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June 2021

Australia's Involvement in Afghanistan

Members here would be aware that the Prime Minister announced last week, on 25 May, that our embassy building in Kabul in Afghanistan would close—with effect from 28 May, a few days ago. That followed the withdrawal of our Australian Defence Force personnel from Afghanistan. I thought it timely here to reflect on the period—now, two decades—when Afghanistan has figured and loomed very large in our national security conversation in Australia.

We first deployed to Afghanistan in October 2001. It was shortly after John Howard had invoked the ANZUS Treaty in response to the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, on our ally. Our SAS personnel were the first into Afghanistan, amongst the Australians, in October 2001. These SAS personnel returned in 2002, but we were back again in 2005, along with other ADF deployments, initially, as part of Task Force Uruzgan—that was part of the Reconstruction Task Force—from 2006. In fact, we've been there as a continuous presence ever since. Our defence commitment has had the name Operation Slipper, which covered the period 2001 to 2014, and then, from 2015, was known as Operation Highroad, which was the period when the Afghan National Security Forces took over responsibility for their security.

We've had a resident ambassador now in Kabul since 2006, and, quite literally, tens of thousands of Australians have served in Afghanistan now on behalf of our nation. Each of them has given some of their lives to protecting and securing and advancing this nation on behalf of Australia. Many of them have ended up giving far too much—more than we should ever have asked of them. Many of them were Australian Defence Force personnel, tens of thousands of whom have rotated through Afghanistan, and many of whom, as individuals, did countless rotations through Afghanistan.

Tragically, as we all know, here, 41 of our Defence Force personnel lost their lives in that conflict, but many more have, sadly, taken their lives since. Hundreds have been injured physically. Hundreds still carry the mental scars and wounds from their involvement in that campaign.

Whilst we know of the Defence Force personnel, there have also been many of my former colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, diplomats and aid personnel—hundreds of them, who've served rotations there, either at our embassy in Kabul or at our provincial Reconstruction Task Force office in Tarin Kot or elsewhere. I've got many friends who've spent time there—people such as Richard Feakes, Joel McGregor, James McGarry and many other DFAT personnel who've served a number of times in Afghanistan on behalf of our nation.

When I reflect back, there have now been six Australian prime ministers who have presided over our involvement in this conflict, starting of course with John Howard, then Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and now the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. So this has been a very large part of our national security conversation in Australia. I believe we should be and can be proud of what we have achieved. Al-Qaeda has been decimated. The senior leadership of al-Qaeda—Osama bin-Laden and some of his senior fellow leaders—were either killed or captured. Afghanistan is no longer a net exporter of terror. And, in a state that had been taken back to the Dark Ages by the Taliban, we've helped to create some light. Women are now educated. There are now functioning democratic institutions. There is civil society. Infant mortality is much lower than it used to be. Maternal mortality is much lower than it used to be. Women play a role in public life. Young girls get an education. None of this has come cheaply, of course, and whether it endures or not will now largely depend upon the people of Afghanistan.

In my own view, there would never have been a good time to withdraw. There never is, when you're in the task of nation-building and conflict resolution, because the task of building a nation is, in and of itself, never-ending. But I think, at times, of our commitment to Bougainville, where we had a peace monitoring group for almost a decade, and the debates that I was involved in at the time about whether that group should stay any longer and whether the peace was sufficiently secure for us to withdraw or whether it was still fragile, but we took the decision then, as we've taken it in Afghanistan now, that, ultimately, the people who live in these countries, the people who this nation belongs to, need to be the custodians of that future.

So I have some sympathy with the view that, after two decades, enough is enough and that we have to rely now on the Afghan people to keep what we've helped them secure. But, whilst the nature of our commitment will change, the fact of it should not. We'll continue to owe a duty to interpreters and security personnel. We will continue to pursue a relationship with the Afghanistan government, and I hope that we can restore a diplomatic presence soon.