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Parliamentary Debate on Afghanistan

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 25 Oct 2010

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (9.08pm)—I rise to take part in a debate that should have happened 10 years ago—or nine years ago as we are in our 10th year of this conflict. It is good to see that the parliament is finally debating the merits of our military involvement in Afghanistan. While I welcome this opportunity and I am glad it has finally come, this highlights a problem in Australia in that, as I said, we are now in our 10th year of conflict and this is the first year time the parliament has discussed it in terms of debating it.

I acknowledge there have been ministerial statements made but this is the first time we have had a debate. I personally do not believe that is the way our country should be committed to war. Decisions are made that affect everybody involved in that conflict. It affects people in fact for generations to come—not just decades but generations. You can feel the impact that conflict and war has had, and will have, on the soldiers, on their families and on the people in the country.

We are talking about a country where they have already been involved in conflict for decades. Our Prime Minister said in the debate in the other place on this last week that we will be there for another 10 years. That is a further decade of conflict for those people in Afghanistan. It is, I acknowledge, a very complex decision; but because of that it absolutely has to be examined very carefully so people fully understand the implications of going into that conflict, going into that place far from our shores, and the impact that it has on the soldiers who we send.

David Petraeus said we have to: “… recognise also that I don’t think you win this war … “I think you keep fighting. … You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.” Were Australians, when our previous government took us into this conflict, aware that that was the decision that their government was making for them and their children? No, they were not. Were they aware that their government was committing this country’s forces for two decades? Were they aware of the issues involved? No, they were not. And those issues have changed.

I join the Greens wholeheartedly in our opposition to this war and support for bringing the troops home. I believe that the conflict there continues to intensify, that it will inevitably result in the death of more troops and more civilians, that it will not protect us from terrorism and that it will not result in a stable, peaceful and just democracy in Afghanistan. Already we have seen the deaths of 21 Australian soldiers—10 of them since June this year. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to their partners, parents, children and families. They absolutely will be suffering from their loss and will do so, as I said, into the future.

There have been over 2,100 international military fatalities, and this figure does not capture the full extent of the combatants’ deaths as it overlooks, for example, private security contractors— whose deaths, it is reported, surpassed the deaths of soldiers in the first half of this year. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, in the first six months of 2010 the total civilian casualties increased by 31 per cent compared to 2009. It is reported that the total number of civilian casualties between 2007 and 2010 is estimated to be around 7,000—although I must say I have heard some commentators put that figure much higher than that.

Each year the number of combatant and civilian casualties rises. According to recent work by the International Council on Security and Development, 80 per cent of Afghanistan now experiences heavy Taliban and insurgent activity, 17 per cent experiences substantial activity and only three per cent of the country is now classified as having light Taliban or insurgent activity. This has grown worse with every passing year of the conflict.

Each year popular support for international forces and the central government declines. As has been reported widely, recent elections in Afghanistan have been marred by fraud, undermining the legitimacy of the government in Afghanistan we are currently supporting. Why do we persevere? We have heard many speeches making the case for supporting that Afghan government in this place today.

The three reasons often given for our continued engagement are: firstly, counter-terrorism, the primary reason; secondly, to stabilise Afghanistan, which is linked to more humanitarian efforts such as constructing schools and the like, and I would argue that there is a strong need to in fact disassociate our development approach from the military conflict; and, finally, our alliance with the US. No-one can dispute that we wish to protect ourselves from terrorist attack, and we condemn terrorism at every level and everywhere.

We can also accept that al- Qaeda was operating in training camps in Afghanistan when the Taliban was in power and that some recent terrorist activities have involved criminals with links in Afghanistan. But these are not the important questions. The real question we need to ask is this: will our ongoing military engagement in Afghanistan make us safer from terrorist attack? I have got to say that, looking at the evidence—and I have looked at it carefully—my answer to that is no. For a start, al-Qaeda is not there anymore; it no longer has a significant presence in Afghanistan. In an interview earlier this year, CIA Director Leon Panetta said: I think the estimate of the number of al-Qaeda is actually relatively small. At most, we are looking at 50 to 100— maybe less. It is in that vicinity.

There is no question that the main location of al-Qaeda is in the tribal areas of Pakistan. I do not think anybody would disagree with that assessment. In 2007 Professor Hugh White, from the Australian National University and the Lowy Institute for International Policy, asked: How can Afghanistan be central to the war on terror when the locus of jihadism has simply moved, mostly to Pakistan. Paul Pillar, from the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre, said: The terror threat to the West would not significantly increase if we were to leave Afghanistan. And he has called for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.

I believe we have got to the point where counter-terrorism and the threat to Australia if we were not in Afghanistan is a straw man of an argument. There is no reason to assume that Afghanistan would become a safe haven for terrorists if the international forces withdrew and the Taliban were able to govern Afghanistan once more, and there is no justification for thinking it would automatically mean that al-Qaeda would be returned and operate with impunity from Afghanistan. Senator Brown went through the arguments around that this morning. And even if it were likely that Afghanistan under the Taliban would offer terrorists a safe haven, our continued military efforts do not seem likely to stop the Taliban returning to power.

President Karzai has been attempting to get negotiations with the Taliban underway for a number of years—and we know those talks have started. These talks have the potential to see the Taliban become part of the leadership of Afghanistan once more—even while our soldiers are actually there fighting to prevent that very outcome. I think there is some very confused thinking going on there as well in terms of another reason why we should be in Afghanistan. I also believe there is no evidence that military operations in Afghanistan will reduce the risk of terrorism.

With Afghan attitudes towards coalition forces becoming steadily more negative the longer we remain in Afghanistan, it is difficult to see how this can make us safer from terrorist attack operating from the country. Intuitively, the opposite seems more likely. The international military presence certainly has not reduced the incidence of terrorism attacks within Afghanistan. We know that from the impact it is having on people in Afghanistan. We know that 80 per cent of the attacks in Afghanistan are directed against international forces, suggesting the international presence in Afghanistan is increasing terrorism activity within that country, not reducing it.

As Senator Brown highlighted this morning, we do not have a policy of intervening militarily in every country that has problems with terrorism. Senator Brown outlined a number of areas where we have seen and continue to see terrorism attacks. We see, from the evidence, stronger bases for al-Qaeda in these particular countries. But I do not for one minute want it reported that we are advocating that we should be increasing our military presence in these areas—I am not. I am merely pointing out that you cannot use the potential presence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan—and it is acknowledged that they are no longer present in Afghanistan— or the presence of known terrorist activity to justify a presence in Afghanistan.

As I said, we know there is an ongoing presence of terrorism activity in Yemen and Somalia and there is terrorism activity in the Philippines, and we know there have been some absolutely outrageous and horrific attacks in Congo— but that barely rates a mention. The conflicts and the outrageous, horrific attacks in Congo will mark those women and children absolutely for generations to come, yet we do not have a discussion about any action that we may need to take there. Another argument that is put is about stabilising and rebuilding Afghanistan. We do fully understand the desperate need to rebuild the social infrastructure in Afghanistan; it absolutely needs stabilising and rebuilding. My proposition is that you do not do that with military force.

There is a very, very strong argument to separate out our development aid and our military presence. In fact, non-government organisations argue very strongly that that should absolutely be the case— that having our aid linked to a military presence undermines the delivery of that aid. I heard just last week of the impact. In fact, there was a talk here in parliament from an aid organisation about how it had taken a very long time to convince the various local militia, local insurgents, that their aid camp was a gun-free zone—that there were no guns. Slowly, the population in the camp felt protected and safe.

Unfortunately, the American military presence did not respect the ban of guns in that military camp and went through on inspection with their guns terrifying the occupants and undermining the good faith that that organisation had built up with the people they were providing care and support for. They had been saying, ‘We will protect you; we have a no-gun policy here,’ but then the American military went through and completely ignored that. It set back that organisation very strongly. There is also concern about attacks on NGOs because of a perceived association with the military. It is not the case that aid can be delivered to Afghanistan only when it is linked to and surrounded by international military forces. As I said, NGOs have been arguing the opposite.

The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office recently reported that it does not believe the Taliban have a strategic intent to target NGOs. In areas under their control, Taliban insurgents sometimes even prohibit attacks on NGOs. Armed violence has escalated phenomenally—50 to 60 per cent higher than last year—but incidents involving NGOs have decreased. The United States Institute of Peace recently reported: NGOs report that military activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and military involvement in the medical sector, have contributed to the shrinkage of humanitarian space. The military’s provision of health services through Provincial Reconstruction Teams and other mechanisms, though well intended, sometimes sows confusion about the allegiances of US and other Western aid workers and creates tensions with humanitarian principles the agencies rely on to operate in conflict environments.

It found that NGOs working through local staff and operating with impartiality and community engagement were able to continue delivering primary healthcare services, despite prevailing insecurities. Is it not time that we started taking those messages on board and looking at how we can really help the people of Afghanistan, to rethink how we deliver our aid and take a more collaborative and effective approach to security, based on building strong educational, technological and cultural links? A smart country would be exporting its knowledge and skills by training the next generation of Afghanistan’s political, business and civil society leaders and, along the way, helping them to know and understand us.

It would take a different approach, not a military approach. It would take a much more engaging position with the development of social infrastructure and social structures, including an understanding of where we are coming from with our democratic principles, rather than trying to enforce those with a gun. That is how they see our involvement in their country now: military engagement first, with development of infrastructure and aid, unfortunately, coming a poor second.

I think there is plenty of evidence that shows this conflict is not resolving the terrible situation facing Afghanistan. It is not delivering the outcomes that we supposedly went into this conflict to try to resolve— not that I think that was very clear when our government took us in without the consent of its people and without its being debated in this parliament. Any future engagement of this country—my country—should be fully debated in this place.

I extend absolutely my heartfelt sympathy for the grief of the families of those 21 soldiers.

But I do not think that any more Australians should die in Afghanistan for the purposes outlined during this debate. Australia should be focusing its effort on delivering better outcomes through development aid, focusing that development aid carefully, separating it out from the military aid and focusing on how we build collaboration and cooperation with the Afghani people. Australia should be bringing its troops home and never again engaging in a conflict without it being debated in this place.

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