Afghanistan Speech

I spoke in Parliament yesterday on the Australian mission in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan: A Humanitarian Mission
Andrew Leigh MP

26 October 2010

On the morning of 11 September 2001, I was living in Boston. Standing in the atrium of the Littauer Building of the Harvard Kennedy School I watched up at the television screen and saw smoke pour out of the twin towers. Standing around me were students from around the globe, including many Americans. Some had friends who had boarded flights leaving Boston at 8 am that morning whom they would never see again.

That morning we were supposed to choose our classes. To help us decide Harvard had each professor give a short overview of their course offering. By chance, I entered the room where Professor Michael Ignatieff was presenting his overview. After a minute’s silence to remember those who had died that morning, Ignatieff spoke eloquently about international law and the challenges of deciding when to intervene in another nation for humanitarian reasons. He balanced the heart and the head—the need to honour those we have lost while thoughtfully considering the circumstances to justify sending our military overseas.

When I left the classroom, one of the twin towers had fallen. The second would fall soon afterwards. There was little doubt that the attack was planned from Afghanistan. A month later, US forces entered Afghanistan. Australian special forces troops followed soon afterwards. The mission was authorised under UN Security Council Resolution 1386. Since 2006, Australian troops have served in Oruzgan province, providing security and reconstruction.

Nearly a decade on from September 11, our parliament is debating whether Australian troops should remain in Afghanistan. Historically, we have debated such matters about once a decade: most recently in 2002 and, before that, in 1991. Such debates are important not only for what they say about particular engagements but also for what they say about the general principles that guide Australia in deciding when to send troops abroad.

I am not an isolationist. In 1991, Bob Hawke reminded this parliament of Neville Chamberlain’s words of 1938 when he said, ‘Why should we be concerned with a faraway country of which we know little?’ Hawke reminded the parliament that Chamberlain’s answer was provided by the horrific events that followed. ‘The great lesson of this century,’ said Hawke ‘is that peace is bought at too high a price if that price is the appeasement of aggression.’

But, just because it is right to intervene in some circumstances, it does not follow that all international engagements are justified. Opponents of our mission have pointed to Afghanistan’s many lasting problems. Afghanistan is one of the poorest parts of the world, and Oruzgan province is one of the poorest parts of Afghanistan, with subsistence-level incomes and literacy rates of one per cent for women and 10 per cent for men. Ninety per cent of public spending in Afghanistan comes from foreign aid and, while NGOs in Afghanistan have done some tremendous work, there is always a risk that those organisations could create parallel institutions and tempt Afghan professionals to leave the bureaucracy.

Yet we have made progress. Modern Afghans are a generation of people who, having come through decades of violence and unimaginable privation, possess a remarkable degree of fair-mindedness. Many seek the establishment of equity under the law and the restoration of social order. For example, the Afghan parliament now features 68 female members and has demonstrated Afghanistan’s growing pluralism and commitment to good governance by blocking ministerial candidates that it believes are unqualified or unfit to hold public office. More funding means more built infrastructure, and it is work such as this, in parallel with similar efforts around Afghanistan, that has led to the situation where over six million school age children—2½ million of them young women—are now accessing primary education.

History teaches us very few clear lessons. It is true that, in the 19th century, Afghanistan halted the expansion of the British Empire, massacring complete regiments of British soldiers in the passes outside Kabul. It is also the case that, in the 20th century, the Mujaheddin defeated the Soviet Union’s best divisions and hastened communism’s collapse. Yet there are major differences between the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and our current attempt to rebuild war-torn Afghanistan. As Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Wardak points out:

Unlike the Russians, who imposed government … you enabled us to write a democratic constitution … Unlike the Russians, who destroyed the country, you came to rebuild.

I fear that a simplistic portrayal of Afghanistan engenders defeatism and shows a lack of humanism. We must go forward with a new consensus on our continuing role in Afghanistan not only for the benefit of our serving men and women but also for the Afghan people, who deserve the chance to enjoy the benefits of a sovereign democratic nation.

In part, the role of ISAF and the coalition in Afghanistan is a tactical mission, directly targeting those who are planning bombings. In this capacity, a series of articles in last week’s New York Times suggests that better intelligence and the use of new rocket systems that are accurate to within a metre have severely weakened the Taliban and reduced the number of suicide bombings and rocket attacks on coalition troops and Afghan civilians.

But our mission is more than hunting insurgents. In Afghanistan the international community is working to ensure that the Afghan people can enjoy the fruits of good governance and stability that have so far eluded their country. For Australia’s part, the ADF are engaged in training the 4th Afghan Brigade and providing security, funding and personnel for Oruzgan’s provincial reconstruction team, which helps to build local infrastructure and assist with government services.

In my view, there are four reasons why we should stay in Afghanistan. First, we should do so because of our alliance commitments. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs has pointed out, a unanimous resolution of this House formally invoked articles IV and V of the ANZUS Treaty against those responsible for the terrorist attacks on 11 September.

Second, we should do so because of international law. Article 2 of UN Security Council Resolution 1386 calls upon member states to ‘contribute personnel, equipment and other resources to ISAF’. Forty-seven nations have heeded that call. Just like Australia, the rest of the international community realises that their position in Afghanistan is driven by a concept of principled engagement. Here there is shared fundamental human compassion, respect for universal human rights and commitment to raise the quality of life and to fight extremist behaviour. Together we share the moral courage to put our country men and women at risk to ensure that these tenets are upheld in a country which beforehand was a byword for conflict and instability.

The third and fourth reasons why we should stay in Afghanistan are that our work is helping reduce the threat of terrorism and that our efforts are helping to improve the humanitarian position of the Afghan people. A generation ago most military experts would have argued that these are fundamentally different missions, but modern counterinsurgency thinking is increasingly demonstrating that they are interwoven.

Training the Afghan 4th Brigade is much more than simply teaching these soldiers how to fight an insurgency. As members of the Australian Defence Force, our instructors believe in the importance of good governance, the rule of law and building civilian institutions. I am optimistic that in time these Afghan soldiers will demonstrate capacity to shield the Oruzgan community from corruption and coercion, not just outright violence.

The provision of government services and infrastructure are the basic weapons against extremism. In his recent book on the root causes of terrorism, Eli Berman argues that ‘social service provision creates the institutional base for most of the dangerous radical religious rebels’. To halt extremism, the international community must follow the same approach. We must tackle the fundamental social, political and economic issues that generate the lack of livelihood and the sense of hopelessness that beget extremism wherever they exist. Address these issues and you begin to unravel the extremist organisation.

To really shut down insurgent groups in Afghanistan we must continue to provide the basics: electricity, education, health care and welfare services. In the longer term we also need to be looking at the types of higher education and training that will ensure that young people have the option to build a real livelihood and access secondary services, rather than simply turn to extremism for moral and material sustenance. Just as ISAF special forces soldiers pursue Taliban leaders, the international community must be even more assiduous in providing the social outreach that stops Afghans from joining the insurgency.

The fact that insurgents seek to sabotage such services and attack those who attend demonstrates that building such infrastructure is our most potent way of combating such extremism. Indeed, counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen has described this strategy as ‘armed social work’. Using soldiers to protect a newly constructed school is unglamorous but it may be the best way of crippling insurgents in the long run.

In recent months the Australian government has moved to deliver more funding to the reconstruction team that provides just these types of services. Our provincial reconstruction team is now able to access up to 20 per cent of the $123 million of aid destined for Afghanistan. What happens in Afghanistan directly affects Australians. As Anthony Bubalo and Michael Fullilove have pointed out, Afghanistan helped form the mind of Noordin Top, a terrorist who masterminded a string of bombings directed towards Australians in Indonesia. Bubalo and Fullilove also point out that Afghanistan lies ‘in a region that shares an ocean with Australia; contains two nuclear powers that have come close to war—and in Iran, a possible third—is close to the heart of international energy supplies; has become a major exporter of drugs; and lacks any viable regional security framework’.

It is now clear that we have entered a new stage in our involvement in Afghanistan. This is a new era signalled not merely by the openness with which this debate is being conducted but also by broader changes in counterinsurgency strategy on the part of ISAF. We are entering a transition phase, moving to Afghan lead roles in both security operations and civilian government. This does not mean that foreign troops will be out of Afghanistan by 2014, but it does mean that, by the time of their next presidential election, Afghan forces will be in the lead. Parallel to this will be a process of reconciliation, in which some insurgents who wish to rejoin the mainstream will have the opportunity to do so. Of course, not all groups will have this chance —some are utterly unacceptable—but, as the experience of other countries has shown, insurgencies almost invariably end in negotiation.

Australian forces have continued to re-evaluate how Australian personnel cooperate with Afghanistan’s various stakeholders such as the Afghan government, ISAF and non-government organisations. Our mission also involves integration between our own military and civil agencies. There are 50 to 60 Australian government civilians in Afghanistan today, including 28 Australian Federal Police members and a number of DFAT and AusAID personnel. I am proud of the work these public servants are doing, not least because about half of them live in my electorate.

The lessons learnt on the ground and from our international partners in Afghanistan will serve Australia well in future stabilisation efforts. In the coming decades Australia and the international community will often have to make rapid decisions on whether to intervene to counter extremism and avoid destabilisation.

When it comes to intervening in other countries, the international community in the past has made mistakes. Many have argued that we should not have intervened in Vietnam. And in retrospect, we should have intervened earlier in Rwanda.

Yet sometimes war is just. In World War I my great-grandfather was a radio operator on an Australian Navy ship off German New Guinea. In World War II my grandfather was an army medic in Bougainville. I am proud of both of their service.

More recently Australia can be proud of our own deployments that have supported our values—deployments which have showed that we can adapt to and confront challenging social and political landscapes far from home soil. In our current efforts in East Timor, in the Solomon Islands and, of course, in Afghanistan from 2001 to today, Australia is continuing to rebuild societies and save lives.

For the future, there is no simple test that determines when and how we should intervene, but some principles should guide our thinking. As our nation has always done, we must honour the fallen, for there is no greater sacrifice than to lay down your life for your country. Yet our decisions must be made based on future costs and future benefits not just to our own personnel but to affected civilians. No decision today can bring back those lives that have been tragically lost.

We must also realise the complexity of the moral and leadership challenge before us. The political calculus must not be to ensure a crude ‘exit strategy’ but be to deliver a good and honourable humanitarian outcome for these most vulnerable.

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