Ministerial Statement on Afghanistan 26 November 2009
Statement by Senator the Hon John Faulkner
Minister for Defence
26 November 2009
On the 12th of August this year, I addressed the Parliament in the first of what I plan to be regular reports on progress in Defence’s efforts in Afghanistan. Today I present my second Ministerial Statement on Afghanistan since becoming Defence Minister.
The Government is under no illusion about how difficult and dangerous the situation is in Afghanistan, nor are we under any illusion about the importance and value of our contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). We are committed to achieving our objectives of denying the terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan. We are committed to helping train the Afghan National Army to a point where it can take on security responsibility in Oruzgan Province. And we are committed to ensuring that our efforts, our successes, the challenges, and the risks, are transparent to the Australian people. The Australian Government welcomes scrutiny by the Australian public of our policies and our progress – as well as our setbacks – in Afghanistan.
The past few months have seen heavy fighting across southern and eastern Afghanistan. Afghan and coalition forces have successfully pushed Taliban insurgents out of numerous strongholds, towns and villages. Our coalition partners have gained ground in areas of Helmand Province. And in our own area of operation in Oruzgan Province, Australian soldiers have freed areas of Taliban control in places like Mirabad.
These gains have come at a cost for the coalition. On behalf of the Government and the Parliament I pay tribute to the sacrifices that have been made by Afghan and coalition forces. In October the United States lost 59 soldiers and marines in what was sadly the most deadly month for the United States since the war began in 2001. I also take the opportunity to mention the UN workers brutally murdered by the Taliban in Kabul on 28 October, the five British servicemen shot and killed in a tragic check-point incident on 5 November, and the loss of ten Afghan National Army soldiers during an action in Helmand in early October.
There have also been significant developments in Pakistan. The recent violence in Pakistan, given the links to the struggle in Afghanistan, is a further reminder of the complexity of the challenges this region faces. Extremism is taking an increasingly heavy toll on the people of Pakistan, as we are reminded with every report of a new suicide bombing.
Dealing with the insurgency in Pakistan is critical to our efforts to deal with extremism in Afghanistan. Cross-border extremist networks have helped fuel the insurgency in Afghanistan. The Pakistan Government’s renewed military efforts to address the challenge of extremism within its borders are vital to our broader goals.
US General Stanley McChrystal, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, is galvanising military efforts across Afghanistan. In his report to the US Administration, he has laid out a comprehensive assessment of the situation, and a revised strategy to better focus coalition efforts. Australia welcomes General McChrystal’s Assessment, including its emphasis on protecting the people of Afghanistan and training and partnering with the Afghan National Security Forces.
President Obama and his Administration are still considering General McChrystal’s assessment, and their response is expected very soon. Australia is looking forward to the outcome of their deliberations, and stands ready to work with the US, other ISAF coalition partners, and the Afghan National Security Forces, to implement a revised strategy.
Australia is continuing to engage with NATO on the ongoing issue of how we can best contribute to the effort in Afghanistan. Following the release of the Obama Strategy, we look forward to further discussions on this subject at the NATO Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Brussels on 4 December, and at the international conference on Afghanistan proposed for late January. This is a critical time for the ISAF coalition, and we will continue to engage on these matters.
In these discussions, we will be emphasising a number of points. The increase in our troop commitment by about forty percent to 1550 personnel in April this year is acknowledged and appreciated by our ISAF partners. With this increase, we consider the level of our commitment to be about right. Australia has also pledged a US$200 million contribution to the Afghan National Army Trust Fund, making us the largest contributor after the United States. Australia also contributes significant additional aid to Afghanistan, with an additional A$250 million pledged over the next three years.
This is not to say that Australia cannot reshape our contribution if appropriate in light of any revised strategy. In line with NATO’s identified priority areas, Australia is examining what we might do in terms of focusing on training, civilian assistance and capacity building. I have asked the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, to review the composition of our current contribution across the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force and the Special Operations Task Group, to determine if adjustments should be made within the current force level to support the revised strategy.
Since my last statement, Afghanistan has gone through an election. Let me be frank. There were real problems with the conduct of the recent Afghan elections.
With the withdrawal of contender Abdullah Abdullah, President Karzai has been declared winner of the election by the Afghan authorities. Nevertheless, the concerns raised by the international community about the Government must be taken seriously. The Australian Government, along with many countries around the world, expects the Karzai Administration to build a credible Government that can win the trust of the Afghan people. The new Government must fight corruption and narco-trafficking, as well as improve governance and service delivery.
While much of the news in recent months out of Afghanistan has been pessimistic, there are some indicators of progress. The Asia Foundation’s 2009 survey, which was conducted prior to the 20 August elections, found 64% of respondents gave some type of positive assessment of the security situation in their local area. The number of Afghans surveyed who identified security as the biggest reason for pessimism about Afghanistan has dropped by 8%. These statistics are part of a range of results which still reflect the difficult situation in the country.
Major challenges and difficulties remain. But we are moving forward and it is vital that we now work with the new Afghan Government and the international community to press ahead with our assistance and stabilisation efforts.
International support for Afghanistan will need to remain focussed and coordinated.
The Government has worked to ensure Australia is engaged in all the key planning and decision-making processes underway in NATO, as well as in the United States.
In October, I travelled to Bratislava, Slovakia, to meet with NATO and ISAF Defence Ministers. This provided an opportunity to discuss the leadership arrangements in Oruzgan, given the stated intention of the Netherlands to draw down its military forces in the province from August 2010. Australia remains very concerned that the issue of replacing the Dutch enabling contribution in Oruzgan is still unresolved. We have made it clear we cannot and will not lead in Oruzgan. At Bratislava, and in other international meetings before and since, I stressed that it is NATO’s responsibility to resolve this issue as a priority.
General McChrystal also briefed the NATO meeting on his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and his proposed revised strategy. This includes stronger support for the Afghan National Security Forces, more effective coalition civilian efforts, and a greater focus on protecting the civilian population and addressing governance issues, particularly service delivery and corruption. More recently, together with the Prime Minister, I met again with General McChrystal in Tarin Kowt, to discuss his views of the strategic challenges in Oruzgan Province.
On a visit to Washington earlier this month, I met with US Defense Secretary Gates and key national security officials in the US Administration and Congress. My discussions covered General McChrystal’s Assessment and areas for priority focus, including training the Afghan National Army and Police. We also discussed the need to ensure smooth transition arrangements for the leadership in Oruzgan in 2010. I was impressed by the strong appreciation shown by everyone I met for Australia’s efforts.
Australia’s military effort in Afghanistan is very much in line with broader US and NATO strategy as well as General McChrystal’s focus on a counter insurgency strategy. We believe we have struck the right balance between training and mentoring Afghan forces, protecting the civilian population, and effectively countering the Taliban. This balance is designed to achieve our objectives in southern Afghanistan, and provide a significant contribution to coalition efforts.
This effort is undertaken in partnership with the forces of the Netherlands. Our partners, the Dutch, have played an enormously valuable leadership role in Oruzgan. The Dutch led Task Force Uruzgan and its Provincial Reconstruction Team have directly contributed to important security gains in the province. They have built effective relationships with the local government, communities and non-government organisations. They have directed substantial development assistance into the province.
It goes without saying that Australia’s own efforts have been heavily dependent on the very valuable support provided by our Dutch partners. Today I take the opportunity to acknowledge their leadership and efforts, which have delivered lasting improvements and real progress. I sincerely hope that after August next year they will be able to continue some of their commitments in Oruzgan to build on the crucial gains that have been made. I have spoken with my Dutch counterpart, Defence Minister Middelkoop, on several occasions, and the Prime Minister has similarly discussed these issues with his Dutch counterpart, Prime Minister Balkenende.
I would also like to report to Parliament and the Australian people on the work of our Defence force, and our civilian agencies, on the ground in Oruzgan. In my last statement to Parliament I foreshadowed that the Afghan National Army infantry kandak (or battalion) we have been mentoring was making progress. This kandak has continued to improve, and remains on track to move up to capability milestone two by the end of the year, the next step towards being able to independently conduct security operations. Since my last statement, we have commenced mentoring a second Afghan National Army kandak responsible for combat support tasks like engineering, artillery and vehicle maintenance. In 2010 we will commence mentoring assistance to the 4th Brigade Headquarters element.
We are also making good progress on reconstruction and broader capacity building.
Through their works section, the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force is directly assisting infrastructure development and project management in the province’s economic development zone. Through the Trade Training School, Defence and AusAID are building a base of people in Oruzgan with essential trade skills.
The Australian Government has already built a boys school in Oruzgan Province. I am very pleased to announce that, in a close partnership between the ADF and AusAID, we will now build a new school for girls in Tarin Kowt. Presently, girls are being taught in hallways and ill-fitted classrooms because of overcrowding. The new school will be designed to meet the needs and requirements of the female students and their teachers. This is an example of how a close association between the ADF and AusAID can provide a unified Australian approach to development.
Australia’s assistance in rebuilding Afghan communities covers a wide range of projects. Australia’s support to the National Solidarity Programme has seen 71 village level infrastructure projects rolled out in Oruzgan. Other such projects have delivered 11 health care centres, 15 schools, and 1,000 microfinance loans in Oruzgan. Equipment has been provided to the Tarin Kowt Hospital and for training the Afghan people in trade skills. Further support has been provided for mine clearance, freeing up 71,000 sq meters of land for farming. AusAID’s rehabilitation of a key road in Oruzgan is linking up with an ADF built river crossing. This will get people to market in half the time, as well as generating local employment.
The Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force (MRTF) has also successfully established a permanent presence in the previously Taliban controlled Mirabad Valley after highly successful clearance activities by Afghan, Dutch, Australian and US forces during Operation Baz Panje. The patrol base will provide a secure location from which Afghan National Army forces can operate, thereby expanding Afghan and coalition force influence across the province.
While visiting Afghanistan with the Prime Minister earlier this month, I had an opportunity to witness first-hand the progress being made by our forces in Oruzgan and their Afghan partners. Their work is impressive; their successes a credit to both Australia and Afghanistan.
Our Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) continues to go about its dangerous but highly valuable work providing wider area security and conducting counter-insurgency operations. The SOTG is the largest and most capable special forces contingent in Afghanistan after that of the United States. In Oruzgan Province there was relatively little disruption to the recent elections, which reflected in part the important operational successes of the SOTG and MRTF, and their Afghan National Security Force partners. Australian Special Forces have maintained pressure on the Taliban insurgency through striking and disrupting key insurgent leaders, bomb-makers and strongholds. These strongholds have been responsible for the distribution of arms, ammunition, equipment and fighters across southern Afghanistan. An operation conducted in mid-October resulted in the seizure and subsequent destruction of a substantial quantity of weapons, improvised explosive devices and their components, and large quantities of munitions.
We should also highlight the work of the other ADF elements in Afghanistan that work with our partners to help secure and rebuild the country. Around 150 ADF members are embedded within ISAF units and headquarters supporting a range of missions: from operational and counter insurgency planning to providing support for the growth of the Afghan National Security Forces. We have medical personnel working with our partners in their medical facilities. Other elements, such as the Australian National Headquarters, Force Support Unit and Force Communications Unit provide essential support to our troops. And the Rotary Wing Group, which provides air-lift support to both our forces and ISAF troops, has recently returned to Australia to undertake much needed reconstitution. The Group flies in difficult and challenging environments, at very high altitudes. The airframes are currently in Australia for deeper maintenance.
Finally, the Australian Federal Police have 22 members in Afghanistan, supporting the development of the Afghan National Police in Oruzgan Province and expanding the capacity of the police force at a national level.
Mr President, we are focused on the critical objective we have set ourselves in Afghanistan - training the kandaks of the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army so they can assume responsibility for security in the province. Our commitment of around 1550 personnel is appropriate for this task and allows us to provide the right combination of training, force protection and support personnel.
I stress, however, that our commitment in Oruzgan is neither a blank cheque, nor open-ended. For now, we have an important job to do, we must do it well, and we must complete it. But we will not keep Australian service personnel in Afghanistan any longer than is necessary. This is what the Australian people want. And importantly, it is what the people of Afghanistan want.
The ADF’s approach will meet the Prime Minister’s objective to train the Afghan National Security Forces to the point where they can protect the Afghan people. Our interests also lie in denying sanctuary in Afghanistan to terrorist groups like al Qa’ida, who have threatened and killed Australians, and supporting our major ally, the United States, in that task.
These objectives carry risks for our forces deployed on this important mission. I want to assure the Senate today that I am committed to doing everything we can to successfully fulfil our mission and see our servicemen and women return home safely.
Protection of our soldiers is a very high priority for the Government. The Government is doing everything possible to give our troops the best available equipment to undertake their mission. On 22 July 2009, I directed the Chief of the Defence Force to undertake a comprehensive Force Protection Review. It was one of my first decisions on becoming Defence Minister. I took this initiative because I want to ensure that our troops in Afghanistan have the full range of protections they require. Appropriately, the review was conducted mostly in the theatre of operation.
The Force Protection Review has been based on information received from our deployed forces. It covers aspects of personal protection such as: body armour, ballistic eye protection and load carrying equipment; improvements to vehicles for physical and electronic protection and the tactics, techniques and procedures we are employing whilst conducting operations. The review is a thorough analysis and includes a way forward for addressing any force protection concerns for our deployed forces. The Force Protection Review was completed on 23 October 2009.
I reported to the NSC on the Review this week, and Defence is now working to progress the outcomes of the Review as a matter of priority.
In connection with this review, I have also asked Defence to develop options to deploy a Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar capability in Oruzgan Province as a matter of the highest priority. While Defence has advised me that our forces currently use a suitable range of counter-rocket and counter-mortar measures to ensure protection against these attacks, I am determined to ensure that everything possible is being done, and all options explored, to provide the best possible protection to our troops from rocket and mortar attacks.
In line with this commitment, Defence is also progressing plans to upgrade accommodation and facilities in Tarin Kowt.
This work is required to support the additional Australian troops deployed to Oruzgan. This project will provide upgraded living and working accommodation for Australian Defence Force personnel deployed to Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan. The project will replace the current interim accommodation and provide more robust and sustainable facilities with appropriate protection. The new facilities will include protected living-in accommodation, kitchen facilities, and working accommodation.
The preparation, training and leadership of our forces is also an important component of force protection, as we learnt from the inquiries into the death of Lieutenant Michael Fussell. This inquiry process determined that some aspects of training, certification and leadership had operated to increase the risk that such a casualty might occur. In a commitment to a process of continual review and improvement, Defence has agreed and progressed all the recommendations of these inquiries. Inquiries such as these are important to ensure risks are identified and subsequently mitigated. I remain committed to sharing the results of such inquiries with you in the interest of transparency.
Mr President, there may also be other areas where we could re-examine or enhance our approach to dealing with issues relating to operations. I said in August that this Government is committed to transparency in relation to any Australian involvement in incidents or engagements in which there are civilian casualties. I stand by that commitment. Since I last updated Parliament, there has been one such incident, reported on 10 November 2009, in which a man was injured and received immediate coalition medical attention. This, and other previous incidents are still under investigation, and will be made public once all the relevant processes are completed.
In this Ministerial Statement, I want to address some recent criticism of the manner in which Defence provides information on operational incidents involving ADF battle casualties. Defence does not release the details of incidents, such as explicit information on the nature of wounds or the identities of wounded personnel, in circumstances where a particular operation is still underway or involves Special Forces personnel. It would be irresponsible to provide that sort of information, because of the clear need for operational security.
Similarly the ADF does not release the names of casualties until Next of Kin procedures have been completed. When our wounded service personnel return to Australia, it is a personal decision for them and their families as to whether or not they choose to make public the details of what was likely a traumatic experience – the exception to this being special forces personnel who are required to keep their identities protected.
While the privacy of individuals must be respected, there is no reason why, at a broader level, the Australian people cannot be updated about casualties when operational circumstances permit. Along with the families of our soldiers that have died in service, our wounded carry the scars of their sacrifice. I wish to pay tribute to these soldiers and recognise their sacrifices. As part of this Statement, for the first time, I am reporting to the Australian people more fully on the status of the ADF personnel wounded in action in Afghanistan, so that the Australian people know of these sacrifices made on their behalf.
When I last updated the Senate, over 70 Australian soldiers had been wounded in Afghanistan. This figure now stands at 92 who have been wounded in action. Thirty-four of these soldiers have been wounded this year. Of those, 28 soldiers were wounded by Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and 4 by gun-fire.
In the period we have been in Afghanistan, a wide range of serious injuries have been inflicted on our personnel, including major facial trauma, limb amputation, head injuries, leg fractures and multiple soft tissue injuries. Three personnel have sustained amputations of their limbs.
I am advised that in the last 12 months, 17 soldiers have been returned to Australia for medical care and rehabilitation. Three ADF members are currently hospitalised. For 5 patients, the German military medical facilities at Landstuhl were accessed to stabilise them prior to returning to Australia.
On return to Australia, our wounded service personnel are provided with comprehensive health care through the most appropriate medical facility, either military or civilian.
Our aim is to ensure that the individual’s health needs are managed to the highest standard. In conjunction with support for their physical needs, injured personnel are provided with a range of services to meet their psychological needs. A short time after their return to Australia, injured personnel are enrolled in the ADF Rehabilitation Program. Nine soldiers are enrolled in that program today. This program manages their healthcare and rehabilitation requirements by coordinating services and information flow between the individual, their family, their unit, relevant health staff, Defence services, external service providers and the Department of Veterans Affairs. This program reduces confusion and anxiety for the individual and their family in dealing with multiple agencies while they are recovering.
Those personnel who have suffered amputations have been fitted with advanced technology prosthetic limbs, which are the best currently available. They have been undergoing extensive rehabilitation programs and have been provided with additional home services and equipment to assist them. All of these personnel have returned to work or are currently on graduated return to work programs on light duties.
While the Australian Defence Force makes every effort to avoid battle casualties, we are committed to ensuring that those who are wounded in action receive the best possible care. The ADF rehabilitation program is constantly reviewing international best practice to ensure that the treatment provided to our battle casualties is first class. For those soldiers in hospital or rehabilitation, on behalf of all Senators, I wish them well in their recovery.
Fortunately, we have lost no further Australian soldiers on operations since my last Ministerial Statement, but I would not wish to forget the tragic loss of Lance Corporal Mason Edwards who was accidentally killed in training while preparing for his third tour of Afghanistan. His loss has been deeply felt by his family, friends, all his comrades in the 2nd Commando Regiment and throughout the ADF.
Mr President, Afghanistan has endured decades of conflict. The task ahead for the Afghan people is not an easy one. The Australian Government is committed to giving them aid, assistance, training and support to help them reclaim their country from violence and extremism.
I can assure the Senate that as Minister for Defence I remain committed to and focussed on our mission in Afghanistan, together with the Prime Minister, the Chief of the Defence Force, the Secretary of the Defence Department, the men and women of the ADF, and the entire Defence organisation.
I have made this Statement today because I did not want the Parliamentary year to close without having made a further address on the progress of our efforts in Afghanistan. In the next few weeks we will see the United States response to McChrystal, further discussion in NATO and a renewed focus on strategic direction in Afghanistan from our coalition partners. The Government welcomes this opportunity for the international coalition to move forward in Afghanistan after what has been a very difficult year. It is time to build on the progress that has been made towards restoring security and developing infrastructure.
Mr President, I undertake to report further in the next session of Parliament on developments in Afghanistan to keep Australian Parliament and public informed about this important mission.
Colin Campbell (John Faulkner): 02 6277 7800 or 0407 787 181
Defence Media Liaison: 02 6127 1999 or 0408 498 664