Corporal Baird and Australia's Commitment to Afghanistan

I spoke in parliament tonight about the sad news that Australia has lost our 40th soldier in Afghanistan.
Corporal Cameron Stewart Baird MG, 24 June 2013

Tonight this parliament pays tribute to Corporal Cameron Stewart Baird MG, a member of the Special Operations Task Group from the 2nd Commando Regiment based in Holsworthy Barracks. Corporal Baird was killed in action by small arms fire during a firefight with Afghan insurgents on Saturday in the Khod Valley. He was noted for his leadership, his spirit and his unwavering respect for his colleagues. Corporal Baird was an experienced and decorated special forces soldier. This was his fifth tour of Afghanistan, and this relatively young man had also served in Iraq and East Timor. He died aged just 32.

Among the many honours that Corporal Baird received was the Medal for Gallantry for actions during close-quarters combat in Afghanistan on Operation Slipper. When his platoon came under heavy fire during a close-range firefight in the initial clearance phase of the operation, then Lance Corporal Baird took his team to recover their wounded members and took them to a position of cover. Following this, he was able to lead his team to re-engage with the enemy and successfully complete the clearance. ADF chief General David Hurley described Corporal Baird as an iconic figure within the ADF. He said:

‘In combat and as a team commander, he was the man to watch and was never happier than when the situation demanded decisive action and courage.’

In the past Australia has been very clear about our commitment to Afghanistan. Our efforts, as other speakers have noted, have come with a heavy price. We have lost 40 ADF members, and 254 personnel have been wounded.

Australia's operations in Afghanistan have been a long and often gruelling commitment. We have invested a great amount of resources, equipment and, most significantly, personnel in these efforts. That work included the special task force deployment—around 150 personnel in the wake of 9-11 and then, in September 2005, the Special Operations Task Group of 190. To this task we also committed two Army CH47 Chinook helicopters and 110 personnel. The next year, a 240-strong reconstruction task force, with an extra 150 personnel to follow. 2007 saw the redeployment of around 300 Australian special forces personnel to Uruzgan. The ADF peak deployment was expected to be 1,000 personnel in mid-2008—a combination of the reconstruction task force, their protection company group, the Special Operations Task Group and RAAF air surveillance.

Our strategy placed a great emphasis on training and mentoring the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan province in early 2008, in recognition of the need for the government of Afghanistan to build its own security forces and take charge of its citizens' ongoing security. Australia therefore deployed a 50-person operational mentoring and liaison team, and that brought our total personnel supporting Australian operations in Afghanistan to around 1,100. This was again increased in 2009, bringing the personnel to 1,550, which included extra support for projects run by the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force and by the election support force. We have been working closely with the US, Singapore and Slovakia, as well as the civilian director of the Uruzgan Provincial Reconstruction Team. It was my pleasure last week to have lunch as part of a group meeting with the finance minister of Afghanistan, Dr Omar Zakhilwal, and he noted the willingness with which Australian forces worked in Uruzgan province, one of the least developed provinces in Afghanistan.

Last October we assumed management of the transitional process from the United States, making it now our duty to assist these responsibilities to move to Afghan security control. It is a huge responsibility and, as we have been recently and tragically reminded, one that carries inherent risk for our personnel. In November the Australian government announced that all four infantry Kandaks of the ANA 4th Brigade in Uruzgan province were operating independently without the need for Australian advisers. With this development, the ADF was able to transfer control of joint forward operating bases and patrol bases to the 4th Brigade.

In March this year the Prime Minister and defence minister welcomed the decision by the International Security Assistance Force to close multinational base Tarin Kot in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan by the end of 2014. That decision to draw down and close the base indicates that we are now transitioning to full Afghan-led security forces. We have to continue the transition but we need to also be aware of the challenges that remain. The Taliban continue to target the ANSF and the Afghan authorities. Propaganda motivated attacks, particularly suicide bomb attacks, are still widespread, as we have seen in Kabul. These attacks are part of operating in a counterinsurgency environment.

This morning Minister Warren Snowdon, shadow minister Senator Michael Ronaldson, the member for Canberra and I spoke at a ceremony to mark the Boer War Memorial. It was remarked by a number of speakers at that event that, like Afghanistan, the Boer War was a conflict that saw Australians operating in a counterinsurgency environment, an environment that is extremely risky, an environment that leads to loss of life, as with the 40 brave Australians that we mourn today.

I pay tribute to Corporal Cameron Stewart Baird. I offer my condolences to his parents, his brother and his partner. I again echo the words of General Hurley, 'We share their loss and we feel their pain, and we will support them through the difficult days ahead.' His sacrifice will not be forgotten.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.