Trip to Afghanistan 2011

Recent polls suggest Australians are disillusioned with our involvement in Afghanistan, and the tragedy of young soldiers being killed, most recently Sergeant Todd Langley, only fuels this sentiment. I can understand that, but following my recent visit to the country, as part of the Defence Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I have returned with a clear and strong understanding of what we are doing to fight terrorism and to stabilise and secure Afghanistan.

With it, I have a degree of optimism, because we have made progress in Afghanistan in the last nine years, particularly at a human level. Now, when people ask me why we are in Afghanistan, I no longer just cite our commitment to the alliance and the need to eliminate terrorists to defend our presence. I cite the training centres, roads, airfields and mosques I saw, and the girls schools I heard about. Now six million children go to school, one-third of whom are girls; in 2001 this was around the one-million mark, and there were no girls at school.

Afghanistan's future stability and security rely as much on infrastructure and getting the basics in place as on strong-arming the enemy. Stability and security will come from eliminating the presence of terrorism, but it will also come from training the military and the local police, so they can defend and protect their own people and their own country; from improving roads so food can get to market and the economy can prosper; from introducing a largely agricultural community to alternative crops to stop the addiction to the poppy trade; and from training people so they have the skills to rebuild their own nation. The approach needs to be tailored to the needs of the vastly different communities.

Having lived in India and having worked on the Middle East desk in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, I have a strong appreciation of the differences between metropolitan, regional and rural communities from Egypt to Bangladesh. However, the differences in Afghanistan are stark, deeply tribal and built on centuries of warring and religious and ethnic adversity. That is why the challenges of this country need to be tackled province by province, and in many cases village by village—and they are. To highlight the differences: in Kabul province, 66 per cent of men and 48 per cent of women can read, averaging out to about 50 per cent. On average, 46 per cent of girls and boys are in school. Women work and wander the streets freely. In Oruzgan province, by contrast, male literacy stands at 18 per cent and female literacy at 0.2 per cent, infant mortality is 38 per cent and school attendance averages out at 20 per cent. Women are largely confined to their homes.

In Kabul, we met with a number of members of parliament, one of them the internationally renowned Fawzia Koofi. Ms Koofi is the chairwoman of the defence and territorial affairs standing committee, has a masters in business and management and is a strong advocate of human rights, particularly of women's and children's rights. She is also from a politically active family. In our meeting she was articulate and forthright. She praised the international presence in Afghanistan and wanted it to last as long as possible, because it ensured women like her were safe. In Oruzgan we met only with the men from the provincial government: army and police in Tarin Kowt and local leaders in the Mirabad Valley. All of them, particularly the influential Governor Shirzad, praised the international community's work in building vital infrastructure, including waste management and food storage facilities and women's and children's health centres. Governor Shirzad was also at pains to point out the gains in stability and security in the last 12 months, particularly in the last six months.

In recent years, the international community has trained tens of thousands of members of the Afghan National Army. Many of them have been trained by young Australians in the artillery training team in Kabul. The 20 trainers are mainly young men in their 20s. At first glance, they are your classic Australian blokes: cracking jokes and being cheeky. But when they share their training experience they have a disarming maturity, commitment and patience that belies their years. Our mission in Afghanistan is multifaceted and it is working. Oruzgan now has double the number of patrol bases, from 18 to 36, thanks to the Australian Federal Police mentoring program with the Afghan 4th Brigade. It also has hundreds more tradesmen thanks to our trade training centre.

There are many examples of very human things that happened there but, for me, the most profound of them was going to the training centre. There was a trainee soldier there aged 55 years but claiming he was 35, the maximum age for the ANA. He was bearded, greying, painfully thin and deeply lined from years of sub-zero winters and piercingly hot summers. When we were there he did something that he had not been able to do all his life until six weeks ago: he read. He read clearly, loudly and proudly—and he read thanks to the efforts of the international community.

What Afghanistan needs is stability and security, first and foremost. As with any society, nothing can be built without these most fundamental foundations. We have made a significant investment in Afghanistan and we have made the ultimate sacrifice. We cannot waste the efforts of those who have made that sacrifice by leaving the mission early.

Download a copy of this speech.

Tweets by @TwitterDev