Senator SCULLION (Northern Territory) (11:32 AM) —There are many reasons that Australians believe that we live in the ‘lucky country’, though I think we take for granted most of those reasons. One of the obvious reasons is the fact that we can go to football stadiums or concerts with tens of thousands of other people and we feel completely safe in this country. We do not even give it a second thought that somehow there is going to be somebody with explosives strapped to their chest who is going to blow us all up. We can go with some mates to a busy cafe on the side of the road and we do not think twice about being at risk from a car bomb threat. I guess one of the great things that makes us such a lucky country is that we have the freedom to live our lives without fear.
Australians have a deep and abiding respect for the men and women of our defence forces, and this is why the decision to place them in harm’s way is never taken lightly. So what was our motive in making the decision to contribute troops to the Afghanistan conflict? The principal motive—and I think it is a very healthy motive—was national self-interest. I think that is an interest that every nation, if they are fair dinkum, needs to put right at the forefront.
The world was shocked on September 11, 2001 with the bombing of the World Trade Centre and then the Pentagon. I can remember where I was, and I suspect that, for most Australians, it will be one of those moments where they can think back and they can remember where they were when they heard the news. I was on the way to Canberra. It was evening and I was in the lounge in Darwin Airport. I can recall seeing on the television screen one of the planes hitting the side of the tower, and it was all a bit hard to conceive that this was actually happening. Nobody really knew what had gone on. Before our plane took off, there was some discussion about another plane that had hit and people wondered whether it was vision from a camera on the other side. It was all a bit inconceivable. But, as it all rolled out the next day, to the horror of the world, we realised that this was not an accident; that this had been a group of people who had organised themselves to the extent that they would deliberately attack innocent civilians to somehow broaden their agenda in bringing Islamic fundamentalism into the spotlight. They certainly did that.
It had such an effect, because of the devastation. Of the 2,996 deaths, there were 19 hijackers who died, but there were 2,977 victims—246 on the four planes, on which there were absolutely no survivors. These people just wanted to go and see their mum and dad, do a bit of business or see their children in the expectation of freedom, but, sadly, that day that freedom was taken away. There were 2,606 in New York City who were at work in the towers, were on the ground or were firemen or policemen trying to help out the injured at the time who lost their lives, and 125 at the Pentagon lost their lives. It is very important to note that all the deaths in these attacks were civilians, apart from the 55 military personnel who were killed at the Pentagon—and, sadly, for us as Australians, amongst them were 15 Australians.
As part of our motive, Australians then accepted that international organised terrorism could only be challenged with an international response. The decision to support the International Coalition Against Terrorism in Afghanistan was made in October 2001. It had strong bipartisan support across this parliament. I note that in the prelude to this debate there was some assertion that a government and not parliament had made the decision. Perhaps that is technically correct but, if anybody reads the Hansard of this parliament from that time, it would indicate that there was bipartisan support, certainly from the previous opposition leader, Kim Beazley, which continues today under opposition leader Tony Abbott. At that time, there was considerable evidence to suggest that further terrorist attacks were on the way and, tragically, this evidence was correct.
Sadly, on 12 October 2002, there were the Bali bombings at the Sari Club where 202 people were killed, including 88 Australians, and 330 people were wounded. There was the notion of freedom: someone simply going out to a pub or a tourist operator just trying to make money to feed his family and send his kids to school. Those people were not involved in any particular conflict. We had the hotel bombing in Jakarta where 12 were killed and 150 were wounded—amongst those were two Australians. Then we had the Australian Embassy bombing in Jakarta, clearly targeting Australians. Very sadly, 11 were killed and 150 were wounded. We were very lucky that no Australians were killed at that time. At the London bombings, 50 were killed and 700 were injured. One Australian was killed then. On 1 October 2005, there was another attack in Bali at which four Australians were killed. A total of 26 were killed and a further 100 were injured. There was a hotel attack in Pakistan, but no Australians were killed. On 17 July 2009, at hotel bombings in Jakarta, seven people were killed and 50 were injured. Again, tragically, three Australians were killed.
The majority of security experts around the world made a connection between those attacks and terrorists, at an organisational or operational level, who gained their skills in death, slaughter and misery in Afghanistan. During the nineties it was a relatively safe haven in Afghanistan, where people could train, organise and launch attacks with relatively little interference, and that obviously led to a very high level of attacks. Invoking the ANZUS treaty and pledging military and other assistance was considered the right course of action for Australia to take. We had an obligation to join our allies in protecting Australians and other civilians against further attacks. We certainly understood that terrorist organisations could no longer be allowed a safe haven to continue to organise, train and launch their attacks, predominately on civilians across the world.
Sadly, there is another impact that is perhaps not spoken about as much: the perverse impact that Islamic fundamentalism had on the Muslim population across the world. I particularly speak for the Muslim population in Australia and say that people were very confused. Australia is home to more than 300,000 Muslims and, to state the obvious, Islamic fundamentalism under the banner of al-Qaeda does not represent the views of the vast majority of Muslim Australians. To me personally it is such a perverse interpretation of Islam that a god would want innocent children and civilians to be murdered for some greater good. It is something that I simply cannot fathom. Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations that link their destructive activities to Islam have done a great disservice to the religion. It is a source of ongoing prejudice against Muslims in Australia. We all need to remind ourselves that the notion of Islam is one of peace. Muslims around Australia are predominantly a very peaceful bunch of people and have absolutely no support for Islamic fundamentalism. I was privileged as a younger man to have lived amongst thousands of Indonesians who at that time went to great lengths to assure me that their beliefs were not associated with the acts of terror claimed to be in the name of their god.
The Australian deployment to Afghanistan has made such a difference. They are doing an absolutely remarkable job there and at home to ensure that there is no safe haven for terrorists. When people think about Australian involvement in Afghanistan, they immediately think about our military operations, as they should. The conduct of men and women in our Defence Force overseas, particularly in Afghanistan—a very difficult theatre of operation—has been second to none. They are much admired. Through my parliamentary work and through my association with the Australian Defence Force program, I have met men and women from other defence forces around the world. They are always extremely complimentary and respectful of the work of the men and women from our Defence Force. They have a special capacity to be able to engage with people in peacekeeping activities or in warfare activities in Afghanistan. They have a capacity to be able to interact with local people and have a broad range of expertise and professionalism.
Whilst we only think of our military operations, we are also involved in a host of diplomacy and developmental operations in Afghanistan. Our operations are as much about protecting rights and improving the living conditions of Afghan civilians as they are about protecting Australia’s national interest. Our specific tasks include the 4th Brigade training and mentoring the Afghan National Army in Oruzgan province in order that they can assume responsibility for the province’s security. This is about building capacity. If we are to ensure that there is never a safe haven again in Afghanistan, we need to ensure that, when security reaches a certain level, they have the capacity to take over and sustain, as they should, their own national interest, peace and prosperity—having normal lives and freedoms as we enjoy in this country.
We also contribute to building the capacity of Afghan National Police by assisting with civil policing functions in Oruzgan. If they are ever going to have a democracy, they have to have the capacity to not only run elections, as we have seen in the very difficult circumstances in Afghanistan, but also run their nation and the security of their nation. We are helping to improve the Afghan government’s capacity to deliver core services and generate income-earning opportunities for its people—the normal things that we take for granted that have not been available to their government or their people for a very long time. Most importantly, we are also conducting operations that will disrupt insurgent operations and supply routes by utilising the Special Operations Task Group.
A contingent of Australian Defence Force personnel are working in Afghanistan as part of the Netherlands-led provincial reconstruction team. Australia’s contribution, which is the Reconstruction Task Force, is a mix of engineers, security and support personnel. These personnel are working on reconstruction and community based projects as part of our commitment to helping Afghanistan achieve a stable and secure future. It is so important that that future is sustainable, and that is why, as areas are cleared and become secure, we need to focus also on providing opportunities to those Afghan people. Many members of the task force are drawn from the Darwin area, from the 1st Combat Engineer Regiment—who as many would know, were famous for their work after the tsunami in Aceh. The 1st Combat Engineer Regiment provides combat engineers, tradesmen, carpenters, plumbers, electricians and plant operators, who are fundamental to providing that infrastructure that is so necessary for an active economy and a democracy.
These men and women are also providing skills training for the local population to ensure that the benefits of the deployment continue well after our personnel have returned home. This is one of those areas where Australians just do so well, because of our capacity to engage and to pass on information to local people and that is driven very much by the enjoyment that Defence Force men and women get from that process. They have often said to me that a fundamental part of what they brought back was the knowledge that they had left a gift of skills, upskilling and infrastructure in that country.
Command logistics support elements have come from Darwin based 1st Brigade, and of course almost every element of 1st Brigade is being used in one way or another in Afghanistan. I commend these Territorians for their work. I also commend the fantastic contributions being made by personnel from not only the Australian Defence Force but also the Australian Federal Police and other Commonwealth agencies who are assisting to ensure that Afghanistan does not continue to be a safe haven for terrorists.
A sustained effort in Afghanistan is absolutely crucial to keeping countries around the world safe from terrorism attacks and to helping restore stability to the entire region. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates based in Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to pose a direct threat to countries all over the world. As I said earlier, almost all terrorism attacks can be linked back to this region, so the need to continue to disrupt the training, the finances and the movement of terrorist operatives to the region is absolutely paramount. Afghanistan is one of the least developed countries in the world. Sadly, thousands have died throughout the course of this conflict. There is an international obligation, clearly recognised and assisted by this country, to help rebuild the country so that its civilians can live in safety. The Australian contribution makes a real difference to the lives of Afghani people. The tragedy of the mounting casualties in Afghanistan, the deaths and injury of Afghani civilians, Australian soldiers and others reminds me of the sacrifice involved to ensure that people can live without fear of attack here or overseas.
I want to say to everyone who is associated with the families of those people who made the ultimate sacrifice that those sacrifices are not in vain. We have seen an enormous change to the state of security and the confidence of the people in rebuilding their nation. In the future that nation will no longer play a role as a safe haven for terrorism. There are also encouraging signs that Hamid Karzai’s high council for peace may have some success, with reports as recently as last week of an increased number of Taliban leaders at a very high level wanting to undertake dialogue. This would not be possible without the work, at every level, of our fantastic Defence Force men and women. To you all: thank you for your effort and your sacrifice. We as a nation must stay the course to build a strong, free nation of Afghanistan to prevent a safe haven for terrorists and to protect our nations and Australians, wherever they may find themselves around the world.
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101027 Ministerial Statement – Afghanistan.pdf