Adam Bandt: Time to bring the troops home

Anti-war rally, Sydney, October 9.

Below are excerpts from the October 20 speech in the federal House of Representatives — part of the debate on the war in Afghanistan — by Greens member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt. The full text can be read here.

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Towards the end of last year, the [Afghan government of Hamid] Karzai passed a law which applies to the country’s minority Shi’ite population, and in particular its women. The law allows police to enforce language that sets out a wife’s sexual duties and restricts a woman’s right leave her own home … And the government that passed this law last year, Mr Speaker, is a government we are told that our soldiers should kill and die for.

It is now clear that the reasons successive governments have given to be in Afghanistan no longer stand up to scrutiny.

Mr Speaker, it is time to bring the troops home.

The Greens do not oppose the deployment in Afghanistan based on any absolute opposition to the use of military force or from any lack of commitment to our troops.

We led the call for military intervention in Timor Leste and are proud of the role our men and women played in the struggle for freedom and independence in that country.

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Already 21 young Australians soldiers have lost their lives, 10 since June this year.

That is all the more reason why we should be having this debate and all the more reason why the government should bring the troops home.

Mr Speaker, the decision to go to war is probably the most important decision we can make.

It is a decision fraught with danger and uncertainty and great consequence, for both the country and soldiers going to war and the people and country with which a war is being fought, or is being invaded … And it is for those reasons that such a momentous decision should not be left in the hands of the executive alone.

This is why the Greens asked for and secured this debate on Australia’s Afghanistan commitment as part of our agreement to support the Gillard [Labor] government.

And this is why my colleague Senator [Scott] Ludlum has put before the Senate a bill to require a decision of parliament as well as the government to underpin any deployment of troops overseas.

Mr Speaker, I can announce today that I will soon introduce the Defence Amendment (Parliamentary Approval of Overseas Service) Bill into this house.

The Greens hope that this debate can be a step towards the passage of our bill, which will mean for once and for all that in the future the Australian people through their representatives will have a say in going to war.

Mr Speaker, no one knows exactly how many people have died and been injured in the war in Afghanistan, because, in those infamous words of the US military, “we don’t do body counts”. But we do know it is in the tens of thousands.

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, in the first six months of this year casualties increased by 31% compared to 2009.

And nearly every other week there is another story of a massacre or “accidental” killing of civilians. More “collateral damage” in a war in which, like Vietnam, our troops find it hard to tell the difference between insurgents and non-insurgents.

Mr Speaker, the Afghan war has now been going for longer than nine years, almost longer than World Wars I and II combined.

The Russians learnt, to their great cost, that more than 100,000 troops backed by an Afghan government could not win against “Mujahideen”.

Mr Speaker, I know many Australians ask the legitimate question: what will happen to the population if we pull out? But there’s an alternative question: is us being there making the problem worse?

Major-General Alan Stretton, who served as Australian Chief of Staff in Vietnam and fought in World War II, Korea and Malaya, thinks so.

He says the Afghan “population now sees the war as a foreign invasion of its country.”

“In fact,” the major-general says, “the occupation is providing a reason for terrorist attacks and instead of reducing the risk to Australians is actually increasing it.”

The prime minister said this war may be the work of a generation. Well, if coalition troops are there for another decade, a whole generation of boys and girls will have grown up under occupation and we must expect all the consequences that may flow from that.

On this I think we should listen to Malalai Joya. In 2005, she was the youngest woman elected to the Afghan parliament. She condemned the warlords that overwhelmingly comprised the assembly. Now she says:

“We are in between two evils: the warlords and Taliban on one side, and the occupation on the other. … The first step is to fight against the occupation — those who can liberate themselves will be free, even if it costs our lives.”

Many have said — and it was repeated yesterday — that we need to be in Afghanistan because of al-Qaeda. But most experts agree that al-Qaeda is now operating from other countries and not Afghanistan.

General Peter Gration commanded the Australian Defence Forces from 1987 to 1993. He has reportedly described as "overblown" the Prime Minister’s claims that there are direct links between the security of Afghanistan and terrorist threats to Australians.

We now know that al-Qaeda is operating in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, but we don’t invade there.

But very few if any such terrorists are in Afghanistan.

In Gration’s words, “To say that what we are doing in Afghanistan is defending Australians is drawing a very long bow.”

Mr Speaker, another key justification and strategy of the United States and in turn the strategy of the Australian government has been to hold up the Karzai government and make it democratic.

Yet this same government is accused of widespread corruption and criminality. In fact US General David Petraeus reportedly describes the Karzai government as a "criminal syndicate", and Vice President Joe Biden has asked, "If the government's a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will the troops make a difference?"

Successive elections in Afghanistan have been marked by fraud and recently came an announcement that the latest election results have been delayed because of widespread fraud, with estimates that up to 25% of the ballots are likely to be thrown out.

The ostensible reason most often given for why we are in Afghanistan is to fight the Taliban.

But now we know there are extensive talks between the Karzai government and Taliban leader Mullah Omar and others, aimed at reconciliation and dealing them squarely into government.

While pursuing peace and reconciliation is to be commended and one hopes the process may ease or end the conflict, it somewhat undermines the claim that Taliban is the enemy that must be opposed at all costs, including the cost of taking and sacrificing lives.

And what now of the rights of the Hazaras, many of whom have sought refuge in Australia, and whose persecution under the Taliban has continued and may now become entrenched if the power sharing arrangement holds?

Mr Speaker, according to Australian defence analyst Hugh White, the real reason the Australian government has troops in Afghanistan is because the US has asked us.

This is why the Greens believe we need a relationship with the United States based on autonomy and independence.

In the words of Stretton: “Although it is important to remain an ally of the United States, this does not mean that we have to be involved in all American military excursions.”

There are good reasons to be separating our aid efforts from military activities.

The Australian Council for International Development has called for military and development activities to be decoupled. It says increased funds linked to political and military objectives makes it less likely we’ll see lasting and comprehensive community based development outcomes that will meet real needs.

The Greens believe a withdrawal of Australian military forces from Afghanistan could enable additional aid to be directed to the country, targeted in particular to civil society institutions that foster democracy, sustainable development and human rights.

Joya, the former Afghan MP, knows this. She called for all of our assistance in strengthening civil society in Afghanistan, not the occupation or the corrupt government, saying: “Education gives us hope and courage. … open the eyes and minds of the justice loving.”

While others in the world are discussing exit strategies, Australia is writing blank cheques.

More and more countries are removing their troops and we should join them.

Earlier in the year the Netherlands withdrew its troops from the province in which Australia operates, and Canada will leave next year. No one has doubted their integrity or their commitment to democracy.

And even the US and NATO have talked about a time for withdrawal, yet it seems that our prime minister and leader of the opposition are unwilling to set a date. Instead the prime minister has just committed us for another decade or more of war.

The Greens have a different view. … The Greens believe the Australian people and our defence forces should not be asked to continue this war for another decade.

And the Greens believe many people in Australia agree with us, with recent polls showing most Australians want our defence forces personnel brought safely home.

If we really want to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for terrorists, we must encourage education and help strengthen the institutions of civil society.

We must foster democracy from below, not imagine we can impose it from above down the barrel of a gun.

No matter how much the contemporary trend might be to dress it up in the garb of human rights, an invasion is an invasion, a war is a war.

It is a mistake we have made before but not yet learned from.

We owe it to our troops, the Australian people and the people of Afghanistan to adopt a different path.