Standing up for Canberra

Report on Afghanistan 2010

There is no such thing as a good war, but there is such a thing as a just war. That is how the war in Afghanistan began. We are in Afghanistan because our ally the United States was attacked. Under the terms of the ANZUS treaty that meant we were attacked. Each signatory to that treaty recognises that an armed attack on any of the parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety.

Self-defence has been accepted through the ages as a legitimate reason for waging war. It is recognised in article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, which says: Nothing … shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations. And it is worth remembering that the ANZUS treaty is not a blueprint for war; it is a document designed to try to ensure peace. In its opening, the signatories reaffirm: … their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all Governments.

But that desire was shattered on September 11, 2001 in the terror attacks on New York and Washington. The next day the Security Council unequivocally condemned in the strongest terms the horrifying terrorist attacks and said it ‘regards such acts, like any act of international terrorism, as a threat to international peace and security’. The solidarity many in the rest of the world felt for the United States was expressed in the pages of the French newspaper Le Monde on 12 September under the headline ‘We are all Americans’. The article asked: How can we not feel profound solidarity with those people, that country, the United States, to whom we are so close and to whom we owe our freedom, and therefore our solidarity? It was also prescient in dismissing the false justifications that would be made for the attack, saying: None of those who had a hand in this operation can claim they intend the good of humanity. Actually, they have no interest in a better world. They simply want to wipe ours off the face of the Earth.

Like Australia, NATO would invoke its treaty, with each of its members agreeing that the attack on America was an attack on them all. It is easy to forget, in the wake of all that has come since, that in 2001 much of the world saw America’s cause as just when it sought to strike out at the forces that attacked it. Al-Qaeda claimed credit for that attack and it was protected by Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. We are in Afghanistan because our ally, the United States, rightly sought to defend itself by ensuring Afghanistan would never again be a base for the export of terrorism. We are in Afghanistan because we need a stable future for that country if we are to ensure a stable, peaceful future for ourselves.

But mistakes have been made and this war has dragged on longer than it needed to. For too long the United States and Australia were distracted by the war in Iraq, a war which could not be justified no matter how repugnant the regime of Saddam Hussein. But the reason for going to Afghanistan was just. And the reason for staying is just. Having waged war in Afghanistan, there is a moral imperative on the United States and its allies to try to stabilise the country and make it secure enough to plot its own future. There is no argument that we should leave. The argument is over when we should leave. I believe that to withdraw now would leave Afghanistan with little hope of a peaceful future. There is no perfect vision of the future but the best advice is that it will take another two to four years to get the Afghan troops and police to a level where they can ensure the peace. I believe Afghanistan deserves that time. I believe in our continued commitment to Afghanistan and its people. I believe that our commitment is the right thing for the continued security of our allies and Australians at home and abroad. And I believe our commitment is the right thing for the Afghan people and their future. But the military commitment cannot be open ended and both President Obama and the Prime Minister have signalled that it will not be.

I am advised that our commanders believe that it has only been in recent years we have got the mix of strategy and troops right. The current surge has to be given a chance of success. Some here have argued that the military should be withdrawn and aid should be increased. But how can aid be delivered without security? Hopefully, soon the Afghan army and police will be in a position to secure their country, and then the nature of our commitment should change. As the Prime Minister has signalled, we must have some commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan for at least the next decade, but the nature of that work will differ over that time. Some here also say that al-Qaeda has vanished from Afghanistan and with it the reason for continuing to fight. But an unstable Afghanistan threatens the region and the world. Al-Qaeda could return or one of its offshoots rise in its place. It has also been noted that it is not good enough to say that the Taliban presided over a brutal and appalling regime and that if removing governments that abuse their people were our goal then we would be at war all over the world. That is true. But that was not the reason for going to Afghanistan. As I said, we went to defend ourselves. But that does not mean that the good things that have happened in Afghanistan should be allowed to unravel. And for all the horror of this war, some good has come of it.

If this war is to have any long-term benefits for the people of Afghanistan then we need to give them a chance of a decent future. I am all too aware of the tragic history of Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion in 1987 to the mujaheddin insurgency and the 1994 takeover by the Taliban, whose brutality towards the Afghan people was unspeakable. I do not for a moment believe that this is a simple issue easily broken down into sound bites. Afghanistan is a complicated place with very little black and white. We cannot forget it is a nation that has been continually at war for decades and routinely at war for centuries. We cannot forget that, prior to the commitment of Australian and allied forces, every aspect of civil society had been eroded and Afghanistan was being used as a place to train people in acts of terror. It is well known that Afghanistan under the Taliban provided a safe haven and training ground for terrorist groups. But this is not the only crime perpetrated by the Taliban. When the Taliban came to power in 1994, they adopted a self-serving and narrow interpretation of Islam that stripped Afghans of rights and forced them to live in fear. In 1998, the Physicians for Human Rights reported that every Friday night: … the Taliban terrorizes the city of Kabul by publicly punishing alleged wrongdoers in the Kabul sports stadium and requiring public attendance at the floggings, shootings, … beheadings, and amputations.

But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Many in the House are well aware of the Taliban’s treatment of women. In 2001, Human Rights Watch found: Taliban decrees have greatly restricted women’s movement, behaviour and dress and in fact virtually all aspects of their lives … Violation of dress code, in particular, can result in public beatings … These decrees have had a significant negative impact on women’s lives. The rate of illiteracy among girls in Afghanistan is now over 90 percent. The restriction on women’s mobility has meant that women do not enjoy satisfactory access to health care. This report is filled with many individual examples of brutality against women and the oppression of their rights such as the story of Majida Akbar, a 17-year-old girl who could not get medical help for her sister-inlaw who was in labour, or that of Durani Hussain, who speaks about her desire to get an education so she can read the letters from her brother. Unfortunately, these relics of the past are still witnessed today in those areas still terrorised by the Taliban. In March of this year, CNN reported on the experiences of 19-year-old Bibi Aisha, who had her nose and ears cut off at the behest of a Taliban court for dishonouring her husband. In 2008, according to CBS News, Shamsia Husseini had acid thrown on her face for trying to go to school. Yet despite this Shamsia told CBS: I will fight these people by continuing to go to school. Last time they threw acid to stop me, but even if they hit me with bullets, I will not stop going to school …

Shamsia’s suffering is as real as her courage and determination. I acknowledge the significant difficulties being faced from a resurgent Taliban and an Afghan government that at times is slow and weak. Elements of it are clearly corrupt. But while progress is slow, there has been some progress. That progress has to be given a chance to take root. That is why I am encouraged by Zolaykha Sherzad, Hassina Sherja and Nilofar Zia Massud— three Afghan women who now operate a thriving textile and clothing business that employs hundreds of Afghans. I am encouraged by the six million children who are now enrolled in school—two million of them girls. I am encouraged by the fact that 85 per cent of the population now has access to basic health care compared to just 10 per cent under the previous regime. And I am encouraged that in 2010-11 Australia will provide $106 million in development aid to grow the capacity of the Afghan government. That adds to the education programs we have given to schoolchildren on health and hygiene education. That adds to the education programs we have given to Afghans on landmines.

We have heard the names of the Australian soldiers who have been killed while serving their country, and my thoughts and sympathies go to their family and friends. Words cannot adequately express the loss those families must be experiencing. I pay tribute to their professionalism, dedication and sacrifice, and offer my sincere condolences to their families. I also wish to honour those Australians who are currently serving or have served in Afghanistan. Without the sacrifices offered by Australia’s soldiers and civilians overseas, none of the achievements in Afghanistan would have been possible. Afghanistan would still be a place where people live in fear, where brutality is the norm and where terrorism is core business.

We must continue to support the commitment to Afghanistan. To do otherwise will place our own security and that of our allies at risk. It will also condemn the Afghan people to a future that relives their brutal past. This is not an easy mission, nor should it be an open-ended one. We must have clear goals and plans, but I believe our continued involvement is the right and just thing to do and I urge all members of this House and all Australians to support it. I do not view this through rose-coloured glasses and I do not pretend for one moment that this will be an easy journey or a short one. We have already heard from the Prime Minister about the long-term commitment of Australia to the region. I commend her candour and openness. Rebuilding a nation that has spent so many years, so many decades, in conflict—when generations of Afghans have only known violence—is not an easy thing, but it is the right thing. It is the just thing. It is not just the right and the just thing for the Afghan people. It is the right and the just thing for our allies and it is also the right and just thing for our country.

Download a copy of this speech.