Let me begin by thanking the Prime Minister for extending to the House the opportunity to debate the progress of our forces deployed in Afghanistan and reaffirm the cause for which they are fighting.
It is in our national interest to be in Afghanistan. We are there, as part of a United Nations mandated international stabilisation effort. We are there to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists to recruit, train and plot attacks against Australia and our friends and allies.
The mission in Afghanistan is to build the Afghan Government's and Afghan National Security Force's capacity to lead and manage their own security. It forms part of our enduring alliance with the United States. It is built on the belief that we build a better world not by clinging to our shores and looking inwards, but by working together with those who would fight for the same things we do.
We do not forget the circumstances of our joining the Afghanistan mission: the September 11 2001 attacks in which Australians were killed by terrorists given shelter by the Taliban regime. We do not forget that those attacks were followed by the Bali bombing of 2002 in which 88 Australians were murdered and many more injured. We do not forget the four Australian lives that were lost in the second Bali bombing in 2005, or that our embassy was bombed in Indonesia.
We owe those who serve, and their loved ones, a special duty – to put them in harm's way for only the most substantial and worthy of reasons, armed with the best protective equipment we can provide, and using the safest, most effective tactics we can devise. It's a big responsibility indeed – one I know everyone in this place takes more seriously than anything else.
Most of us here – whether our families have been in Australia for half a dozen generations or just one generation – have had our family histories touched by war. Knowing what fate befell our relatives, and what pain it can inflict on those who survive, we can't, and don't, take the deployment of our soldiers lightly. My grandfather, who fought with Monash and died younger than necessary, with his health broken by mustard gas and shrapnel, and my father, who served with the Americans in the Pacific, and devoted his later life professionally to the RSL, were such men. The effects of war on those now in Afghanistan and those who have already returned is just as far-reaching as it was to previous generations of ANZACS – and we must be conscious of that at all times.
Australian personnel deployed in Afghanistan are putting their lives on the line. As all honourable members know, our troops in Afghanistan have paid a heavy price since we first sent in special forces in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Twenty-one Australians have lost their lives. For each of their 21 families, that's a profound, personal and irreplaceable loss. Many others have been wounded, or had their lives changed forever. So it is important that we keep asking ourselves why we are there, what we hope to achieve, and whether we are actually achieving our goals.
Mr Speaker, our mission as part of the International Security Assistance Force is a worthy and important one indeed. Our goal is clear – to deny terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan. We did not choose this war, and we do not fight it alone. In accordance with international law, many countries supported the Afghan people's efforts to free themselves of Taliban rule and the elements of the terrorist effort they had permitted. Australia joined this battle, and fights it for the best reasons.
Like many others, we are making our contribution as part of the International Security Assistance Force. We recognise the regional dimensions. We need to work with Pakistan, Afghanistan and others to counter the terrorist threat. Failure in Afghanistan would only embolden al Qaeda and its allies and give them more space to operate. Instability in Afghanistan would only risk feeding instability in Pakistan. That's why we're working with the Afghan army and police, to train them, to help them take on responsibility for Afghanistan's security. That's part of our job in Uruzgan.
Our work in training and mentoring the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade and the Afghan National Police, is helping build the capacities of the Afghan National Security Forces to be able to lead and manage Afghanistan's security. We do this alongside the US, New Zealand, Singapore and Slovakia. It is in Australia's national interest to support that goal, because it has a direct bearing on our national security, and the safety of our people.
After nine years, it is clear that the work our troops and civilians are engaged in is making a difference for the future of the country. With the increase in troop levels, insurgents are being challenged and civilian leadership is being trained. But military force will not be enough. The international community recognises that a political solution is also needed.
We continue to encourage Afghan-led processes of reconciliation that can reintegrate into the community those individuals who are prepared to lay down their weapons, renounce violence and support the Afghan Constitution. Since the international community began to increase their forces, a much more systematic effort has been mounted to reduce the capacities of the Taliban to hold territory and intimidate the population. These campaigns have not yet achieved all their objectives, but in recent months, General Petraeus reports important progress.
And the international community is working closely with Pakistan. Stability in Pakistan – and the dismantling of terrorist networks in the heartlands of both countries – is critical to achieving stability in Afghanistan. So it is essential that we continue to engage with Pakistan to address the violent extremism in the broader region – consistent with the international strategy.
We know our troops are engaged in dangerous work. That's why the Government committed – through the 2009 Defence White Paper – to ensuring our men and women in uniform have the capability, training and protection they need. We want them to do their job as safely, as effectively and as efficiently as possible. That is why, in the 2010-11 Budget, the Government committed an additional $1.1 billion to enhance force protection measures for Australian troops deployed to Afghanistan. That is aimed purely at saving the lives of and reducing injuries in our serving ADF personnel.
The Government has also committed to real growth in the Defence budget of 3 per cent per year on average to 2017-18, followed by 2.2 per cent real growth on average through to 2030. This commitment gives Defence the long term funding stability it needs.
Mr Speaker, our role in Afghanistan goes beyond the support we give our military forces on the ground, and our international alliances. Military success is an aim – but it is not our only goal. Our purpose is to enable Afghanistan to look after its own security and prevent it from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
Part of the International Security Assistance Force's civilian and military strategy is to support governance and development. We are helping to give the Afghan people a chance to develop institutions and opportunities that ultimately free them from fundamentalist diktat. We are helping to give the Afghan people a chance to gain the education, health and developmental opportunities that years of war, political instability and fundamentalist prejudice have denied them. I'd like to talk a little about what that means.
Since 2002, Afghanistan has begun an enormous political, economic and social transformation, after more than two decades of conflict. In 2001, about 1 million Afghan boys were in school. Afghan girls didn't go to school. Today, around 6 million Afghan children, including around 2 million girls, go to school. Under the Taliban, less than 10 per cent of the population had basic health services. Now 85 per cent do. Economic growth has averaged 11 per cent a year since 2002, according to the World Bank. Australia has only played a small part in these early transformations. But our work is critically important.
Uruzgan province is one of the least developed provinces in the country. Literacy among males is only 10 per cent. Among females it is rated as less than one per cent. Even compared with the rest of Afghanistan, that is extremely low. Our aid program – administered through AusAID – has grown from $26 million in 2001-02 to $106 million this financial year. In 2010-11, our aid will increase to $20 million in the Uruzgan province alone. Of course, while progress to date has been encouraging, tremendous challenges remain:
But Mr Speaker, while no-one pretends there will be a sudden transformation in the lives of people in Afghanistan, change is occurring. And if we were to pull out now, and leave our work unfinished, we would unwind nine years of progress, and leave Afghanistan once again exposed to the return of Taliban control. The Afghan people would face an even bleaker future. So we provide capacities to degrade the fighting capabilities of their enemies, train their security forces for the long term and build social, economic and political infrastructure.
So Mr Speaker, we're in Afghanistan in defence of our own interests, in support of our ally and to deny terrorists safe haven. We are also helping to provide an opportunity for the Afghan people to create a better life for themselves.
The young men and women of the ADF who lay their lives on the line need to know how seriously we take this commitment and their commitment. All Australian personnel deployed in Afghanistan are operating in a dangerous environment. They honour our nation by their sacrifice. We honour their sacrifice by pursuing significant purposes.
Our critics are wrong to argue our objectives are unachievable. The strategy in place is achievable and we are committed to it. At the centre is the understanding that in the final analysis, the fate of the Afghan people is properly and exclusively in their own hands.
We want to prevent a return to the situation before 2001 and the terrorist threat emanating from Afghan soil. Beyond that, the objectives are directed towards empowering the Afghan people to provide for their own security, develop their own economic and social capacities, and create and sustain their own political systems and processes.
It's our earnest hope, Mr Speaker, that in time arms can give way to the tools of peace, combat troops to civilian engineers, military aid to ever increasing amounts of civilian reconstruction aid, and the clearing of roadside mines to the building of more village schools, health centres and places of work.
Ultimately, it's our aim that the service of our young men and women overseas will be replaced by their return to their families and their homes in cities, suburbs and country towns here in Australia.
I thank the House for the seriousness and maturity with which this debate is being conducted.