take its share of responsibility. In shouldering our military responsibility, however, we should never close our mind to the option of negotiated peace in Afghanistan. Our responsibility as a nation is as much to be vigilant to possibilities for peace as to the potential for acts of terrorism against our citizens and our allies. There have been reports that the Karzai government is now discussing a political settlement with the Taliban. As the US commander, General David Petraeus, said weeks ago of the negotiations: ‘This is how you end these kinds of insurgencies.’ We all want the discussions to bear fruit, but we also need to remember that our joint purpose in Afghanistan is clear. It is to remove the safe havens for terrorists; it is to disrupt the planning and activities of terrorists; it is to disrupt the training of terrorists; it is to disrupt access to the radical mullahs, whose homilies of hate turn to acts of atrocity; and it is to help rebuild a functional society and system of governance for the freedom-loving people of Afghanistan, who should not be required to live in fear of the oppressive Taliban.

The threat of radical Islam is real. It is not some ‘Western, bourgeois’ type of construct, as some would have us believe. There are about 1,800 separate terrorist attacks each year courtesy of Islamic extremists, a lot of them directed at fellow followers of Islam. And Afghanistan remains, albeit less so, one of the hotbeds from which this evil is delivered succour. Ours is a worthy cause—it is just, although it is heart-rending.

Pursuing justice does not have artificial time frames imposed on it, so our withdrawal should come with success. Complete success will not be achieved overnight, as it clearly has not, although some success has been achieved in all areas but especially in our area of engagement. In Kandahar the military efforts and the simultaneous civil efforts are winning not only the security but also the public’s hearts and minds. If General Carter’s report from locals is right, that ‘if you have a peaceful Kandahar you will have a peaceful Afghanistan’, then things are looking up. In Arghandab, where there has been heavy insurgent activity, attacks have collapsed from 50 a week to 15 a week in a space of eight weeks. This is progress—success—in anybody’s language, but of course not complete success. Panjwai is also witnessing a demoralisation of the Taliban, with reports of suicide bombers failing to turn up for attacks and senior officers questioning Mullah Omar.

Peter Hartcher’s poignant account of his recent visit to Afghanistan is inspiring. He catalogues the successes and the achievements, such as bazaars being full again, girls going to school and the increased size of the Afghan National Army and police force. But the best by far is the following extract:

… it was at the town of Gizab, about 150 kilometres from Tarin Kowt, that the ultimate success story took place. In April a group of 15 villagers decided they’d had enough of Taliban demands for payment. In the middle of the night, they set up a roadblock and called for US back-up. Hundreds of local youths joined in the revolt. The Taliban fought back. The Americans were delayed by floods. Australian SAS troopers arrived, tied strips of reflective orange cloth around the barrels of the guns of the so-called Gizab Good Guys to mark friends from foe, and the battle was joined. And won.

The success led 14 nearby villages to stage their own uprisings against the Taliban. This is the beginning of how Afghanistan can be won; its people standing up, supported by the rest of the world.

There is enough of a glimmer of success here for the world to begin to dare to hope.

These accomplishments are things of which our Australian personnel can be very proud and we, vicariously, with them.

The history of humankind has shown that lasting peace will only be achieved from a position of strength. Yes, military and hardware strength is a vital part of it. But might I say that, in the long term, even more importantly part of it is the moral strength that accompanies our endeavours, the strength that allows local villages to rise up against the Taliban and the evil for which they stand.

No-one wishes our troops and personnel to stay in Afghanistan one second longer than necessary. As we are securing areas, rebuilding schools and creating infrastructure, NATO needs to turn its attention to providing mentors or institutional trainers to develop a military and civil service capable of being run by Afghans for Afghans. This is a great and urgent task. Some estimates place the shortage of mentors at 2,000. Without these 2,000 mentors or institutional trainers, the transitioning of Afghanistan will be commensurately delayed, which in turn delays the return of our troops.

Whilst the government and the CDF tell us Australia is doing our bit—something I fully accept—it might be opportune at the Lisbon summit next month to plead with the ISAF partners to do their bit in this regard. Without that mentoring and that institutional training, the future wellbeing and self-determinative capacity of Afghanistan will be prejudiced. Here is a real opportunity for those countries not willing to make a military contribution to show that their support is not just idle lip-service.

Specifically, for our Australian operation, the coalition wishes all our personnel success, safety and godspeed as they set about establishing: a capable and independent 4th Afghan brigade able to secure the provincial population centres; secure population centres where reconstruction teams have freedom of action; a well-trained and active provincial response company of the Afghan National Police to deal with insurgency; and better governance, security and infrastructure. On current estimates that will take years rather than days, weeks or months to achieve. But they are worthy goals. They are just goals. They are goals that will see the threat of extremist Islamic terrorism diminished, providing greater security for not only Australians but also all the peoples of the world. They are goals that will see our friends in Afghanistan have the burden of oppression and repression removed.

As I said, they are worthy goals; just goals; goals that are being achieved with the cooperation of over 40 countries in the world; goals that are being achieved with the bipartisan support of the government and the coalition in this country; and, most importantly, goals that are being achieved with the on-ground support, help and goodwill of the vast bulk of the Afghan population.

For those advocating no military action, let us examine what the results of such a policy would have been. Under such a policy, Osama bin Laden would still be hatching successful plots against the West, including against Australia; al-Qaeda would still be operating with impunity in Afghanistan; and the Taliban would still be conducting mass executions of women in Kabul. I finish as I started with the words of Major General Cantwell:

It’s not the time to get the wobbles, it’s not the time to lose faith, it’s not the time to forsake the loss and the sacrifice and expense and the heartache that’s gone into [Afghanistan].

Now is the time to stay firm. Now is the time to strengthen our resolve. Now is the time to honour the sacrifice, heartache and expense that has already gone before by completing our task.

In saying that, I reconfirm the opposition’s bipartisan support for the government’s endeavours in Afghanistan as we enjoyed their support whilst in government.

Finally, let us all remember in our prayers the fallen, the wounded and the currently serving personnel. They have fought and are fighting for world freedom, Afghanistan’s freedom and our freedom. Surely, there is no nobler task. We wish them strength, courage and God’s blessing as they pursue to success this task for all humanity.

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

Read more


136 Davey Street
Hobart  TAS  7001

(03) 6224 3707