'We will complete our mission of training and transition' - Prime Ministerial Statement, Canberra
MON 21 NOVEMBER 2011
Mr Speaker, In my statement to the House last year on the war in Afghanistan, I set out to paint a very honest picture of the difficulties and challenges facing our mission in that country.
I did so, confident that Australians are a realistic people.
Our people of peace, so often called to war, have always known that human conflict brings days of sorrow as well as days of progress.
And Australians well know this war is no exception.
Australians well understand that days of progress and days of sorrow still lie ahead.
Of course, we wish it could somehow not be so.
It is right that in hard moments our hearts ache for all that is lost and all there is still to lose.
Of course, we know that in an imperfect world, there is no perfect way.
It is right that we do all that we can, with all that we have, to defend Australia and its national interests.
This is the world we live in.
It has not become a perfect world in this last year.
Mr Speaker, the international strategy in which we take our part is sound.
Focussed on counter-insurgency and designed to deliver transition.
Led by President Obama since 2009.
Supported by the leaders of the 48 other countries who are members of the International Security Assistance Force.
Carried out under a United Nations mandate and with the support of the countries of the world.
A strategy which is consistent with Australia’s aim in Afghanistan as well: that a functioning Afghan state is able to assume responsibility for preventing the country from again being a safe haven for terrorists.
Our mission in Uruzgan as part of the international strategy is clear.
Protecting the Afghan people.
Training the Afghan security forces.
And building the government’s capacity.
Australia’s national interests in Afghanistan are also unchanged.
They remain very real – very clear.
There must be no safe haven for terrorists in Afghanistan.
We must stand firmly by our ally, the United States.
Mr Speaker, yes, we are paying a high price for progress in Afghanistan.
But progress is being made.
Our national interests in Afghanistan have not changed in twelve months.
Our mission has not changed.
The timetable for transition to Afghan-led security by the end of 2014 has not changed either.
We will complete our mission of training and transition.
Mr Speaker, I believe that our Parliament and our people want to know more about the daily work of our troops – and our civilians – in Afghanistan.
Australians should have a practical and realistic picture of what our people in Afghanistan are doing on the ground.
The moving and now sadly familiar images of ramp ceremonies overseas and funerals at home are a very real part of the story of the war – but they are not the whole story.
We owe it to our troops, and to our nation, to understand the whole.
Defence has around 1550 personnel deployed in Afghanistan at any one time.
Over two thirds of them serve in Uruzgan.
Many of the Australians currently there arrived at the end of June and will be deployed until around March next year.
With rotations, nearly four and a half thousand Australian Defence Force personnel will spend time in Afghanistan this year.
Many will be on their second and third deployments ... some will have been to Afghanistan many times.
Combined Team Uruzgan is principally an Australia-US partnership, but it also includes some contributions from Singapore and Slovakia.
Most of our soldiers in the Team are part of the Mentoring Taskforce.
The Taskforce trains and mentors the Afghan National Army’s 4th Brigade – to make it ready to take over lead responsibility for security in Uruzgan.
The Taskforce and the Brigade train and fight together.
Working hard to build the Brigade into an effective security force.
Removing Improvised Explosive Devices where they are found.
Searching out “caches” where insurgents hide explosives, Improvised Explosive Device components and weapons.
They have been involved in hundreds of incidents involving direct fire – hundreds of firefights – this year.
To support these operations, they maintain forward or patrol bases, across the province, in some cases as far as seventy five kilometres from our main base at Tarin Kot.
And they join operations outside the province too, cutting the so-called “rat runs”, the routes which provide support and supply to insurgents in Uruzgan.
This last year, the Afghan 4th Brigade has increasingly assumed the lead for the planning and preparation of operations.
And as that has happened, our Australians have increasingly concentrated on mentoring and partnering Afghan command and combat support functions.
Our Special Forces work alongside the Afghan National Police’s Provincial Response Company.
Together, they have been targeting insurgent leaders and bomb-makers.
Interdicting some of the movement of Taliban forces and supplies across Afghanistan.
Working alongside the Afghan National Interdiction Unit, our Special Forces disrupt the narcotics trade as well.
In September and again earlier this month, the Interdiction Unit captured hundreds of millions of dollars worth of narcotics and thousands of kilos of poppy seed stored in preparation for next year’s growing season.
They cut vital money flows to the insurgency and Taliban when they did.
Another example of our work in building Afghan security capacity is our work at the Afghan National Army Artillery Training School.
The Afghan artillerymen we have helped train have now formed a new battery within the Afghan National Army.
And in early April they were deployed to Kandahar to commence counter-insurgency operations.
In Uruzgan Australians also work with the Afghan police to get them ready for transition.
The Australian Federal Police currently has 20 officers at the Police Training Centre and our police have trained more than 1600 Afghan National Police officers in local policing work.
This is our people’s daily work.
Protecting the Afghan people and training the Afghan security forces.
Every day, Australians are working to strengthen institutions and deliver basic services as well.
In Kabul, led by our Ambassador, our diplomats work with the Afghan Government and our international partners to prepare for transition in Uruzgan province.
We have 12 AusAID staff in the country at any one time, working in Kabul, Kandahar and Uruzgan.
In Uruzgan, Australia leads the Provincial Reconstruction Team.
Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and AusAID work hard in what is a vital and perhaps under-recognised role.
These fine public servants serve our national interest well.
Australia is amongst the top ten bilateral aid donors to Afghanistan.
Our programs fund primary schooling.
They train farmers to increase crop yields and improve their livestock.
They offer small loans to help rural households develop their own small businesses and economic independence.
They help remove land mines and teach locals about the risk of mines.
They distribute saplings and plant trees.
Every day this work makes a difference in Afghan lives.
Our soldiers, police and aid workers do their work as part of a political and development strategy for the province as well.
Civilian administrators and aid officials – including Australians – are helping government work better in Uruzgan and in Afghanistan as a whole.
They have a difficult task.
Helping to recruit and train effective public officials, including in key provincial positions.
Assisting the Provincial Government to deliver basic services like health, education and rural development.
Playing a constructive role to lift the power and prestige of elected government.
All difficult – all vital over time.
Because the international strategy is one which understands that no insurgency is ever defeated by military force alone.
To understand this daily work of our people, we must understand too that their work forms part of a nationwide strategy with international support.
And the international strategy supports the Afghan Government’s efforts for reconciliation.
We support reconciliation and the reintegration of insurgents who are prepared to lay down their arms, renounce violence and terrorism and respect Afghanistan’s constitution.
The international strategy also understands that Afghanistan exists in a regional security context where all its neighbours must do their part.
This year brought a great victory against terrorism.
The hiding place of Osama bin-Laden was found and Osama bin-Laden was killed.
Justice delayed, but not justice denied.
Yet this great success, revealing as it did bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan, underscored the complexity of the war in which we are engaged.
Pakistan, its military and people, are on the frontline of terrorism and have been victims of its violence themselves.
In that country, perhaps as many as thirty thousand civilians and five thousand military personnel have died in terrorist attacks in the past ten years.
We do co-operate with Pakistan on counter-terrorism.
And the international community is there to assist as well.
All that is true.
What is also true is this.
It is time for Pakistan to do more to counter terrorism and extremism.
Particularly on its border with Afghanistan.
That is in the interests of Afghanistan, Australia, our coalition partners, it is in the interests of Pakistan itself.
Mr Speaker, this was the daily work of the Australian military and civilians in Afghanistan this last year.
And it was not isolated work.
Across Afghanistan this last year, Coalition and Afghan troops put considerable pressure on the insurgency.
Sustained operations through the year weakened the Taliban’s leadership and disrupted its ability to recruit and resupply.
In 2010, the momentum of insurgents had already been halted and then reversed.
In 2011, the insurgents were unable to retake any ground from the control of the International Security Assistance Force.
These gains need to be consolidated.
Despite our successes, the Taliban is not yet defeated.
But there is progress on the ground.
The 4th Brigade is becoming more capable and professional.
So is the Afghan National Army as a whole.
Its ability to combat improvised explosive devices has significantly improved – more than 120 Afghan counter-IED operators are in the field with another 70 in training now.
Some of their training has been from Australians.
Afghan medics are about to deploy to patrol bases to train Afghan soldiers in skills that will enable them to stabilise combat injuries and prevent non-battle injuries.
They’ve been trained by Australians.
The Afghan National Police’s crime scene and evidence collection procedures have improved.
Thanks to Australian training too.
And progress can be seen in the country as a whole.
Important tactical victories have been won fighting Al Qaeda and degrading jihadist networks.
Maintaining our momentum against the Taliban – cutting into their ability to control territory and provide sanctuary for terrorist groups.
And the process of transition has begun.
Several provinces and districts have now moved to Afghan-led security control and further provinces and districts are to be announced soon.
We understand that security progress is not enough.
Progress in human development and political reconciliation is vital too.
Afghanistan is a poor country today: a place where most people are extremely poor and where many lack access to clean water, health and education and basic services.
But this is not somehow inevitable or inescapable.
It is a product of war and dictatorship and peace and progress can allow Afghanistan to develop over time.
In the 1960s Afghanistan was a poor country but a growing one.
Its wealth was comparable to that of countries like Malaysia and Portugal – countries which have found a path to prosperity in the decades since.
By 2002, much had been lost.
But since 2002 much has been gained.
School enrolments are up from around one million then to over seven million today, including over two and a half million girls.
Basic health services once reached 10 per cent of the population ... they now reach around 85 per cent.
Almost 10,000 km of rural roads have been rehabilitated, employing hundreds of thousands of local workers and building critical infrastructure.
The economy has grown strongly ... averaging 11 per cent growth each year since 2002.
Uruzgan is still a poor province and Afghanistan is still a poor country.
These lost decades can never truly be regained – the Afghan people’s goals for development, and our work with them, are very realistic.
But Afghanistan is unrecognisable from the place Australians first deployed to ten years ago.
This is what is happening on the ground.
In security, in training the Afghan 4th Brigade, in delivering basic services, progress has been made during 2011.
Mr Speaker, our caution is real. The progress is real too.
So now let me turn to the Government’s plans to complete our mission of training and transition, our plans to ensure that progress continues during 2012.
Throughout the coming year, we will continue working closely with the Afghan government, our ally the United States and other international partners on the future of our Uruzgan mission and the course of transition there.
This ultimately depends upon a careful, realistic and professional assessment of the progress of the Afghan 4th Brigade.
Our best professional advice is this: the overall training task is on track.
The 4th Brigade is demonstrating progress towards operating independently.
One of the Brigade’s Kandaks, or battalions, is now close to being able to conduct fully independent operations with advisers.
The others are making steady progress with more expected to be capable of conducting independent operations next year.
This is the big picture of the 4th Brigade.
But every member of the House understands the grave significance of the attacks on our soldiers by individual members of the Afghan National Army.
If I can echo the Chief of Defence Force’s words, it is critical that we show restraint and reserve our judgements until the investigation of these incidents is complete.
We do not yet have grounds to conclude that these attacks represent a pattern or were directed with a purpose.
What we do know is this.
These attacks killed Afghan and Australian alike.
Our partners in the 4th Brigade, our Afghan partners, are shocked and horrified at what has occurred.
The Afghan National Army is a force of some 300,000 soldiers ... a force making steady progress like the nation it serves.
Whatever their purpose, we are determined not to allow these incidents to erode our trust.
We must not allow attacks like these to strike at the core of our training and mentoring mission in Afghanistan.
Mr Speaker, all our best advice leads us to conclude that the 4th Brigade is on track to assume the lead role on security in Uruzgan by 2014.
And we are making steady and careful preparations for transition now.
Australian forces have already handed over 11 patrol or forward operating bases to Afghan lead.
Mobile mentoring teams will continue to assist our Afghan partners at their operating bases for periods as required.
When our primary training and mentoring task in Uruzgan is complete – when the Afghan authorities have assumed lead security responsibility in the province – then Australia will adjust our contribution.
The timing to complete transition in Uruzgan is not yet decided.
But given the progress we now see, it may well be complete before the end of 2014.
And once our mission to train and mentor the 4th Brigade is complete, we will draw down the number of ADF personnel in the country.
We are realistic about the 4th Brigade’s progress.
And it’s that realistic assessment, by the governments of Australia and Afghanistan and by ISAF, which will decide the timetable for transition in Uruzgan.
We will not allow a security vacuum in the province.
This reflects the international plan across Afghanistan.
In March this year President Karzai announced the first tranche of Afghan districts and provinces to start transition to Afghan-led security responsibility.
As security conditions improve, 2012 will see Afghan authorities take on lead security responsibility in more provinces and districts.
The Afghan government is expected to announce the second tranche of provinces and districts for transition soon.
Transition is a process – and in these areas it is expected to take around 12 to 18 months.
By the time transition in the second tranche is completed, Afghan national security forces will have lead security responsibility for around half of the country’s people.
As subsequent tranches are announced through 2012 and 2013 the remaining parts of the country will enter transition.
And the Afghan National Security Forces should lead and conduct military operations in all provinces by the end of 2014.
Mr Speaker, over the next three years, Australia will complete our mission of training and transition.
Australia will not abandon Afghanistan.
With Afghan authorities in charge of their own security, the nature of the international effort in Afghanistan will change.
International military forces will reduce in number.
The forces that remain will focus on training and support for the Afghan National Security Forces and on counterterrorism.
Australia’s contribution in Afghanistan will continue to be part of a wider international effort.
We will be engaged through this decade at least.
Naturally much remains to be decided.
For now, the centre of our efforts is directed toward successful transition.
But now is also the time when we will begin to develop the right strategy and approach for beyond 2014 – for post-transition.
2012 will be an important year.
Working closely with the Afghan government, international community and military planners, we will form our plans for transition and beyond.
What we can say already is this.
The international commitment, including that of our ally the United States, remains substantial.
A substantial commitment in human and in dollar terms.
Today, the US has around 100 000 troops in Afghanistan, reducing to around 90 000 at the end of this year.
Most of the “surge” troops, which lifted troop numbers to deliver the international strategy, will remain for lost of 2012.
This time next year, there will be around 68 000 US troops in Afghanistan – as part of an international force of over 100 000.
By the end of next year our contribution of around 1550 people will be part of a force of over 100 000 uniformed personnel.
The United States is in negotiations with Afghanistan on a long-term Strategic Partnership – intended to provide a transparent political framework for long-term cooperation – to continue targeting terrorists and support a sovereign Afghan government.
While the shape of the US commitment in Afghanistan post-2014 is yet to be decided, this work being done by the US on its long-term strategic partnership – and work being done by NATO – informs our thinking.
And the May 2012 summit in Chicago of member countries of the international force will be critical in developing this thinking further.
Mr Speaker, what this means is that we have reached an important stage in our national policy on Afghanistan.
I can advise the Parliament that the Government’s post-transition planning has formally begun.
Building on the announcements made by the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Foreign Affairs during this year.
During my visit to Afghanistan last month, President Karzai and I discussed formalising a long-term framework agreement for the future of the Australia-Afghanistan partnership.
This kind of co-operative, country-to-country approach is an important framework for our long-term plans.
We seek an enduring relationship with Afghanistan beyond 2014 as Afghanistan takes on responsibility for its own security and governance.
Taking in a broad range of bilateral activities, including a sustained development assistance program and support for Afghanistan as a fledgling democracy.
We have all worked hard to support democratic institutions and process.
The next Presidential elections in 2014 will be a test of those.
So continued electoral reform is important too.
Australia will work closely with the Afghan government and international partners to continue electoral reform and support successful and transparent presidential elections in 2014.
Good government in the country may be the work of an Afghan generation.
That, of course, is the responsibility of the Afghan Government and people.
But we can help.
While in Afghanistan, I also officially opened Australia’s new Embassy in Kabul.
A “bricks and mortar” symbol that our relationship with the people of Afghanistan will endure.
After 2014 we will continue to maintain links with Uruzgan, a province in which we have invested so much.
But our role will also have a national focus.
Substantial development assistance and an AusAID presence, including Afghanistan-based official aid personnel.
We also expect to continue defence training to continue building the capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces – and for the Australian Federal Police to keep training the Afghan National Police.
We must remain vigilant against the threat posed by al Qaeda and the groups it has inspired.
Al Qaeda and its affiliates still hold ambitions to conduct acts of terrorism in Afghanistan, the region and around the world.
We will continue our efforts in Afghanistan to ensure that the country never again becomes a safe haven and training ground for international terrorism.
Whether there is still a counter-terrorism role for the Australian Defence Force, in concert with the US and other international partners, will depend both on the security situation and on our discussions with our international partners.
The Government will keep under consideration a continued Australian Special Forces presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.
We will take a firm line on our national interest that terrorism find no safe haven in Afghanistan.
Mr Speaker, I am deeply aware – the Government, the Parliament and the nation deeply feel – the burden which is being borne by the Army, by the Australian Defence Force and by the Defence community as a whole.
In the years since 1999 we’ve asked much of this generation of our Defence Force personnel.
We ask much of their families.
We ask much of the communities they come from and the communities where they live.
And for these good people, this has been a very hard year.
As a nation, we are determined.
We know we have done good things.
As a nation, we know their price.
We know the good things we have done have come at a high cost.
There have been days of sorrow and we do not forget.
Eleven Australians have died in Afghanistan this year.
The 1st Combat Engineer Regiment lost Corporal Richard Atkinson and Sapper Jamie Larcombe in February.
The 2nd Commando Regiment lost Sergeant Brett Wood in May and Sergeant Todd Langley in July.
In May, Lance Corporal Andrew Jones of 9th Force Support Battalion and Lieutenant Marcus Case of 6th Aviation Regiment both died of wounds.
The Incident Response Regiment lost Sapper Rowan Robinson in June.
2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, lost Private Matthew Lambert in August – and then last month the Battalion also lost Lance Corporal Luke Gavin.
On the same day Captain Bryce Duffy, 4th Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, and Corporal Ashley Birt, 6th Engineer Support Regiment, were killed.
We do not forget.
Mr Speaker, I believe that the best tribute we can pay to them is to live by their example.
The example set by those who have died and by those they leave behind.
Of their service without fear.
Even in their mourning they are an example to us: these are people who stick together, these are people who see things through.
I am proud of the respect Australians show to our Defence Force – to those serving, to those who have died.
I see that on ANZAC Day and I see it on Remembrance Day, I feel it most when we hold our breath at the news that we most dread, news of new casualties from the field.
We have lost 32 Australians in our decade in Afghanistan.
They are not our only casualties.
Our wounded – and their families – have suffered terribly as well.
More than two hundred Australians have been wounded in action in Afghanistan.
Forty eight this year.
They include eighteen soldiers who were involved in improvised explosive device attacks.
Five aircrew who were wounded in a helicopter incident.
And another ten soldiers wounded in the two recent incidents at patrol bases.
Amputations, fractures, gunshot and fragmentation wounds, hearing loss.
What is called “mild traumatic brain injury” – something we will see more and more often as we learn more about how to detect and understand percussion damage from explosions.
Lacerations and contusions, concussion and traumatic brain injury, penetrating fragments and multiple severe injuries.
Many will not serve again.
Some will not walk again.
Not one will be forgotten.
Our country will recognise and respect our wounded as well as our dead.
Our country will take care of these Australians as they have taken care of us.
We will see our mission through, we will see our people through as well.
Mr Speaker, this year, I flew from Jamie Larcombe’s funeral at Kangaroo Island half way across the world to Washington DC.
I spoke about him there.
Because I wanted to be sure that his service was honoured, and through him, that of all his mates.
Not just their service and their sacrifice, but their virtues as well.
Their confidence and their resolution.
Their professionalism and their courage.
Their determination to see their mission through.
They are a sight to see.
Ours is a beautiful country – we share a continent of many great sights and last week I took President Obama to see one of our finest.
Fifteen hundred of our young people in uniform in an Air Force hangar on a steamy Darwin day.
And I never thought I’d say drinking a non-alcoholic beer was a highlight of my year.
But a good time depends on the company you keep.
And if it had to be “near-beer” last month, it was worth every drop for a chance to be near some great young Aussies in the canteen at Tarin Kot.
The job they are doing for us has not changed in twelve months.
They have made progress.
They have hard days ahead.
So do we.
Ours is a realistic people.
A people of peace, so often called to war.
We will do what is necessary.
We will defend our national interests.
We will deny terrorism a safe haven in Afghanistan.
We will stand by our ally, the United States.
We will complete our mission of training and transition.