Senator BOB BROWN (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens) (19:50): This issue is hugely important to Australians, particularly to the good and true members of our defence forces, their families and their communities. It is a debate that this parliament has not represented well or fairly.
It is one the Greens have pursued throughout the Howard years and through the last four years of Labor government. We are tonight debating the deployment of our troops in Afghanistan and the legitimate question that any parliament, any administration or any leadership must ask as to whether that deployment serves the nation's interests and whether the risk of life and limb and the risk to future happiness of defence force personnel are warranted, because we must never ever have such deployment treated lightly or without due scrutiny.
It is the job of this parliament to scrutinise the deployment of our defence force personnel to Afghanistan. I take issue with some of the comments of Senator Abetz before he left the chamber relating to the ability of parliamentarians to speak up on this issue.
I have never resiled from the Greens position of having our troops brought home from Afghanistan, nor have I ever raised the issue except in the wake of the leaders of the government and the opposition reaffirming the need for our troops to stay in Afghanistan.
Let me quote from Major General Alan Stretton (Rtd) in a recent letter to the press in which he said:
The spectacle of politicians from both parties agreeing to send our finest Australians to their deaths and then appearing on television offering their condolences to grieving widows and relatives is sickening.
The policy that we can train the Afghan army to take over security in Afghanistan is laughable. The Afghan government is corrupt, and its army has been penetrated by Taliban forces whose main activity is killing allied forces operating in their country.
Elements of the Australian Defence Force have now been in Afghanistan for over 10 years-surely this is long enough.
They are very trying sentiments from a good and long-serving, but now retired, member of our defence forces and they are not alone, certainly in dispatches I have received.
Let me put the need for this debate another way. It has been as a result of quite extraordinarily high profile debates in the Netherlands and Canada that they have withdrawn their troops from Afghanistan. These are countries very similar to Australia, both of whom deployed more troops than Australia but whose parliaments have been committed to the very difficult debate-because it is complex-about retaining their armies in Afghanistan. In the case of the Netherlands, the government fell over the issue but their troops were withdrawn.
Indeed, it is those troops whom our wonderful service men and women are now replacing in Oruzgan province. In Canada it was the very conservative government of Prime Minister Harper, faced with opposition from other parties in the Canadian parliament, who finally made the decision to have the Canadian contingents withdrawn, after more than 100 deaths, and that process has now been completed in Afghanistan.
Last week the President of the United States, Barack Obama, spoke in our parliament and asked us to maintain our troops in Afghanistan. Let us look at the relative deployment. The American deployment of some 100,000 is currently being reduced to 68,000. Ten thousand US troops are in the process of being withdrawn before Christmas. There is no such withdrawal of a relative component of Australian Defence Force personnel from Afghanistan. Next year the United States is withdrawing another 20,000 of its troops. There is no plan to withdraw-or lessen by one-the number of Australian troops in Afghanistan. The Cameron government in Britain is going to withdraw 400 to 500 troops by February. There is no similar commitment by the government or opposition in this parliament to have our troop numbers reduced in Afghanistan. President Sarkozy of France has said that there will be a continuous wind-down, from now through next year and into 2014, of French troops. There is no comparable commitment to withdraw Australian troops from Afghanistan.
It seems, on the basis of two similar countries having withdrawn their forces altogether, after a full parliamentary debate in rich, functioning democracies like ours, and a decision in similar but larger democracies to withdraw troops-starting in 2011, not in 2014-that Australia alone has decided to keep its full troop commitment operating in Afghanistan. There is a difference here. President Obama may make his call to our parliament to retain our troops while he is withdrawing 10,000 troops, but would it not be appropriate for our parliament to discuss the deployment of our 1,550 good and true Australian Defence Force personnel to some of the most dangerous situations in Afghanistan at a time when the US is bringing home 10,000 of its troops? I think so.
I heard Senator Abetz again go through the list of things going right in Afghanistan, but there is a lot going wrong as well. Corruption is rampant. Senator Milne tells me that a report in Congress today indicates a vast amount of money for the people of Afghanistan and the war against the Taliban is being siphoned off by people related to the Karzai regime or otherwise in positions of power in Afghanistan.
We have the position where there is an increasing voice in Afghanistan itself calling for the withdrawal of our troops and of course today the news in Australia, completely ignored by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and, indeed, Senator Abetz in his contribution to this chamber, of a call by the commander of the Afghan troops with whom the Australians are serving in Oruzgan province, Brigadier General Mohammed Zafar Khan, for Australia's troops, effectively, to leave. 'Give us your equipment and leave' is effectively what the Afghan leader our troops are working with said. He said:
Three years is too much time for the Australians to stay here.
We, as responsible guardians of the welfare of our troops committed in Afghanistan and with a huge obligation on our shoulders to defend the interests of their families and our communities, surely should be debating such a remarkable statement from such a leader in the Afghan forces. It is time our troops were brought home to Australia.