Senate Motions - Afghanistan

 

Senator STOKER (Queensland—Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, Assistant Minister for Women and Assistant Minister for Industrial Relations) (17:20): It's with a heavy heart that I rise to make a small contribution on the situation in Afghanistan—a place where almost 40,000 ADF personnel and civilians have honourably served, fulfilling a difficult duty and making sacrifices often extending well beyond the deployment. Each one has their own story, with 41 lost on deployment and too many more lost to mental health consequences upon their return. Each one has a family who carried the weight of that duty too. For our veterans, mere thanks is not enough but I extend it nonetheless. Coalition forces repeatedly defeated the Taliban in battle. In defence tactics, they have been unparalleled in dealing with an irregular adversary. The problem is that the nation hasn't been able to take that success and translate it into a sustained diplomatic and institutional culture that serves the long-term objective of freedom for the people of Afghanistan. In that sense, it's not so much a military failure as an institutional one. That may seem like cold comfort to the Australian veterans who struggle daily with observing the events in Afghanistan today, or the scars they bear from their time deployed, and it will surely ring hollow to the families of the 41 ADF personnel we lost in Afghanistan. I hope the veterans listening will take this encouragement: you did everything you could. While it may not be viable for Australia to persist with your legacy of service in Afghanistan in the absence of our coalition partners today, much has been accomplished nevertheless. Let me acknowledge what your pain has achieved. You built a local armed force that was ultimately quite skilled, though it couldn't translate tactics into lasting change. You found and held accountable those who, through al-Qaeda, sought to export terrorism globally and you made it clear that they could not hide. You built prosperity; the GDP in Afghanistan rose by more than 250 per cent during the time of our involvement. You reduced infant mortality in Afghanistan by 50 per cent and newborn mortality by 32 per cent. You reduced death in childbirth by facilitating the training of midwives. In 2002 there were just 400 midwives nationwide; in 2018 there were over 5,000. You delivered an increase in functioning healthcare facilities—from 496 in 2002 to 2,800 in 2018. You made it possible to extend life expectancy by nine years in the period from 2000 to 2018. You reduced the number of people who lived with hunger daily so much that, by 2020, Afghanistan rated 99th out of 107 countries for its Global Hunger Index score. Child marriage plummeted. The rate at which children gave birth was more than halved between 2001 and 2019. You made it possible for 37 per cent of Afghan teenage girls to be able to read today. You ensured that more girls than ever before have the opportunity to attend school—80 per cent of girls, even in remote regions. In 1999, not a single girl in Afghanistan was in secondary school and there were only 9,000 in primary school. That number is now 3.5 million. One-third of university students are women, and 1,000 women started businesses of their own in recent times. All of those things were prohibited under the Taliban's last regime. I don't pretend that these accomplishments are enough to justify the cost to Australians, but I think of Afghan girls, perhaps of the same age as my daughters, who, after the chance to taste just a little freedom—not much, mind you: the right to be seen, to learn, to be heard, to hope that one day they might live in safety at home and in public—now face the real prospect of life under the extreme repression of the Taliban. My heart breaks for them. But I know that the seed our veterans have planted in the hearts and minds of so many girls and boys, men and women, who do not subscribe to the extremist ideology of repression and cruelty, now has the chance to grow in a way that is sustainable into a nation that does reflect the values we have helped shape. When that happens it will be sustainable. It will be owned by the people who deliver it, and it will be more enthusiastically defended than any regime we might try to establish from afar. It is my sincere prayer that this seed grows into the strongest of trees, bearing the fruits of prosperity, freedom, education and hope. In this time of crisis, the Australian government takes the compassionate approach that you would expect. We are facilitating the exit of Australians, as well as those who worked with coalition forces, because we must do the right thing by those who trusted us on the ground. Since 2013, 8,500 Afghans have been resettled in Australia on humanitarian grounds. Three thousand of the places in our humanitarian program this year will be allocated to Afghans. Australia consistently provides one of the world's most generous humanitarian programs. It is in times like these that the elements of it that can seem strict at times pay dividends. When we have policies in place that otherwise ensure the people smuggling of economic migrants is not rewarded, it allows us to provide more help to those in dire circumstances like those we have seen in recent times. Since 2013, over 1,800 Afghan locally engaged employees and their families have been granted visas. Since 15 April this year, over 570 people in Afghanistan have been granted a visa under the Afghan locally engaged employee program, including family members. I know Minister Hawke and Minister Payne, in particular, are working around the clock to do the right thing by those people who did the right thing by us. And I know that they are working diligently with each and every person, like me, who brings to them cases of individuals in desperation. So I commend their sincere and diligent work. Afghanis have now glimpsed the health, education and prosperity that are the products of peace and freedom and the rejection of extremist ideology. It is now up to the people of Afghanistan to take the lessons of the last 20 years and use them to build for themselves a stable, functional and fair government of their own.