Oct 25, 2010

Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan

Ministerial Statement

Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan

The Hon Anthony Albanese MP

Minister for Infrastructure and Transport

Leader of the House

Member for Grayndler

Parliament House, Canberra

Monday, 25 October 2010

On 12 October 2010, the families of Debbie Borgia and her 13-year-old daughter Abbey, Robyn Webster and Louisa Zervos commemorated their loss in the Bali bombings.

These four constituents of mine in Grayndler were among the 88 Australians killed by terrorists in the Bali 2002 bombings. Those terrorists were linked to al-Qaeda.

As it was with the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centre, Australia was not isolated from the actions of terrorists just because those heinous crimes took place on another shore.

I am reminded by the commemoration every year that we cannot afford to be isolationist in our approach to the global threat of terrorism.

The debate today on the Prime Minister’s statement is an opportunity for every Member of Parliament to outline their views about our role in Afghanistan.

These issues are not easy. These issues are not simple. They never are.

I certainly respect the views of those who consider themselves pacifists, as I acknowledge those who want to see our troops immediately withdrawn from Afghanistan.

There are many in my electorate who have conveyed that view to me.

They are genuine in their views, including some strong personal supporters and indeed members of the Australian Labor Party. I respectfully disagree with their position. I want to quote the words of President Barack Obama when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize last year:

… make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.

There are circumstances where the cost of inaction outweighs the cost of intervention. There are circumstances where we have a responsibility to act.

The Second World War was one of those; Iraq was not.

I did not support Australia’s involvement in Iraq.

I feel privileged to have been part of the Labor cabinet which decided to bring our combat troops home from Iraq in accordance with the commitment we gave to the Australian people in 2007. It is worth reminding the parliament that it was another Labor Prime Minister, John Curtin, which took the courageous decision in the national interest to bring back Australian soldiers from the Middle East and focus our efforts on Asia and the Pacific.

Our mission in Afghanistan is very different from Iraq. My support for this mission rests on three factors.

The first of those is the international circumstances. Our engagement in Afghanistan was sanctioned by the United Nations. There are 47 nations serving in the International Security Assistance Force under a United Nations Security Council mandate including Turkey, Malaysia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. The Security Council mandate was renewed unanimously earlier this month. Labor has a proud tradition of supporting multilateralism through the United Nations. We played a critical role in the establishment of the United Nations. The very idea of an international community would not exist if ‘Doc’ Evatt and others had not written the Charter of the United Nations at the San Francisco conference in 1945.We take pride in our role as good international citizens.

Progressives have never been isolationist in their attitude to foreign policy. As we speak, Australia is playing a vital role in countries as diverse as East Timor, the Solomon Islands and the Sudan. Our police are playing a role in Cyprus.

One of the factors which determined Labor’s opposition to the war in Iraq was its failure to secure United Nations support. The legitimacy of multilateralism is undermined if we pick and choose which United Nations resolutions are worthy of support once they have been carried unanimously. The reason for this international support is that it is responding to the international nature of those who would do our way of life harm. Al-Qaeda and, increasingly, other terrorist groups act globally. Nation states acting alone cannot respond adequately to the threat we face. I have always repudiated extremist fundamentalism, whether or not it is based on religion and regardless of the religion which is being distorted in its name, whether Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

As progressives we should not be more tolerant of extreme views or hesitate to act against fundamentalism simply because those extremists come from another culture. Targeting terrorists who claim to act in the name of Islam is not the same as targeting Muslims. The left and the right of politics both need to understand that. Progressives have a proud history of taking on extremists, but some progressives are still living under the shadow of their correct opposition to the Vietnam War. Over time, some of this opposition has turned into a knee-jerk anti-Americanism. It is ironic that, when he proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh chose to quote none other than the United States Declaration of Independence.

Since Vietnam it has been difficult for people on the progressive side of politics to argue the case for any military intervention. However difficult, we must be prepared to analyse circumstances as they are, not as we would like them to be. Indeed, there are some who argue that the war against terrorism is simply a creation of the media or of United States governments, particularly that of George W Bush.

For the families of those affected by terrorism, including those in my electorate, this threat is all too real. It cannot be wished away. Let us be clear what those who seek to impose an extreme and distorted interpretation of Sharia law really stand for.

They seek to kill people for the crime of teaching young girls to read and write.

They seek to kill people who call themselves socialists.

They seek to kill people on the basis of their sexuality.

They seek to kill Muslims who do not conform to their extremist version of Islam.

They harbour terrorists who have targeted Australians and would do so again given the chance.

In fact, they seek to destroy the very fabric and stability of global economic and social activity. Under these circumstances, I simply cannot agree that we should just walk away from our responsibilities.

The third reason why I support our mission in Afghanistan is that our commitment is consistent with our ongoing national interest. We have an important role to play in the region. We are providing considerable development assistance to Afghanistan—over $100 million this financial year. We are supporting basic health and hygiene efforts in schools. Our troops and AFP officers are helping to train and mentor the Afghan military and police in Oruzgan province. Our troops are training locals to recognise and remove mines across this province. Supporting these officers and soldiers should be something that all Australians do regardless of their view about our mission in Afghanistan.

We should never again repeat the mistake that was made post Vietnam. These soldiers and AFP officers are serving our nation upon orders from those above, primarily the government of this country. We must respect the role that they play and each and every one of them knows that they have the support of this nation for the courageous work that they do.

Today, some six million Afghan children are enrolled in school. Nearly 40 per cent of these students are girls.

Afghanistan’s economic growth has been strong, averaging 11 per cent since 2002—of course, coming off a very low base. That is not to say that progress has been as rapid as we would like.

There have been real impediments there. There have been concerns raised about governance issues within the Karzai government. These concerns are very serious indeed and both the Australian and the international community are determined to assist Afghanistan to make substantial improvements on governance as they move forward.

The issue before us today is: what is our role in Afghanistan, going forward? Those who say we should withdraw now must also ask themselves what would happen to Afghanistan if we did. Would the Taliban, al-Qaeda and any number of other fundamentalist groups not try to re-establish themselves as the dominant force in the nation? Would the fighting really stop or would Afghanistan go backwards from the modest progress that has been made?

The challenge ahead is formidable. There is no doubt about that. It is clear that Afghanistan will not become a flourishing prosperous democracy today or the next day. It will take time, and whatever form the nation of Afghanistan takes over time is of course for the people of Afghanistan to determine. But I do not believe that we can abdicate our responsibility to fight terrorism whether on our shores or in Afghanistan. It is not in the interests of global security; it is not in our national interest. It is not what those who lost their lives to terrorism in Bali and across the world would have us do. Nor is it in the interests of those six million boys and girls who are now enrolled in school in Afghanistan.

I commend the Prime Minister’s statement to the House.