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Debate on Afghanistan

Speeches in Parliament
Sarah Hanson-Young 27 Oct 2010

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (6.15 pm)-

I rise to take note of the Prime Minister's statement on Afghanistan. I have been looking forward to participating in this debate for quite some time. Of course, the Greens have argued for many years that we needed to hold a discussion and a debate in both chambers of this parliament-that parliamentarians needed to be directly engaged with the conversation and discussion about whether we should continue our presence in Afghanistan. I would like to support the Greens leader, Senator Brown, in his contribution to this debate and to reinforce the Greens' position that we really should not have gone to war without this chamber and the other chamber-our parliamentarians, the elected members of our Australian communities in our Australian parliament-discussing and debating the deployment of our troops.

Before I go on to the reasons why I believe it is time to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan and look at the reasons why we need to be doing more in relation to civilian aid, I would firmly like to stipulate that this debate is not about the job that our troops are doing. This is a debate about whether our brave Australian men and women need to be there at all, through the military forces. My respect and value for our defence forces is absolute. I have many friends and family who have fought in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Thankfully, none of them have been seriously injured. I have one friend, in particular, who is waiting for the green light to go. Of course, his family are dreading the day he departs, and many Australian families right around the country would concur with the feelings of my friend's family-his girlfriend, his mother, his father and his sister. This is not a question about the ability of our brave men and women. It is not a question about their courage or their commitment. This is about Australia's ongoing role in Afghanistan in a war that, until now, our nation's parliament has not been able to debate.

This is our 10th year of conflict, and everything we are seeing today facing the Afghan population points to the question: what is it that we have actually achieved? Have we ensured that women are able to live without fear and that children are safe and able to attend schools? Have we improved what is the highest maternal mortality rate in the world? No, we have done none of these things.

Let us look at the hard realities of a country ravished by conflict. Every 30 minutes an Afghan woman dies during childbirth; 87 per cent of Afghan women are illiterate; just 30 per cent of girls in Afghanistan have access to education; one in three Afghan women experience violence, physical or sexual; 44 years is the average life expectancy rate for women in Afghanistan; and 70 to 80 per cent of women in Afghanistan are forced into marriage. With the statistics that I have just mentioned, it is clear that one of the key reasons the investment in Afghanistan has not improved the lives of Afghans is that we have not been focused on dealing with the issues at the local level. We have to remember that this is a war that even the experts tell us is an unwinnable conflict-that, rather, we should be looking at how we can work better to empower the population of Afghanistan to overcome the embedded disadvantage and discrimination. And that, the experts tell us- the NGOs, the human rights organisations and former military personnel-cannot be achieved through a continued military presence.

Everything that we have seen for the last 10 years has shown that you cannot deliver effective, empowering community development through civil aid that is delivered through a military presence. All of the statistics that I have pointed to have not been dealt with because of our military presence-in fact, they have worsened in many places because of the conflict. It should be noted that an estimated 42 per cent of the Afghan population live below the poverty line, and there has been an increase of 31 per cent in civilian deaths just in the first six months of this year alone in comparison to the numbers this time last year. We are not winning. We are not achieving the outcomes that many people would like us to believe. These statistics are reflected by our own realities of the injuries and death toll of our own defence forces and, unfortunately, we have seen them increase alongside the increase of civilian deaths.

So what are the reasons? Let us just pinpoint them. What are the reasons and the arguments behind Australia's continued engagement in Afghanistan? The most common argument is that it is of counterterrorism. Second to that is the reason of stabilising Afghanistan, which is generally linked more to humanitarian efforts.

The final reason is simply that of our continued alliance with the US. It is clear that the arguments for why we are there now are very different to the reasons we were told we needed to go 10 years ago. When you consider that this is Australia's longest war and that the Prime Minister has asserted that we could be in Afghanistan for another decade, we must look at the grim reality of our commitment. Twenty-one Australian soldiers have lost their lives, 10 of them since June. There have been over 2,100 international military fatalities-but that, of course, excludes the private security contractors, which we know would increase that number significantly. The total civilian casualties between 2007 and 2010 alone are estimated to be in excess of 7,000. I guess we need to reflect on the information that was released through the WikiLeaks website only recently in relation to the unknown civilian deaths that were accounted for in the Iraq War. While we are looking at the awful number of 7,000, we must remember that that is most likely a very, very conservative figure.

When you consider that each year combatant and civilian casualties are on the rise, I think it is time for us to step back and wonder. When we have statistics that only 30 per cent of Afghan girls can access education, when the maternal mortality rate in Afghanistan is the highest in the world and when 80 per cent of Afghan women are forced into marriages, what are we really achieving? Are things going so well?

We must remember that we are on a combative mission; we are not there as peacekeepers. If after 10 years our mission has indeed changed and is now to assist Afghanistan with its urgent developmental needs and to engage its communities to overcome this disadvantage and to overcome the discrimination, particularly against women and girls, then our engagement must reflect this reality. It is clear that we must boost our civil aid and diplomacy efforts to address the serious developmental issues that Afghanistan currently faces, but this should not in any way be seen as being able to be delivered or having to be delivered through our military engagement. In fact, all the statistics and all of the expert evidence show that, when you try to deliver civil aid through military force, in fact what you do is disempower communities. The schools that are built through that military operation end up becoming, as they have in Afghanistan, targets for terrorism. So why would people send their kids to that school? Why would you let your daughter go to that school when that school is a target of terrorism because it has been put there as part of the military operations? These are the realities of the things that we are doing but are not doing so well because they are cloaked in the military presence.

The Australian Council for International Development has recently calculated that Australia's military spending on Afghanistan outstrips our aid expenditure by a factor of 10. So, if we want to get real about helping the Afghan people and dealing with disadvantage and discrimination, we need to start putting some rebalance into the types of efforts that we have in Afghanistan: boosting civil aid and ensuring that we can engage with the local communities and give them some ownership of the projects that we are funding. If we are serious about investing in Afghanistan to improve the lives of Afghan people then we need to ensure that aid is directed to the community, not to the military- whose deployment, we must remember, is largely a combative one.

The Executive Director of Oxfam Australia, Andrew Hewitt, recently argued that many of the developmental projects underway in Afghanistan have been implemented with military money or through military dominated structures that often do not have sufficient community involvement to make them sustainable.

They are considered quick wins-quick projects with quick impact. They are not being supported as sustainable institutions and sustainable infrastructure, either social or community. This, of course, is no criticism of the Australian Defence Force-it is not their role; it is not what they have been sent there to do-but it is a simple acknowledgement that the military are not designed to do this community-level work. The quick impact nature of many of the projects that have been embarked on means that they are not designed to achieve lasting change.

This war, we have been told, is not winnable. We have already heard that from several voices on various sides of the chamber in the last week. We have heard that from the military experts. We have heard that from former military personnel. We hear that from the various different organisations engaged on the ground in Afghanistan. The mission that we embarked on is not winnable. If we are serious about helping the Afghan people to overcome disadvantage and discrimination and ensuring that we can deliver lasting change, we need to change our strategy.

In 2009, a study by the Afghan Ministry of Education and the World Bank found that schools supported and constructed by military forces were perceived by local Afghans to be at much higher risk of being attacked than the civilian-constructed schools. When we look at those statistics-only 30 per cent of Afghan girls going to school-we need to think about why that is. Yes, the infrastructure in many of those communities is not there. Yes, the teachers have not got the training. Yes, we need to invest in those communities and those education systems. Yes, we need a boost in civil aid to do that. Yes, we need to engage with the local non-profit and non-government organisations to do that. Yes, we need to engage with the experts. But we need to learn that delivering these quick-fix, quick impact measures through the military deployment is not achieving success. We may have schools built, but there are no kids there, and the kids that are there are often targeted because of the impact. You cannot deliver long-lasting community social change through a combat military presence. History has taught us that, and what has been going on in the last 10 years in Afghanistan is teaching us that. We need to heed those warning signs. We need to be focusing on long-term solutions, not quick fixes or bandaid solutions. We need measures that address Australia's role in helping the Afghan people directly.

As I said at the outset, this debate is not about doubting the amazing, brave, good job that our troops are doing in Afghanistan. My heart goes out to them and to their families, who are here waiting for them to come home. This is not about questioning their courage, their bravery or their commitment. This is about saying that, as the arm of parliament that keeps the government responsible, we need to seriously consider the impact that we are having on the Afghani people and the risk at which we put the lives of our young Australian men and women and think about how we can safely bring our troops home. There is no question that this is inevitable-it is inevitable-but how much longer do we have to wait? How much longer are we going to expect them to be in harm's way before we bite the bullet and accept the inevitable truth that this war-this mission that we have been set-is unwinnable? If we really want to help the Afghani people, we need to engage them. We need to ensure that they feel safe sending their kids to the schools that are built. We need to bring our troops home.

 I think it is wonderful that we have this opportunity to have this discussion in our chamber, but I am sad that it has taken nearly 10 years to have the discussion. I think it is a good thing that the government, the opposition and the crossbenches have been able to participate in this discussion, but I do not want us to fail to accept the realities that we face and instead simply continue down this blind path. Our troops must be brought home and we must engage the Afghani people in helping them over56 come the discrimination and disadvantages that we have not helped them with to date. In fact, in some places we have made the situation worse, and I am very sorry.

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