Gillard renews Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan

Prime Minister Julia Gillard gave Australia’s annual justification (hansard transcript) for the Afghanistan to parliament yesterday. Since the last speech of this kind, 11 Australian soldiers have been killed bringing the 10-year death toll to 32. Almost 3,000 coalition troops have died in that time as well as countless Afghans. Gillard admitted it was a long and difficult war that in tandem with Iraq has cost the Australian taxpayer $4 billion (it costs Americans that every two weeks). But she also called it a “just cause” – with a time limit. By the end of 2014 international forces will hand over security to local forces. By then Gillard expects Australia’a aim for Afghanisation will be realised: “a functioning state able to assume responsibility for preventing the country from being a safe haven for terrorists.”

Gillard said Australia’s mission was clear – protecting Afghans, training security forces and building Afghan Government capacity. She said they were making progress and the sight of “ramp ceremonies overseas and funerals at home” were only part of the story. Australia has 1,550 troops on the ground, two thirds in Oruzgan Province. Troops rotate every nine months with many on second and third deployments. Aussies patrol Oruzgan with US troops with contingents from Slovakia and Singapore.They are training the Afghan 4th Brigade and they work together removing explosive devices and searching for components. They maintain patrols up to 75km from Tarin Kowt and join operations in other provinces to cut out “rat runs” to Oruzgan. Meanwhile Special Forces target leaders, bombmakers and the heroin trade. In the last year the Afghans have been taking the lead while Australians concentrate on mentoring and support. Gillard said Australia was one of the top 10 aid bilateral donators to Afghanistan spending $125m in 2010-11. Programs include primary schooling, agricultural training, small business loans and mines removal. Australian Police are offering training as are civilian administration. In Oruzgan they are setting up basic infrastructure in health, education and rural development.

Gillard said 2011 was a good year which brought the death of Osama but also showed the complexity of the war. She said 35,000 Pakistanis, mostly civilians, had died in the war but Pakistan needed to do more to combat extremists. The Taliban remains though the Afghan National Army is improving. She said Afghanistan’s wealth went backwards from 1960 to 2002 but is climbing again. Education is up from 1 million to 7 million students including 2.5 million girls. Access to basic health reach has climbed from 10 percent to 85 percent of the population. The economy has grown 11 percent each year since 2002, she said (though that statistic is debatable.)

Gillard admitted the rogue army attacks on Australians (and others) had “grave significance”. She said the attacks killed Afghans and Aussies alike and the overall force was now 300,000. She said the attacks did not represent a pattern and the 4th brigade was on track to take the lead role in Oruzgan security in 2014, or possibly earlier. The US will reduce its number 10 percent in 2012 by a third to 68,000 but the shape of the US commitment beyond 2014 was not known. The presidential election in 2012 will also be a big test.

Gillard said the new Australian embassy in Kabul was a “bricks and mortar” symbol of investment in the region (though information on the embassy remains scanty). She said vigilance was still needed against al Qaeda and the groups it has inspired though she could not confirm if Australia would play a longer term counter-terrorism role. She did say a continued Special Forces presence beyond 2014 was “under consideration”.

Gillard thanked the ADF for the burden they had shouldered since 1999. As well as the dead, over 200 Australians have been wounded including 18 this year. She said the best tribute to those who died was to “live by their example”. Gillard said Australia would defend its national interests. “We will deny terrorism a safe haven in Afghanistan. We will stand by our ally, the United States. We will complete our mission of training and transition in Afghanistan,” she concluded.

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