In Afghanistan, we are confronted with a desperate struggle for the future not just of a country but potentially of an entire region. Of course this is not the first time that Afghanistan has been the site of an apparently insurmountable conflict. Not for nothing is it known as the graveyard of empires. For some, this recollection of failures past is reason enough to dismiss our current mission in Afghanistan as an exercise in futility, but the parliament of Australia unreservedly supports military intervention in Afghanistan till the job is done.
To some extent this is understandable. Afghanistan has always posed challenges for those intrepid enough—some would say foolhardy enough—to involve themselves in its affairs. Many years ago our former colleague Senator Russell Trood, senator for Queensland, published a book entitled The Indian Ocean: Perspectives on a Strategic Arena. In it, he quoted the future US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Dr Zalmay Khalilzad:
Several factors will play critical roles in determining whether the Soviet Union succeeds in … neutralising the Afghans. These include the policies adopted by Pakistan towards the insurgents, the extent of external support … ability to establish a government in Kabul that commands a large armed force and has a wide base of support …
Substitute 'International Security Assistance Force' for 'Soviet Union' and you have a reasonable description of the state of play in Afghanistan today. Dr Khalilzad's comments serve as a salient reminder that, although the participants may change, the rules of the game in Afghanistan remain largely unchanged. Another recurring truth about Afghanistan is that the struggles it has hosted have never been solely about Afghanistan. Rather, they have always been part of a broader geopolitical conflict. That is why it is folly for us to assume that the challenges we face in Afghanistan can exist in isolation from the affairs of its often volatile neighbours.
No part of that neighbourhood is more interconnected with Afghanistan than its eastern neighbour, Pakistan. Democratic institutions in Pakistan are already at risk from a violent internal insurgency which includes al-Qaeda backed extremists. To that toxic brew, we can add the destabilising influence of Pakistan's rogue Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, who, if not openly in cahoots with the Afghani Taliban, are at the very least proving to be extremely adept at turning a blind eye to their activities.
The mutually parasitic relationship between the ISI, the Taliban and al Qaeda was most brutally revealed earlier this year when it was discovered that the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, was being harboured in a Pakistani garrison town, just a stone's throw from a military training facility. This towering betrayal strikes a particularly resonant chord with me, because within my electorate of Wright is our own military training facility in the town of Canungra. I know full well just how abhorrent the members of our own defence community would find the concept of an ally harbouring one of our greatest enemies. Of course the West is assisting Pakistan to confront the severe challenges it faces; however, Pakistan is a sovereign nation and is deeply suspicious, if not openly resentful, of outsiders' offers of assistance. In Afghanistan, we have much greater scope and much greater opportunities to bring a semblance of peace and stability to a broken and divided country.
Last week, we had President Obama in the House, reaffirming his nation's commitment to the ANZUS alliance. It therefore seems an opportune moment to reflect upon the role that the alliance plays in our continued commitment in Afghanistan. This reflection is all the more appropriate because a great many critics of the war in Afghanistan seem to have forgotten the circumstances in which the conflict began. The events of 2001 were not an example of American unilateralism. On the contrary, the engagement in Afghanistan was a case of Washington acting in consort with the international community. The mission was undertaken with a mandate from the United Nations—a mandate that has been renewed year after year.
It is also worth remembering who it is we are fighting in Afghanistan. The Taliban has never been a movement with widespread legitimacy. Now more than ever it is a highly factionalised entity, supported in some parts of the country, begrudgingly tolerated in others and openly despised elsewhere. During the years it wielded power, the Taliban succeeded in reducing the entire country to one big concentration camp, enslaving the female population and embarking on an ambitious campaign to exterminate the Hazara minority. Let us not forget that, during this time, the Taliban also played host to the world's pre-eminent terrorist organisation as it plotted the mass murder of thousands of civilians on September 11, or that for the past decade it has been fighting an undeclared war against an international force that is upholding a United Nations mandate. These are not freedom fighters. As a matter of fact, the last thing in the world they want is 'freedom'. They want the complete opposite, and they are ruthless in their determination to get it.
In these circumstances it is to be expected that the fight in Afghanistan will continue to be a tough one. Increasing casualties amongst ISAF troops, more violence against civilians, not to mention the recent betrayal of Australian soldiers by members of the Afghan National Army they are there to support, are all logical explanations for some degree of pessimism. However, there are also reasons to look forward with some confidence. There have been encouraging signs of progress in things like school attendance, as well as the construction of transport, health and telecommunications infrastructure. What is more, economic dependence on poppy cultivation as a source of income is declining. Either way, the reality is that we do not need a perfect Afghanistan to secure our strategic objectives.
Our aim need not be for anything other than a country which is stable, which affords its citizens sufficient freedom to decide their own political, economic and social future, without fear of recrimination from the Taliban, and which has the institutions in place to ensure Islamic extremism does not regain a foothold. The challenge for coalition forces is to create the conditions for these objectives to be achieved.
Australian forces continue to play a vital role. Our contingent may not be the largest in the ISAF stable but, being based largely in the southern province of Oruzgan, our people are in one of the most violent and unstable parts of the country. Our soldiers have paid a high price in Oruzgan, with 32 killed and 214 wounded. However progress is being made and will continue to be made. On that point I wish to express both my gratitude and my enormous respect for the professionalism and dedication of the men and women not just of the ADF but also of the AFP, AusAID and DFAT—all of whom risk so much in the service of our nation. My heart goes out to the families who grieve for their lost ones and loved ones—those mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and friends of family members who carried personal burdens of their loved ones, who paid the greatest sacrifice to our nation.
Following through our commitment to Afghanistan is an immensely important enterprise. With public support for the war declining, I believe it is incumbent on us in this place to redouble our efforts to urge the case, to go beyond the platitudes and the motherhood statements and to clearly spell out the strategic rationale for staying the course. Our brave men and women in the field deserve no less.