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Aghanistan debate


Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (20:22): I would also like to add my comments to those of my colleagues and acknowledge the 32 Australian soldiers who travelled to Afghanistan and did not return; the 213 wounded Australian service men and women who, unlike those who died in the line of duty in Afghanistan, are acknowledged in this place too rarely and have become the forgotten victims of the war; the more than 2,700 coalition casualties in this war that has now lasted longer than that first and second world wars combined; the nearly 9,000 civilian dead in Afghanistan over the last four years alone; and the 320,000 Afghan civilians displaced because of a war that they did not ask for. In particular I want to pay tribute to those who flee, those who take the extraordinarily risky and dangerous journey that was not of their choosing and those who manage after a difficult journey filled with many dangers to reach Australian shores. I hope that we can acknowledge in the course of this debate that the least we can do to cope with the consequences of a war that we helped initiate on the other side of the world is look after those who flee from it.

We heard Senator Abetz, when he opened the debate, say real progress is being made. I wonder how many government and coalition senators in the course of this debate simply dusted off the same speeches that they gave earlier this year or speeches that they might have given five years ago and just read them in again, because the justifications do not appear to have changed and the platitudes do not appear to have changed-real progress is being made. Perhaps we can add that 2011 is going to be the decisive year in the conduct of this war, until we go back and look at what military officials have been saying about the Afghan conflict since the beginning. In 2004 General Barno said 'Without question this is a decisive year in Afghanistan.' In 2005 General Abuzaid said, 'I think this can be the decisive year.' In 2006 General Richards said, 'This will be the crunch year for the Taliban.' Guido Westerwelle, who is the German Minister for Foreign Affairs, said '2011 will be the decisive year.' David Miliband, the UK foreign minister said it last year. General McChrystal said in 2008, 'We are knee deep in the decisive year.' When exactly will this conflict be decided?

It is good for the MPs who speak in favour of this war because you will find, as I and my colleagues on the crossbenches have discovered, that if you oppose this war as an elected Australian parliamentarian there is nothing you can do about it in here. These decisions are made by the executive, not by the parliamentarians. It is wonderful that Senator Johnston, who has taken a keen interest as shadow spokesperson in these issues for many years, is dealing with the issues of clothing, food, airlift and so on. But if he one day realises that this war is pure folly, as we believe it is, there will not be a thing that he can do about it because these parliamentarians, our colleagues on both sides of this house, do not have the power. The decision is made by the Prime Minister and the executive.

I believe, as many of my colleagues do and as the Australian Democrats before us did, that that needs to change, as it has in most other modern democracies. The parliament is not called on to make the strategic decisions about the conduct of the war or the tactical decisions that govern the fighting from day to day, but the political decision about whether we should be there in the first place and when is an appropriate time to leave should be made by those who have to look our constituents in the eye. I wonder how politicians who have spoken so far in both chambers in this debate look in the eye the 64 per cent or thereabouts of Australians who think they have had enough and that this should in fact be concluded. Sixty four per cent of Australians-twice as many as it was over the last couple of years-have realised as this war simmered away in the background that in fact the death toll is higher every year. If things are going so well, as we have heard this evening, how come the death toll and the toll of wounded, in particular the toll of injury and death from those who we are meant to be supporting, is now much greater than before? Why are our allies killing us in Afghanistan? It is because we are not wanted there. When I hear Senator Abetz or others say that real progress is being made, I cannot help but wonder: progress towards what? Senator Abetz talks about the importance of sacrifices being made and I wonder: sacrifices by who exactly?

The context is that the Dutch have left and many other countries with whom we shared the enormous burdens of our service men and women in Afghanistan have either gone or have had debates that had more teeth than the one we are experiencing tonight, and have experienced over the course of the last year or two in this parliament, and chosen to go. They have had enough. We realise of course that perhaps you could be forgiven for thinking that Oruzgan is the whole of the country and that, if Australia takes care of our little patch, continues to build trust, continues to build schools and infrastructure and continues to do the best we can to keep people safe, somehow the situation is unfolding in a like way around the country. Of course, that is not the case. The United States government is in the process now of contemplating a major shift of posture which will take them exactly to where the Soviets were. They will be moving people out of Oruzgan and they will be concentrating on population centres and major road and transport corridors in Helmand, Kandahar and in Kabul, which is what the Soviet Union did-try and hold the big cities, try and hold the infrastructure and let the country cope as best it can. That is what is happening here. As Australian parliamentarians we need to realise that the war is about to enter an extremely dangerous phase. This talk of progress being made is illusory.

Why, you might wonder, 2014? That is the date we heard when President Obama addressed this parliament last week. It was a remarkably uncritical address that canvassed the fact that, with Afghanistan and Iraq out of the way, the United States can shift its assets to the Asia-Pacific region and continue peace-building initiatives in our corner of the world. But really, why 2014? I have not heard any analysis in any corner of the debate here in Australia. There has certainly been no mention of it tonight. I wonder whether it has anything at all to do with the fact that it is the year the trans-Afghanistan pipeline is due to be completed, which for the first time will get gas from Central Asia to India and to the coast without recourse to Russia or former Soviet satellite states. That was something that the US government was in the middle of negotiating with the Taliban before the Taliban hitched their wagon to Osama bin Laden. Before the horrific attacks on New York City and Washington the US government was quite happily negotiating with the Taliban over access rights for that pipeline.

That appears to have suffered a 10-year hiatus, but I am informed that everything is now on track for completion in 2014. Isn't that an extraordinary coincidence? What are we really there for?

We discover again the enormous value of the whistleblowers, publishers and journalists involved in the WikiLeaks organisation and those news organisations around the world that have chosen to publish material that shows what our leaders really think is very different to what we hear in contexts like this-that is, that there is enormous pessimism in NATO forces and Western capitals around the world. But of course this is not allowed to seep through to the public because the polls are bad enough as it is.

A number of MPs have mentioned women, Senator Johnston in particular. It is wonderful to hear the plight of women used as the justification for a military invasion and it is good that people care about such things. But we know that Afghanistan is now the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman because that survey has been done. The aid agencies working inside Afghanistan know this very well. In June this year a Trust Law report found that violence, dismal health care and brutal poverty make Afghanistan the world's most dangerous country for women. Ten years after the first bombers and the first ground forces went in it is the most dangerous country for women overall and the worst in three of six risk categories of health, non-sexual violence and lack of access to economic resources. I am dusting off some older material from a speech that I read earlier this year because it does not seem to be getting through.

I do not want hear these justifications or these extraordinary platitudes by people on the other side of the world in safe offices that if we just stay the job will get done. An extraordinary American peace activist, Kathy Kelly, who put herself on the front line-she was in Baghdad for 'shock and awe' and she has spent a huge amount of time in Afghanistan talking to people-has said:

One way to stop the next war is to continue to tell the truth about this one.
That is what the Australian Greens will continue to do until it is over.





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