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Time to bring our troops safely home from Afghanistan

News Item
Christine Milne 4 Oct 2012

Speech to the Sydney Institute


I acknowledge that we meet here on land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

And I want to thank you and Gerard Henderson for the opportunity to return to the Sydney Institute for the first time since I became Leader of the Australian Greens. 


Friends, there is no more grave or responsible decision any country's leader ever makes than to choose to send young men and women to war to risk their lives for their country.


There is, however, one equally important decision. And that is to know when to bring them home.


Today I want to talk about Australia's ongoing combat engagement in Afghanistan where 38 young Australians have lost their lives and 241 have been officially wounded.


Those of us in the public sphere must reflect on and learn from it. We must never see war in the abstract. We must take it personally. We must feel the pain of every person lost and care and support those who live with the mental and physical wounds as a result of their efforts on our behalf.

It's only right and proper that, on the days when we hear the tragic news of another young Australian life lost in Afghanistan, Parliament is sombre and grim.  But is it responsible to automatically conclude that honouring those who have given their lives is best achieved by "staying the course?"


Surely we must honour them by reflecting deeply on why weare at war, whether it remains the right course, and whether we couldn't save more lives and make the world a safer and better place by bringing the rest of our soldiers safely home whilst transitioning our support to a humanitarian plan.


In the case of Afghanistan, we have no clear articulation of why we are there; too many of our soldiers are dying, too often in "green on blue" attacks by the soldiers with whomthey are training or patrolling; Afghan civilians are dying; the situation is not improving significantly either militarily or in civil society; and other Coalition partners like the Netherlands, Canada and France are pulling out.


Surely we have a duty to ask: why are putting young lives at risk, why are we still there? What is the difference between now, October 2012, and 2014 in terms of outcomes in Afghanistan? It is hard to escape the conclusion that we are just waiting for instruction from Washington and have no answers of our own. What is our reaction to news this weekthat NATO is considering an earlier withdrawal? Doesn't that make our justification look increasingly threadbare?


Retired Major John Cantwell, our former commander in Afghanistan, has recently posed the hard question in his deeply moving book, Exit Wounds.



"Is it worth it? I recall sitting in my office one day in 2010, soon after a repatriation ceremony for another dead Australian soldier. With me was one of the senior officers on my staff. We looked at each other and I said, 'You know what, mate? I'd never say this in front of the troops, but I'm starting to wonder if these deaths are worth it.'

My colleague replied, 'You're not the only one asking that question, boss.'

Some will argue that the men and women we send to war are all volunteers, who know the risks and take them willingly. Others will say that casualties are the unavoidable cost of doing business in a combat zone. There is an argument that says the lives of a few sometimes need to be expended for a greater good. Another line of reasoning takes the grand-strategic view of international affairs, putting the case that Australia - a relative minnow in terms of military might, albeit a well-trained and reasonable well-equipped minnow - has no choice but to maintain strong bonds with a large and powerful friend, the United States. That friendship sometimes demands reciprocal payments, in the form of going to war and spending some lives. A cold, clear-eyed analysis of these claims tells me that they are all true, much as it pains me to admit it.

But these arguments only work at the intellectual level. They do not make sense at the human level, the level at which every life is precious, where each dead soldier is someone and not just a number. These men had parents, sisters, brothers, partners and children who loved them. They all had dreams and hopes and potential.

These were the thoughts that ran through my head as I stood, time after time, in the morgue in the UAE. How could any of these lives be forfeited? What measure of success in the campaign to fight the Taliban and build Afghanistan's army could possibly warrant the grim procession of dead men that I supervised? I know, absolutely, that the men who died in Afghanistan were doing what they loved, with mates they respected, for a cause - rejecting extremism, denying terrorism, helping a needy people - which is honourable. I also know that advances have been made in training the Afghan National Army and improving security in Uruzgan province; some of the people of the province also have an improved quality of life. But will our efforts, no matter how impressive locally, significantly influence the myriad problems afflicting the government and people of Afghanistan? Ten years from now, will anyone in Afghanistan remember that Australians shed blood for them? For a man like me, a lifetime soldier inculcated with a sense of duty and service, these are difficult questions to confront.

In the prologue to this book, I wrote that such thoughts seemed disrespectful, even treasonous. But the fundamental question has continued to gnaw at me: is what we have achieved in Afghanistan worth the lives lost and damaged?

Today, I know the answer - it is no. It's not worth it. I cannot justify any one of the Australian lives lost in Afghanistan."


I am glad John Cantwell has given the Australian community the opportunity to try to understand what it is like to be involved in war. I am glad he has had the courage to speak about his own struggles with post traumatic stress disorder, to give us some insight into what war can do a person, and to give his perspective on our continued engagement in Afghanistan. If we do not listen to people like John Cantwell, or learn from the history of the British and Russian experiencethen we will continue to make the same mistakes.


Australia withdrawing from combat in Afghanistan does notdetract from the courage and service our soldiers have given. The failures in Afghanistan, particularly the decision to withdraw and invade Iraq, are to be laid at the feet of political leaders, not soldiers. It is a question of strategy , not tactics on the ground.


In the wars of the 21st Century it is not the bigger battalion that is guaranteed victory. Nor is it necessarily superior technology. Our ongoing presence in Afghanistan will not see the Taliban gone in the near future and certainly not by 2014.  


In fact the continuation of military presence has united so many otherwise antagonistic groups against us, entrenching the divide between the government and so called opposition and further eroding trust. We are not just fighting the Taliban, we are fighting anyone who picks up a gun and shoots at us. We are fighting a resistance to foreign occupation.


Australia's foreign policy engagement in Afghanistan should be based on dialogue, diplomacy, cooperation, and an ongoing and funded humanitarian plan, not aggression.


That is not to say that there are not occasions in other circumstances when military action may be necessary to further the goal of peace when justified under international law.


The Australian Greens called for the Australian military to be deployed in East Timor to save the lives of some of our nearest neighbours, after decades of Greens supporting and advocating for an end to the repression of the East Timorese and for their independence.  The Greens have supported other military interventions that have taken place under UNauspices.


The Greens did not oppose Australia joining military action under the auspices of the United Nations in Afghanistan in 2001 following the horrific September 11 2001 attacks. Likeso many others, we hoped that a swift military intervention, under the auspices of the United Nations, to capture and bring to justice the leaders of Al Qaida, could help make the world a safer place and prevent the loss of many more lives.


However, over the past decade that we have been at war in Afghanistan and Iraq and then back in Afghanistan, the purpose for which we have sent our men and women to risk their lives has shifted, the understanding of what we can achieve has changed and the outcome that will enable our soldiers to come home has become more and more unclear.Mission creep with no clear outcome is the result.


As Major General Cantwell, has recently said: "we need to have a crystal clear understanding of why we're getting into fight, how long for, what we hope to achieve, how we will leave, and what conditions might prompt us to change strategy - this has let us down in Afghanistan. Human beings die as a result of warfare."


The horrors of war are many. Men and women die, are injured both physically and scarred mentally, there is an ongoing trauma that affects family and our broader community. The Greens are aware of the harm of war and have been raising in parliament over a number of years concerns about the care and medical attention, including mental health services, afforded our returned soldiers.


This all too human cost is why the Greens believe that UN mandated military action should be a last resort and that furthermore that the decision to commit soldiers to foreign conflicts must be taken after a proper public debate.


From the very beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan the Australia Greens called for a parliamentary debate on our deployment. It was 9 years from when the Government of John Howard first committed our forces in September 2001 until the Australian Parliament officially debated our deployment in Afghanistan in October 2010.


Our nation's parliamentarians finally debated the war after the Greens made such a debate part of our agreement with the Prime Minister to form Government after the 2010 election. It is quite extraordinary that we could have been at war for the better part of a decade without all our democratically elected representatives having the opportunity to explain their reasoning to the people through the parliament.



We need much greater accountability for deployment powers. We need to take care in the choice of situations into which we put our troops , take care of them when they are on mission and when they're back.


For this reason my colleague Senator Ludlam has introduced a Bill before the Senate - the 'War Powers' Bill- which is a decades-old piece of unfinished business, first introduced by the Australian Democrats in the 1980s and carried forward by the Australian Greens. The bill calls for parliamentary approval before a government sends Australian troops to war.It would safeguard us from betraying fundamental principles around the law and respect for human rights.


It is now routine in democracies around the world to subject the war power to a democratic process. It is enshrined in the United States Constitution for example.


The parliamentary debate in 2010 gave our political leaders the opportunity to clearly outline the reasons Australia continues to be militarily engaged in Afghanistan and the circumstances that will see the end of our engagement.


In that Debate on the Prime Minister Julia Gillard cited two 'vital national interests' for Australia's involvement in Afghanistan: make sure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists, a place where attacks on us and our allies begin, stand firmly by our alliance commitment to the United States, formally invoked following the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.


Other reasons presented for our continued involvement include nation building, that is turning Afghanistan into a democratic nation, and protecting women and children who were brutally oppressed under the Taliban.


I want to address each of these rationales in turn and whether they provide sufficient justification to keep Australian soldiersin such dangerous and deadly circumstances.


Australian Forces were originally sent to assist in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida networks after September 11. In terms of al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden is now dead and al-Qaida now spreads from the Pakistan/ Afghanistan border region, across the Gulf via Yemen into East Africa and north into Syria.


The argument is now, as the Defence Minister maintained as recently as 23 September, that the mission in Afghanistan is necessary to stop the country from again becoming a haven for terrorists. So we stay in Afghanistan to stop terrorists,moving back there from where they are now operating in Pakistan or North Africa or closer to home. The fact is thatterrorism by its nature is fluid.


As a Pakistani Intelligence officer said


"Pakistan and Afghanistan will still be neighbours long after the international community has its fill and leaves the region. The Taliban, or their successors, will also be here when you all go home...that is the reality we deal with."  Senior Member of Directorate for Inter Services Intelligence, ISI,P276


The Bali bombings and the attack in London in July 2005 were like September 11 unforgivable acts of violence from which many people continue to suffer.


We must ask ourselves, is our continuing combat engagement in Afghanistan an appropriate and reasoned response to these acts of violence?  Will our continued presence in Afghanistan stop or even hinder global terrorist networks?


The Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper who brought the majority of Canadian troops home in 2011 thinks not. He has said that Afghanistan "does not represent a geostrategic risk to the world. It is no longer a source of global terrorism.''


Geoffrey Barker, a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU and defence and foreign-affairs columnist for the Australian Financial Review argues that "if our mission is about preventing terrorist strikes on Australia then it does not require its soldiers to "stare down" insurgent tribesmen in Afghanistan. It requires astute police, security and intelligence agencies to pre-empt and defeat threats."


The mission has morphed over time into a nation-building mission.  I want to acknowledge the good works that have been and are being undertaken by the ADF, including the building of schools and health care facilities and other vital infrastructure and I will discuss later our on-going role in delivering aid to Afghanistan.


Part of our nation building exercise is to train the security forces of the Afghan National Army  - a project that by all accounts Australian soldiers have been undertaking effectively.


However, this is now being undermined by the so-called "green on blue attacks


There have been 53 Coalition fatalities this year from green on blue attacks. Protecting our soldiers must be the first priority.


The NATO command, suspended joint operations with Afghan forces below battalion level after three blue and green attacks killed 6 ISAF personnel on 15 and 16 September. ISAF began lifting those restrictions recently and our Defence Minister requested Australian forces be allowed to continue joint patrols cautioning us to "steel ourselves for more casualties".


The need to appoint "guardian angel" with loaded magazines everywhere at meal times, in the gym and at the mentoring sessions demonstrate the lack of trust and given a leaked NATO  document from earlier this year underlining the lack of trust between the Afghan people, security forces and the Coalition troops, it is not going to be strengthened any time soon.


Afghan National Army will not be ready to take over in Oruzgan by 2014. Professor Clive Williams, former defence analyst says, "The governor of the province is well known for corruption, while the local police chief is paid by Australia to protect its convoys and so to some extent he is in league with the Taliban."


Today, former Australian Army chief Peter Leahy, in the light of NATO noises about an earlier withdrawal has added his voice saying  "Rather than any predetermined end state in Afghanistan, the withdrawal of Coalition forces is timed to coincide with political events and worsening economic conditions in foreign capitals."


How can Australians take our ongoing involvement seriously when the rationale for risking young lives is to improve the security forces in Afghanistan while at the same time we don't trust them and we can't work with them?


The withdrawal strategy of Australia and the other remaining ISAF contributing nations is based on training Afghan forces so they are capable of providing security on their own. I understand that as of April 2012, only 7% of Afghan army units were rated as fully capable, that is able to provide security on their own.  The likelihood of further green on blue attacks and suspension of joint operations in response to such attacks calls this strategy into question.


As  Peter Leahy has said,"There goes the exit strategy. Now it looks like, Going, ready or not"


So is it in our national interest to stay? 


The United Kingdom has decided it no longer is. UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said recently in an interview were he also suggested the UK withdrawal could speed up in 2013 that  "We have to be clear why we came here in the first place. I believe very clearly that if we are going to ask British troops to put themselves in the firing line, we can only do that to protect UK vital national security interests. We can ask troops who are here to help build a better Afghanistan, but we cannot ask them to expose themselves to risk for those tasks. We can only ask them to expose themselves to risk for Britain's national security, which is what they signed up to do."


I note following the NATO decision to suspend joint patrols, with no consultation with British Command, following recent green on blue attacks that the British Prime Minister David Cameron has plans for a full-scale cabinet-level review of British policy in Afghanistan. At my most recent meeting with the Prime Minister, I asked her to bring forward the Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan and to conduct a similar cabinet level review. 


The building of a better Afghanistan is a task primarily for the Afghan people. John Cantwell told ABC Radio National last week - "I think it's a very noble and brave and courageous experiment, but I think it's also not going to end well... we are deluding ourselves if we think we're going toturn Afghanistan into some little democracy, some gleaming bastion of Westernised ideas in that part of the world. It's just not going to happen."


And it is not happening. The Karzai government, in the words of Peter Hartcher "is one of the most outrageously corrupt regimes on the planet." Just one statistic demonstrates the magnitude of the problem. Last year the amount of declared cash leaving the country was $4.6b billion in a country whose national budget is $4.8 billion. The Wikileaks cables release in 2010 showed the extent of the corruption at all levels of government in Afghanistan., not to mention the land deals and investments in Afghanistan and Dubai by the Kazai family.


But what about the plight of women and children in Afghanistan.


The oppression of women and girls by the Taliban was used as a justification for the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and is often cited as a reason for the continued international presence in the country. However, the situation of women and girls in Afghanistan remains dire. Afghan women are neither secure nor safe. Many women experience violence and exclusion in Afghanistan's political, economic and social reconstruction.


We have all been shocked by images of the killing and torture of women by the Taliban not only recently but over the years.


I cannot speak for the women of Afghanistan, I think it is imperative that they speak for themselves and that the international community listens.


Malalai Joya, a long time women's activist and former parliamentarian complicates the simple narrative that Western military forces can bring peace and democracy to a nation. She says, "In Afghanistan, democratically minded people have been struggling for human and women's rights for decades. Our history proves that these values cannot be imposed by foreign troops".


The recent execution of a woman accused of adultery in Afghanistan that was captured on video and received worldwide attention highlights the need for sustained pressure on the Afghan Government to respect and uphold women's rights. The execution took place in a village just one hour's drive away from the government in the capital, Kabul.


Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi, Deputy Speaker of the Afghan parliament is an outspoken advocate for women's rights and said the following about the execution: "You bring a woman, and she is very defenceless, you bring her out and you kill herin front of everybody, and people cheer it and say 'Allah Akbar'. This is not part of our identity but rather an important phenomenon of war. It is an imported element of war."


She went on to say "To reduce this kind of violence, we need to have strong commitments from the government, which is not there. We don't see perpetrators of human rights violation being put on trial and receiving the required punishment they are supposed to receive." Often they are associated with the police chiefs and security forces we are mentoring.


The systematic and institutionalized discrimination of women needs to be challenged to create a democratic society. Yet after all these years of foreign intervention, only nine of the 70 members on the High Peace Council are women and women's rights increasingly appear to be negotiable in political deals.  


In March 2012 President Karzai endorsed a 'code of conduct' issued by an influential council of clerics which activists say represents a giant step backward for women's rights, for example it allows husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances and encourages segregation of the sexes.


A March 2012 Human Rights Watch report says hundreds of Afghan women are in jail for so-called moral crimes that include running away from domestic abuse or forced marriage. About 400 women and girls are being held in Afghan jails for crimes that also include having sex outside marriage.


Amnesty International says women experience more insecurity and risk of violence than during the Taliban era.


What is more the civilian casualty rate in Afghanistan is rising. The UN states that in the first six months of 2012, conflict-related violence resulted in 3,099 civilian casualties. The number of Afghan women and children killed in 2011 increased from 2010. Approximately319,000 Afghans remain internally displaced, roughly one-third due to the current conflict.


War has a brutalising effect on a nation and its peoples.


Now we come to the other primary reason cited by the Prime Minster as to why Australian soldiers are still in Afghanistan - our military alliance with the United States.


Afghanistan is the latest of a series of US-led conflicts Australia has engaged in since World War 2. There is no question Australia is a nation that has proven its value as anally to the US. Prime Minster Howard invoked the ANZUS treaty for the first time since it was enacted in response to the September 11 attack. We then found ourselves diverted into the Iraq conflict, a war the Greens along with the majority of Australians passionately opposed.  


The question we must keep asking is what is in Australia's national interest? Many other nations have decided it is no longer in their national interest to continue in Afghanistan.

The Dutch and Canadians have withdrawn already. France is leaving this year. New Zealand is committed to withdrawing next year. The UK, along with Spain, Poland and Belgium, are starting to withdraw troops with the UK now considering an accelerated withdrawal.


At one level we could argue that we have fulfilled our obligations to the alliance with a decade long war but our continued engagement in Afghanistan, while so many other countries are leaving, raises other questions of the contemporary nature of the US alliance at a time of increasing focus on our region of the world and the growth of China. We are not the Deputy Sheriff of the USA.


For the first time in our history as a nation, we are physically located in the right place at the right time. Australia is in a brilliant position to play a globally constructive role in the Asian century.


I am looking forward to Ken Henry's report into the Asian Century. I am also keen to see the 2013 Defence White paper which I hope takes much more seriously the role of development aid, capacity building and the impacts of climate change and displacement of people for our defence and security environment. But I do question what messages we are sending the nations in our region about our independence in foreign policy terms with our unquestioning agreement to host US military bases on our soil.


The Australian Greens want Australia to have a robust independent foreign policy which at its core means evaluating our foreign policy and defence decisions in terms of what is best for Australia, not through the lens of other nations. Our relationship with the United States is an important factor in that consideration but for too long it has seemed to be the dominant factor.

In a recent speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute,Defence Minister Stephen Smith reminded the audience that "Our most basic strategic interest must continue to be the defence of Australia against direct armed attack". If this logic guides us on Afghanistan it is clearly time to bring our troops home. Our defence forces should be available for Australia's immediate regional security, stability and welfare.


The Australian Greens are not alone in our calls to withdraw the troops. According to an Essential Poll taken on 10 September this year 62% of Australians believe our troops should be withdrawn. The commitment to Afghanistan between 2009 to the present has been much less popular than the Vietnam conflict at any time between 1965 and 1970.


Public support for the war in Afghanistan is collapsing NATO member countries. The German Marshall Fund of the United States transatlantic trends survey interviewed people in the US, and 12 European countries in June this year. 53% of Europeans and 44% of Americans favour the immediate withdrawal of all troops.


According to a poll conducted in late 2010 by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic Research nearly 60 per cent of Afghan civilians want all the foreign soldiers gone within a year and forty per cent would still want the foreigners out even if their departure meant that the violence got worse.


On all accounts it is time to leave.


Despite the talk of "staying the course", in reality Australia is already preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan. As I mentioned before along with the US our government has set an arbitrary date of 2014 to withdraw the majority of ourcombat troops while we will continue to maintain Special Forces troops indefinitely.  


What is special or strategic about 2014? No one in the Australian government can answer that question and it is wrong to risk one life without a convincing answer.


We should be accelerating the withdrawal of our troops including our Special Forces who should not continue to risk their lives in this conflict. As Greg Sheridan, The Australian's Foreign Editor has recently argued "The Australian soldiers left in Afghanistan can no longer do anything of the remotest strategic use. They are magnificent soldiers who have done everything asked of them. We owe it to them now not to get them killed needlessly."


Clearly withdrawing from such a commitment is no easy task and will take months. There are questions of what we do with all the equipment and how we clean up the areas we have been occupying for so long.


The withdrawal of our forces does not mean we abandon Afghanistan. It is time to end our military engagement and focus our assistance through aid.


Given the corruption I mentioned earlier, aid is not an easy task either. My colleague Lee Rhiannon has established aSenate Inquiry looking into the administration, management and objectives of Australia's overseas development programs in Afghanistan in the context of the 'Transition Decade'. The inquiry is the first independent review of Australia's "whole of government" aid program in Afghanistan. There is some concern in the aid community that with the drawdown of troops nations' will also reduce their aid.


The Australian Government has committed overseas development assistance to Afghanistan until at least the end of this decade. It is now incumbent upon us to make sure our aid is used effectively, which is why the Senate inquiry is important.  


Various scenarios are being discussed in the international community of what happens to Afghanistan after 2014. Whether the Afghan Government can continue as it is, the role of the Taliban and whether they are brought into the system of government or remain a dangerous insurgency, or whether the country will descend into civil war.


These are not matters Australia can directly solve. Our responsibility is to our national interest and the safety of our armed forces. I want to reiterate that our call to bring our troops home to safety does not reflect in any way on the soldiers themselves or the tasks they are undertaking on our behalf.


Senator Ludlam on his return from Afghanistan noted that our forces are "a focused, professional, task-driven organisation and the people at the sharpest end of it spent their lives training to be sent into harm's way. They are completely, unambiguously aware of the risk" and I would add, and they do it selflessly on our behalf.


We must never be careless with that commitment. It is not the task of the military to decide the strategy; where they fight ,that is the duty and responsibility of our political leaders as it is to decide when it is time to stop.


The Greens believe that time for Australia to withdraw has well and truly arrived. We must give Afghanistan back to the Afghan people and help them build stability and human rights as only they can do it. As pledged in Chicago in May and Tokyo in July Australia will continue to help Afghanistan with training, equipment and financial support conditional upon the Afghan government working against corruption and violence. Peaceful mediation and institution building will be slow and may never achieve the desired outcomes but they stand a better chance of success than armed occupation.


It is time to respect, thank and support our troops by bringing them home as soon as can be achieved safely and to offerthem all the support we can once they are back because for them this war has been personal and long.


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