MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS – Afghanistan – Speech

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (4.37 p.m.)—The Democrats also welcome this statement. It is pleasing to see ministerial statements being tabled in the parliament—there are four or five of them here—rather than simply being released at a press conference. I hope that signals a return to the parliament being a chamber of debate about issues and significant statements put forward and released by ministers. I would also like to specifically put on the record the Democrats’ continuing acknowledgement of the contribution made by our ADF personnel in Afghanistan, and indeed everywhere around the globe. It needs to continually be said that, even though there are always differing public views about where troops should and should not be deployed, we should not let that debate spill over into antagonism towards the personnel, who should always be supported. The Democrats reaffirm our position there.

I did not oppose Australia contributing to an international effort to overthrow the Taliban back in 2001. I and the Democrats said at the time that getting involved in an unwise and illegal action in Iraq diverted not just troops and resources but political will and international attention away from finishing what needed to be done in Afghanistan. As we all know, that action in Iraq went ahead anyway and some of the concerns that people raised at the time have borne fruit, sadly. But that is not to say that the only reason why things are still difficult in Afghanistan—and indeed, according to some reports, in some areas things have deteriorated in various ways—is all to do with the fact that the Iraq war happened. People can have that debate separately, as they do.

But I believe that it is time for us to re-examine the wisdom of not just an ongoing Australian military presence but also an ongoing Western military presence in Afghanistan. In the context of this debate, we are looking at the Australian military presence in Afghanistan. In saying that, my personal view in regard to that is that there is no easy answer to this. It is not like withdrawing troops would allow peace and sunshine to descend immediately upon that area and the many suffering people who are living in Afghanistan. But there are still legitimate questions that should be raised about whether continuing down the path that we are on is the best choice. While no path will provide easy short-term solutions, there are other paths that are more likely to produce positive outcomes in the medium to long term than continuing down the path of the ongoing military presence of Australian and other forces.

In saying that, I am in part influenced by a lot of the debate by many experienced strategists, particularly in parts of Europe. I note that some very significant comments were made by Paddy Ashdown, among others. He was at one stage going to be playing a significant oversight role and ended up not doing so for what seemed to be mostly political reasons. People such as him, with very significant expertise and experience, are highlighting the problems with the path that we are continuing down at the moment. To paraphrase comments by him a couple of months ago, while you can fight modern high-tech wars and win them in one sense very quickly—and that occurred in regard to overthrowing the Taliban; that was done very quickly—building a new stable nation state takes decades. He suggests that Afghanistan is a 30-year project and that it requires more troops than used to win the initial fight. According to his estimations, they have one twenty-fifth the number of troops and one-fiftieth the amount of aid per head of population that they put into Kosovo. He spoke about political short-sightedness and ‘a combination of hubris, nemesis and amnesia’. He also highlighted the importance of establishing the rule of law, rather than just establishing elections for their own sake.

There is a need to look more widely at the situation in Afghanistan. Preventing the Taliban from regaining any sort of political control in that country is important, but any sort of simplistic view of the Taliban being the bad guys and anybody who is not the Taliban being the good guys is clearly far from the reality. I would draw attention to the comments of Malalai Joya, a young woman who is a member of the Afghanistan legislature. She has escaped a number of threats on her life. She has drawn attention to and made heavy criticisms of the significant number of, in her words, ‘war criminals’ who are in the Afghan parliament. These things need to be acknowledged rather than just ignored as inconvenient truths that do not fit the neat simplistic narrative. Her call, among the calls of others, has also been for a reduction in the Western military presence and for other forms of support to be provided.

As I said before, it needs to be acknowledged that no path is an easy one in the short term for ensuring stability and the rule of law in Afghanistan. It is a matter that will eventually need to be resolved among the Afghani people. But they deserve as much support as possible from the wider world. That support is not just military. There is an argument that it needs to include military. That is the context of this statement before us today. But, whatever people’s views are about the military support that is needed, it is very clear that there is nowhere near enough non-military support being provided. That is the part of it that needs much more examination and debate.

It needs to be put on the record in this chamber that it is clear that the situation in Afghanistan has in many respects become more rather than less dangerous. I do not in any way suggest that the former government was anything less than genuine in its views about the best approach to dealing with Afghanistan, even though I may differ to some extent, but it needs to be pointed out that, at the same time that the former government was continuing to highlight how unsafe Afghanistan was and how there was a need for a continuing Australian military presence, it sent back many of the refugees who fled the situation in that country with the Taliban to seek safety in Australia.

Having visited some of those people when they were locked up on Nauru for a number of years by the former government, I want to put on the record that they were pressured to return to Afghanistan. Some of them succumbed to that pressure. Those who have sought to follow what happened to those people after they were returned to Afghanistan have found plenty of evidence that many of them returned to extreme danger and, in some cases, people who were sent back have had to flee again and members of their families have been killed. That is a reality that was a direct result of the laws and policies of the previous government. Whenever we talk about the ongoing role Australia has in Afghanistan—whether it is military or anything else—I for one do not want it to be forgotten what role Australia and the former government played in sending back people who had fled that horrendous war-torn situation. Those people were in effect forced back in terribly unsafe circumstances by the former government. That is something that I will always criticise and will seek to ensure is never forgotten, because many of them paid very dearly in extra suffering as a direct result of the actions of the country whose help they sought to give them safety.

That brings me back to my key point, which is that, whatever differing views there may be about the ongoing military role we think Australia and the wider Western forces should have, I think we are clearly falling down on the non-military support, which, as the comments from Paddy Ashdown that I mentioned before indicated, is far, far short of what it needs to be to have any hope of building genuine long-term stability in that country. We cannot leave it all up to the military, brave and courageous as they may be, to do that on their own. Building a state is about a lot more than that. We need to put more attention on the way that Australia can constructively contribute in that regard.

Please like & share: