Greens federal parliamentary leader Senator Bob Brown spoke in the parliamentary debate on the Australian military intervention in Afghanistan on October 25.
His speech came amidst reports of growing unease in the Australian Labor Party ranks over the conservative line being implemented by the Gillard Labor minority federal government and an associated rise in support for the Greens to a record 14%.
Senator Brown called on the government to repect the wishes of the majority of Australians and bring the Australian military contingent back home.
He said that the war in Afghanistan was getting worse.
"The death toll of civilians and ISAF personnel is rising and, extraordinarily but sensibly, the new Obama administration is now openly backing talks with moderate factions of the Taliban and other insurgent groups. I, and many other Australians, wish those talks rapid success.
"I acknowledge the complexity of the Afghan situation and the dangers of leaving this war-torn country to sort out its own affairs. But surely our job is to help Afghanistan reshape its future through civil aid rather than force of arms! I am advised that current American expenditure on the war in Afghanistan is 10 times as much as Afghanistan's Gross Domestic Product. There should be a commitment to reverse that spending imbalance."
Senator Brown dismissed PM Julia Gillard's claim that ongoing Australian military intervention was needed to prevent terrorism. He cited the assessment of the former Deputy Director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorist Centre, Paul Pillar, that the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan will not significantly increase the risk of terrorist attack against Western countries.
When Pillar was asked what difference it would make if terrorist training grounds did re-emerge in Afghanistan, he replied:
"Not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to propose. When a group has a haven it will use it for such purposes as basic training for recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the September 11, 2001 attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States."
The prepared text for Senator Brown's speech is published in full below.
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President, I welcome this debate which is a direct outcome of the increased vote Australians accorded the Greens in the August election.
It should not have waited nine years. But already out of this first Parliamentary debate on Australia's involvement in the war in Afghanistan comes one uniting and unanimous opinion. We Senators, and all members of the House of Representatives, stand in total support of our troops in Afghanistan. The 1550 members of the Australian Defence Force contingent, and our twenty-eight police trainers in Afghanistan, can be reassured that this nation is with each and every one of them all the way back to these homely shores. Regardless of political allegiance, this body politic gives the Australians in Afghanistan our thanks and our congratulations for their service at the behest of the Government and in the cause of the nation.
Yet the question which should have been regularly raised and debated in this parliament – as it has been in other parliaments around the world – is this: does it remain in our nation's best interests to keep our armed service men and women in harm's way? We owe it to our people in Afghanistan to justify the growing toll of death and injury, and their exposure to the increasing ugliness and violence of this protracted civil war. Safely in this parliament, we are required to move out of our comfort zone to, much better and more demonstrably, understand and relate to events in Afghanistan. It is our responsibility to ensure we get our service men and women out of harm's way as soon as that is prudent and feasible.
For the Greens, this justified time of withdrawal has arrived. This belated debate has drawn out the commitment of Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader Abbott to years more – the Prime Minister flagged as many as 10 years more – for Australian personnel in Afghanistan. Yet the Netherlands, after a much more detailed and engaged parliamentary debate, which in turn triggered a national election, has now taken its troops home. The Greens believe Australia should also bring its troops home.
Twenty one Australian diggers have already died. How many more will die? And for what? Hundreds more have come home physically or mentally scarred by this war and, again, I ask my fellow parliamentarians, this government and this Prime Minister, how many hundreds more will come back injured because we did not return them safely home now? Is that predictable toll justifiable? I think not.
In a moment I will turn to the prospects for Afghanistan. But first I ask another very salient question. Our troops remain in Afghanistan, but where are the men who began the war in 2001 with the objective, achieved years ago, of expelling Al Qaeda? I remember those dark post-911 times very well. The arch-criminal Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan and, with the invasion, fled, as did the medieval Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Both are still alive. But they are not in Afghanistan. Nor is Al Qaeda. They are in Pakistan. Let no one forget, there remains well founded conjecture that had President George Bush Jnr continued negotiating with Mullah Omar, the Mullah would have captured and delivered Osama bin Laden to America in 2001-02. Or, had the Americans been willing, bin Laden reportedly could have been delivered to a third country for trial even earlier. That would have made this whole bloody conflict unnecessary.
There is no conjecture that the Bush administration bungled its war strategy when, having gained control of Afghanistan in 2002, Bush invaded Iraq under the totally false premise of Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. The bellicose president withheld troops, military assets and attention from Afghanistan, while Australia, under John Howard, withdrew completely until 2005. Meanwhile, the Taliban regrouped and began to ingrain itself within Afghanistan once more. Should Australian troops, seven years later, have their lives threatened daily because of a strategic stuff-up by George Bush and John Howard?
John Howard's role of deputy sheriff, or as George Bush put it in this parliament in 2003, “a man of steel", cannot be forgotten or disregarded. Our troops are fighting in Afghanistan in 2010 because Bush, Howard and others, like Tony Blair, bungled their international ascendency in 2001-03.
And, while Australian and other allied forces, and the Afghan civil population, face an accelerating toll of death and injury this year, where are these leaders who have safely exited the stage? “I will run them down and smoke them out”, President George W Bush said. But he failed and, leaving the task to others, he is now comfortably retired at his ranch in Texas. His deputy, Dick Cheney, gives speeches to right wing think tanks in America, but not in Afghanistan or Iraq. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld infamously summed up his strategic nous with this piece of philosophy:
"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know."
Rumsfeld is also comfortably at home. In Australia, this very week, former Prime Minister Howard is publishing his memoirs – they will be launched in Canberra.
But in Kabul the war goes on. In fact, it is getting worse. The death toll of civilians and ISAF personnel is rising and, extraordinarily but sensibly, the new Obama administration is now openly backing talks with moderate factions of the Taliban and other insurgent groups. I, and many other Australians, wish those talks rapid success.
I acknowledge the complexity of the Afghan situation and the dangers of leaving this war-torn country to sort out its own affairs. But surely our job is to help Afghanistan reshape its future through civil aid rather than force of arms! I am advised that current American expenditure on the war in Afghanistan is 10 times as much as Afghanistan's Gross Domestic Product. There should be a commitment to reverse that spending imbalance.
None of us can canvas all the arguments on Australia's commitment in Afghanistan in the twenty minutes of a parliamentary speech. However, the Greens' overriding strategy is to have Australia's civil aid help build Afghanistan's economy and wellbeing, not least its schools, hospitals and transport system.
Reconciliation of Afghanistan's diverse tribal, cultural and political groupings is not assured with either the carrot or the stick. But the Prime Minister's flagging of an ongoing intervention, possibly military, possibly for ten years, is no substitute for her government's responsibility to give Australia a clear exit strategy for its service men and women. All the more so, when President Obama's very different view quoted in 'Obama's Wars' is taken into account. "I'm NOT doing ten years" Obama said, "I'm not doing long term nation building. I am not spending a trillion dollars." So President Obama is not doing ten years, but Prime Minister Gillard's got it on the table.
I welcome her commitment to an annual debate in this parliament, but I challenge Prime Minister Gillard to have a defined exit strategy for the next debate, if not sooner. I remind her that the Karzai Government is not only imperfect, it is corrupt. General Petraeus has called it a "criminal syndicate".
I also refer some recent recommendations from the Australian Council for International Development to the Prime Minister's attention. They have urged the Government to embrace a few eminently sensible suggestions with respect to our ongoing involvement in Afghanistan:
- An inquiry into all aspects of our work in Afghanistan by a committee of independent experts, resulting in recommendations to Parliament as occurred in Canada.
- Quarterly reports to Parliament detailing progress in Afghanistan, particularly in the delivery of aid. These reports should outline all of our projects and expenditure (including overseas development assistance-eligible expenditure spent outside Ausaid), how they connect with our over-arching strategy, and how their success measures up against key performance indicators. Again, this mechanism is drawn from the Canadian experience.
- Decoupling of development and military projects, to protect the impartiality and security of the former and to ensure that development work targets the most pressing development needs.
I draw the attention of the Senate to the assessment of the former Deputy Director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorist Centre, Mr Paul Pillar, that the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan will not significantly increase the risk of terrorist attack against Western countries. That, of course, includes Australia.
And when asked what difference it would make if terrorist training grounds did re-emerge in Afghanistan, the former CIA counter terrorism expert said; “Not nearly as much as unstated assumptions underlying the current debate seem to propose. When a group has a haven it will use it for such purposes as basic training for recruits. But the operations most important to future terrorist attacks do not need such a home, and few recruits are required for even very deadly terrorism. Consider: The preparations most important to the September 11, 2001 attacks took place not in training camps in Afghanistan but, rather, in apartments in Germany, hotel rooms in Spain and flight schools in the United States.”
Mr Pillar has called for a timetable for troop withdrawal.
I ask why, given these realities, should Australia's good and courageous service men and women be kept in such increasing hardship, hostility and danger?
Some tell me there is now a change of mission: we must uphold human rights by force. We must ensure that the women, children and the illiterate men of Afghanistan have their interests upheld. And what of the threatened Hazaras in this Pashtun dominated country? What of the domino effect on Pakistan if we leave Afghanistan. In Pakistan, we are told the nation's intelligence agencies are covertly backing the Taliban!
The answer is twofold. Firstly, this war was entered by the Howard Government to stimy Al Qaeda's threat of terrorism to the US and Australia. And while CIA analysts tell us Al Qaeda is not in Afghanistan, it is ensconced elsewhere. Let me cite Somalia. This failed state in East Africa is now a hotbed of Islamist violence and Al Qaeda operations, including the bombing attack in Uganda after the World Cup final. It is perhaps now the focus for terrorist training. That includes allegations of the training of young men who are Australian or who have lived in and returned from Somalia to Australia. Our own intelligence agencies are alert to this direct threat to Australia.
To the extent that humanitarian concerns motivate our involvement in Afghanistan, they also apply to the situation in Somalia. Human Rights Watch reports that "the population is subject to targeted killings and assaults, repressive forms of social control, and brutal punishments under its draconian interpretation of Sharia". Perceived transgressions are punished with beheadings, amputations, stonings and floggings. Around 3.2 million people require humanitarian assistance, and a camp near Mogadishu that shelters half a million people is now the world's densest concentration of displaced people. Yet there is not the faintest impulse by the Australian Government or opposition to join the small contingent of troops from African countries trying to return order and safety, and to rid Somalia of Islamist terrorists.
Recently, I helped an Australian photographer and a Canadian journalist escape from being shackled to the floor in Somalia where they faced death at the hands of a criminal gang.
Despite having employed their own guards, they were kidnapped on their way to visit a vast, ugly slum or refugee camp outside Somalia's capital Mogadishu, where life and safety are daily at stake for up to half a million women, children and men. The world has left them to the Sharia law of the Islamist extremists controlling Somalia. Nor has it invaded other countries, like Yemen or Algeria, where, these days, Al Qaeda or parallel terrorist groups are openly active. Should we? How can we?
The answer is that Australia, a small to moderate nation in terms of international clout, should secure its own region while offering aid through the United Nations to solve greater global problems. Except in very extraordinary cases, and Afghanistan in 2010 is not one of them, our troops should be available for Australia's immediate regional security, stability and welfare.
We do not underestimate the need for armed services to defend this nation and its neighbourhood. The Greens urged military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Timor Leste before the Howard Government decided on that justifiable deployment.
This parliament should recall that, faced with no prospect of clear victory, the ANZACs were withdrawn from Gallipoli in World War I, precisely because the justification for them remaining in Gallipoli had become less persuasive than the justification for them leaving. We honour those ANZACs no less than had they conquered the Dardanelles. So will we honour Australia's troops, brought home sooner, no less than if they had stayed a decade longer accruing casualties in the unwinnable mountains and valleys of Afghanistan.
Mr President, the opinion polls show that most Australians believe our troops should come home.
I agree and, while noting the Government and Opposition's determination, I call on Prime Minister Gillard to bring our Defence Force contingent back home to Australia.
Video: Senator Bob Brown's Afghanistan debate speech - Australian Greens