Australia continues to remain a partner for Afghanistan

Australia’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan is entering a new phase as we complete our mission in Uruzgan province in line with transition and shift our gaze to Kabul as the centre for our ongoing engagement. It is timely to reflect on what has been achieved, but equally to look to what role we should play to help the Afghan government and people overcome the challenges ahead.

Australia’s long-term commitment to Afghanistan is entering a new phase as we complete our mission in Uruzgan province in line with transition and shift our gaze to Kabul as the centre for our ongoing engagement. It is timely to reflect on what has been achieved, but equally to look to what role we should play to help the Afghan government and people overcome the challenges ahead.

For much of the international community, relations with Afghanistan will enter a new phase as the Afghan National Security forces take security responsibility for the entire country from the end of 2014. There are still major security, political and economic challenges for Afghanistan: success is possible, but not assured.

In the southern province of Uruzgan, where Australian and Slovak troops have worked together, the Afghan National Security Forces will assume lead security responsibility at the end of this year. With this transition, Australia’s role in Afghanistan will change with the end of our presence in the province. The Australian led, multi-national Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) completed its mission at the end of October with its remaining responsibilities moving to our Australia’s Embassy in Kabul. Australian troops will have left the province by the end of 2013, with 1,000 returning home to Australia.

Australia’s Prime Minister, the Hon Tony Abbot MP, at a recognition ceremony in the provincial capital, Tarin Kot, on 28 October reflected on Australia’s experience in Uruzgan: “For a year in 2001, and again since 2005, Australian soldiers have been in Afghanistan. Since 2005 a special operations task group, and subsequently a reconstruction taskforce have been deployed here in Uruzgan in support of the Provincial Reconstruction Team. Some 20,000 Australian men and women of our armed forces have served here in Afghanistan. Forty have died, 260 have been wounded, many more carry mental scars that may never heal. We salute their service. We mourn their losses and we honour their achievement.”

“Thanks to Australia’s presence here and that of our American, Dutch, Singaporean and Slovakian allies, there are now 26 girls’ schools out of 200 schools in Uruzgan – that’s a twentyfold increase since 2001. Up to 80 per cent of expectant mothers receive at least some prenatal care, care that was almost non-existent a decade ago and 200 kilometres of roads and bridges have been upgraded.”

“This is still a poor and a difficult province – even by Afghan standards – but it is richer and better governed than it was thanks to Australia and thanks to our allies. Afghanistan is a better place for our presence here. Australia is better too. The threat of global terrorism is reduced. Our reliability as an ally is confirmed and our commitment to the universal decencies of humanity that we fought for here is made obvious.”

Australia recognises the valuable contribution Slovakia made to the ISAF mission in Uruzgan from 2008 to June 2013. Slovakia contributed a fifty-man force protection team to provide base security at MNB-TK and Forward Operating Base Hadrian. Slovakia’s contribution also elovled to include two Operational and Mentoring Liaison Teams (OMLTs) that mentored and advised the 5th Combat Service Support Kandak of the ANA 4th Brigade, as well as two officers conducting operational and civilian affairs management in the PRT.

While we celebrate the improvements and the achievements Afghans have made in Uruzgan and across Afghanistan, with the assistance of the international community, it is important to acknowledge that these successes have come at a price. Slovakia suffered its first fatality in Afghanistan on 9 July 2013 in a reported ‘insider attack’ at Kandahar Airfield. Six other Slovak soldiers were wounded, two seriously.

The progress we have helped achieve in Uruzgan reflects the wider story in Afghanistan. Together with our Afghan partners, ISAF has helped to deny Al Qaeda safe haven and weakened the insurgent forces. International development programs and the Afghan Government’s own efforts have improved the living standard of ordinary Afghans, and this has in turn strengthened the Afghan Government’s legitimacy.

The educational and social changes in ten years are substantial: school enrolments from one million in 2001 to 7.7 million, including 2.4 million girls, in 2012; average expected years of schooling from 2.5 years to 8.1 years in that period; improved life expectancy and substantial reductions in maternal and infant mortality ratios; access to basic health services in districts covering 10 per cent of the population in 2001, now 85 per cent; 75 per cent of minefields cleared; and women’s rights enshrined in the Afghan Constitution (more than a quarter of Afghan MPs are women).

It will be a challenge to sustain this progress; nevertheless, these are fundamental changes with an enduring impact.

Australia will remain a friend of Afghanistan in the period ahead. We remain committed to the International Security Assistance Force mission until its conclusion at the end of 2014, with up to 400 Australian Defence Force personnel continuing to train and advise Afghan security forces in Kabul and Kandahar. We have committed to contribute to the post-2014 NATO-led ‘train, advise, assist’ mission, will continue to provide funding to support a credible, accountable and sustainable Afghan security sector, and development assistance to build on the gains we have made so far.
Australia will also maintain a strong diplomatic presence in Kabul and continue to work, notably in our current position as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, to encourage international support for Afghanistan’s stability and to frame an ongoing mandate for UN assistance.

We finish our task in Uruzgan confident in the ability of the Afghan National Security Forces we have trained and proud of the development and governance progress we have helped achieve. But there are still challenges ahead.

From our partnership with them in Uruzgan, and more broadly, we are convinced that most Afghans want the chance of a life free from violent extremism and a future where they can live in peace with increased economic and social opportunities.

Ultimately, it will be up to the Afghan government and people to shape such a future.

David Gordon Stuart is the Australian ambassador to Slovakia.

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