SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (6:32 PM) -I also rise to contribute to this very important discussion on Afghanistan. This is a very sombre and serious debate because it goes to perhaps the most important of all topics that we in this parliament could ever discuss-people’s lives. First and foremost, the decisions made within this parliament and by our executive go very directly to both the lives of our service personnel-our men and women in uniform who we deploy overseas, do their all in the name of Australia and put their lives on the line as a result of those decisions-and the lives of their families and friends. This discussion also goes to the lives of the people of Afghanistan. Whenever we deploy our service personnel overseas, it is not just their lives and the lives of their loved ones that are affected but also the lives of the people within the country to which we deploy those service personnel. Lastly, this debate also touches on the lives of people the world over who are at risk of terrorist activities. That encompasses so many people in so many countries which have a cultural outlook and a level of freedom and development much like our own.

Decisions that impact on lives and threaten lives cannot and should never be taken lightly, and that is why I join with others in welcoming the discussion of these matters in this place. It is helpful at this juncture after many years of conflict in Afghanistan-longer than other military operations that Australia has been involved in-for us to ensure that the commitment of this parliament is resolute behind the mission, that there is a strong bipartisan unity behind the mission our troops are undertaking and that we send a clear signal to the people of Afghanistan, to our allies and to others that we are there to see the job through.

In addition to its being a serious debate because of the impact of the conflict on the lives of so many people, this is equally a serious debate because of its impact on our international relations and the development of the world as a whole and Afghanistan in particular, which is the country that we are talking about. This discussion is about not just the impact of the war on our relations with Afghanistan but also the development of and changes in Afghanistan, topics which I will return to shortly. As with Afghanistan, we need to ensure that Pakistan, which has seen increasing terrorist activity over the years of our engagement in Afghanistan and which is a nuclear state, does not become the type of safe haven for terrorists that we have been working against in Afghanistan. There is also the question of our relations with our coalition partners-our traditional allies and friends as fellow nations of the free world with whom we have built lasting relationships. We rely upon them and expect them to be there to work with and defend us in times of need, and they rightly and reasonably expect that we will be there to work with and help defend them in their hour of need.

Australia has played a serious role in the conflict in Afghanistan from day one. We are currently the 11th largest force in the country. That is perhaps misunderstood. Many people believe, perhaps as a result of the composition of the coalition of the willing that engaged in the Iraq conflict, that Australia is a standout contributor in Afghanistan. It is true that we are a standout contributor, but it is also true that we are one of many standout contributors. We are the largest non-NATO force in Afghanistan. However, we need to note that there are not merely one or two but 10 other countries with a larger troop presence in Afghanistan than ours, and there are many other countries with a smaller presence. This is a truly multinational force working, we hope, towards a very positive end to this conflict.

Currently we have 1,550 personnel or thereabouts serving in Afghanistan, playing a leading role in security in the Oruzgan province in particular-long a Taliban heartland. It is an area that is at the centre of reforming Afghanistan, the centre of where we need to succeed if we are to have a positive impact in the long run. Our involvement has not been an easy one, not an easy one at all. Our role there, our remit, the partner countries we have worked with and the provinces we have worked within have at times changed over the course of our involvement since 2001. The level of our deployment has fluctuated, so we have seen variations to the extent of our commitment and involvement. But it is true to say that throughout that time the overwhelming spirit of the commitment by Australia to Afghanistan has been a strong one.

It has also not been easy because we have had casualties. More than 150 of our personnel have suffered injuries, some of them quite serious. And, as has been mentioned by probably all members and senators in this debate, 21 of our servicemen have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of Australia as part of our army. They follow in the path of many before them who have paid that sacrifice in other conflicts defending Australia’s way of life and our hopes for the future.

It is not just those immediately obvious casualties that we need to reflect upon. There will also be challenges in casualties for years to come with regard to mental health that Australia needs to be conscious of. It will not just be the commitment of this government or the next government to the Afghanistan conflict that will be important; it will be the commitment of many more governments to come to care for and ensure the protection and rights of the personnel who have served there and served our country with such honour and distinction.

Overall, I believe Australians do have much to be proud of for our involvement there. I will return to some of the achievements on the ground in Afghanistan, but I think most importantly we in this place need to reflect on the outstanding service of those men and women whom we have sent to Afghanistan over this time. Australians in uniform have gone there and there are many others who have worked alongside them from other countries, as well as non-uniform personnel and those from non-government organisations. They have all been working towards a better Afghanistan, a safer Afghanistan and a safer world as a result.

Importantly, at the heart of this debate are questions. Why are we there? Should we still be there? Should we stay there? When will the job be done? These are not easy questions, and I am not someone who approaches them, particularly the question of when the job will be done, like I somehow have the wisdom of Solomon. There will always be elements of judgement in this, and it is judgement best exercised by our military commanders, by the leadership of Afghanistan, by our own political leadership here in Australia and by our allies through NATO and throughout the rest of the world.

But why we are there is in many ways easy to answer. You can put it down to a one-word answer, if you want, and that one word is ‘terrorism’. It is an evil scourge of extremist, fundamentalist-driven terrorism. I think back to September 11, 2001. I know that people of my parents’ generation would say that one of the defining moments of their lives where time stood still and they forever remembered where they were was when they heard of the assassination of President Kennedy. For my generation one of those defining moments will forever be where we were when we heard of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the attacks of September 11, 2001. I was living in this fair city, not far from this building, at that time and I remember the night vividly, I remember the very little sleep that I got that night as the true horror of what was occurring unfolded. We should remember that night and the other terrorist instances when we come to this debate. We must remember why it is we went there in the first place and what it is that we are trying to prevent from happening again. Those terrorist attacks, and others, brought a new form of warfare to the world, a brutal warfare. It was brutal in particular because it was so random in its attacks and who it struck and where it struck. It could be anyone anywhere. In particular, they were attacks aimed at striking at our way of life. That is the summary. The interest of the terrorists is to attack our way of life in countries like Australia and those of our allies around the world.

People found that they could be threatened anywhere at any time, whether it was sitting at a desk in their offices in New York, enjoying a nightclub visit in Bali, travelling on the London Underground, turning up to work at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta or simply berthing a ship in Sudan. Australians and those people from our allied nations found real threats to life day after day after day that were totally random as a result of these terrorist organisations, and the terrorism grew out of a fundamentalism that was encouraged and fostered in Afghanistan.

It grew out of that fundamentalism of al-Qaeda. It was a direct result of the support of the Taliban, in Afghanistan, that allowed terrorists to flourish and to undertake some of these atrocities. Not only did the Taliban promote violence to the rest of the world, but we should also never forget that in their own country, Afghanistan, they were a repressive regime with a terrible record against their own people. This was a regime of violence and oppression. It was a regime that I do not think anybody in this place would stand up for-neither the fundamentalist views they sought to impose nor the way they went about trying to impose them.

It is for the sake of our own security and for the security of the world-and hopefully for the security of and a better life for the Afghan people-that we came to be in Afghanistan; that we came to be part of this conflict. Our goal must be to ensure that Afghanistan does not return to being such a safe haven for terrorists in the future.

When will our time there be done? I do not know. Others in this debate have speculated. Some have called for it to be immediate. To me, it is quite clear that Afghanistan is not ready for our immediate withdrawal. To me, it is quite clear that fixing a specific time frame right now is unlikely to help-because the only message that sends to the terrorists is that if you wait then you will win.

We need to ensure that we leave Afghanistan in a condition where it is best placed to fend for itself. It may not be left as the type of country that we would aspire to live in, or that we would aspire for Australia, but at least it may be left as a country with a relative level of security, with a relatively stable government, with a capacity to function and to have functioning internal systems and, of course, with a strong internal security force that is committed to the stability of the country and to ensuring law abidance within that country. I would hope that we are leaving Afghanistan as a place that is no longer a haven for terrorists, where it can no longer feed the type of terrorist activity that spawned those attacks of 11 September or the various other terrorist attacks.

That is why Australia’s military operations are so committed to delivering the type of training and support in Afghanistan that will leave individuals and communities better equipped to look after themselves into the future-the type of country about which I just spoke. That is why we have ploughed resources in targeted province-by-province localities, as an international force-ensuring that each province is ideally slowly but surely transitioned to one of self-sufficiency. In doing so, we can transition the entire country. It will never be perfect. I suspect that we will have many doubts about the type of government and some of the decisions of government in Afghanistan for many years to come. But we are looking to leave a country that is no longer a threat to the world and, ideally, no longer a threat to itself.

My leader in the other place, Mr Abbott, spoke about what type of progress had to be achieved in this debate, and his words were that progress has to be made family by family, village by village and district by district. Those words are right. They are right not just in a military sense but also in a sense of building a civic society and in the sense of providing the type of humanitarian advancements that we aspire to see throughout developing countries.

Senator Hanson-Young, in contributing to this debate, highlighted a number of human rights issues. She highlighted a number of concerns about aid. Let me say that I agree with those concerns, but I expect them to be exercised in a markedly different way. I expect them to actually be supported by our military. I want to see our military supporting humanitarian outcomes. I want to see greater aid funding. I want to see that aid funding working to an outcome to support the entire Afghan population.

Debate interrupted.